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Man suspected in death of girl found in Catahoula Parish questions indictment

JACKSON (AP) — A man suspected in the kidnapping deaths of his girlfriend and her daughter wants a Louisiana judge to throw out his indictment based on the argument that blacks were systematically excluded from the grand jury pool.

Thomas Steven Sanders, who is white, is charged in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, La., in 12-year-old Lexis Roberts’ kidnapping death. Hunters found her body in Catahoula Parish, La., in October 2010. Her mother’s body was found later in Arizona. Both victims also are white.

In 1994, Sanders was declared dead in Mississippi after walking away from his family in the 1980s and disappearing. But he resurfaced in the more recent deaths.

Sanders was first indicted on a charge of kidnapping resulting in the child’s death in Louisiana in November 2010. A superseding indictment was issued in January 2011, adding the charge of using a firearm in a violent crime. In August 2012, prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty.

Sanders’ lawyers said in a recent court filing that the indictment should be dismissed because blacks were underrepresented in the list of possible grand jurors.

The jurors were drawn from a list of registered voters provided by Louisiana in 2007, but the state has historically failed to ensure proper black voter registration, the lawyers said.

To back up their argument, the lawyers cite a federal civil lawsuit in which a judge found that prior to April 2011, Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, Department of Children and Family Services, and secretary of state violated the National Voter Registration Act.

That lawsuit alleged that the agencies didn’t always provide people with voter registration information. One of the plaintiffs was an “intermittently homeless” man who did not receive a voter registration form with his food stamps application. In January, U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo said the agencies are now “substantially in compliance” with the federal law.

Stephanie Alvarez, the court’s jury administrator, said the jury pool lists are updated every four years based on the voter registration provided by the state. She said the court began using a new list in October 2011. She declined to comment further because the judge had not ruled on the motion.

Sanders’ lawyers said census information shows that blacks made up about 34 percent of the population in the area from which the jurors were drawn, but the 2007 voter list used for Sanders’ grand jury was only 24 percent blacks.

“While Congress and the courts have generally accepted the use of voting lists as a source list for jurors as provided in the Jury Plan, this case evidences that voting lists must be supplemented to obtain a fair cross-section of the community,” according to a filing by Sanders’ lawyers, A.M. Stroud III and Rebecca Hudsmith.

The filing also says: “As a result, Mr. Sanders was deprived of a grand jury selected from a fair cross-section of the community in violation of the Sixth Amendment fair cross-section requirement, due process and equal protection and the Jury Plan and the Jury Selection and Service Act of 1968.”

The lawyers did not immediately respond to phone messages.

U.S Attorney Stephanie A. Finley said in a statement that the court’s scheduling order requires the government to file a response by Sept. 19, and prosecutors would do so. She had no additional comments, including on whether other cases would be affected if the judge sides with Sanders’ lawyers.

Sanders walked away from his family in Mississippi in 1987, and they didn’t hear for him for years. His parents, brother and ex-wife petitioned a Pike County, Miss., court in July 1994 to have him declared dead.

Sanders was living at a storage facility in Las Vegas when he met Suellen Roberts. A relationship developed, and they planned to take her daughter on a trip to Bearizona, a wildlife park near the Grand Canyon, for the Labor Day weekend in 2010, according to court documents.

On their way back to Nevada, Sanders pulled over in the desert “ostensibly so Suellen could shoot his .22 rifle,” but instead he shot Roberts in the head, court records said.

“Sanders then loaded Lexis, who was in hysterics over seeing her mother murdered, into the car and traveled to Louisiana. He took Lexis to a wooded area and shot her in the back of the head and, when she didn’t die, he shot her twice more in the head. When she still didn’t die, he tried to shoot her through the heart. When she still didn’t die, he cut her throat, killing her,” according to a judge’s review of Sanders’ confession.

Authorities say Sanders made the confession to the child’s death after being arrested in Gulfport, Miss., and directed them to the body of Suellen Roberts in Yavapai County, Ariz.

Sanders is scheduled for trial in August 2014. The trial had been scheduled for this year, but U.S. District Judge Dee Drell postponed it because he said federal budget cuts were hampering the publicly funded defense team.


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