HOUSTON – Deliberations in the murder trial of A.J. Armstrong will resume Friday morning, after Thursday’s discussion ended with a deadlocked jury.
Armstrong, 19, is accused of killing his parents in July 2016.
Jurors sent two notes to Judge Kelli Johnson, asking her for advice about breaking a deadlock. The first note came Thursday morning. The second note followed some five hours later.
On both occasions, Johnson encouraged jurors to work through their differences.
Armstrong sat with family and friends in the corridor outside of the courtroom anxiously awaiting a verdict most of the day Thursday.
Rick DeToto, Armstrong's defense attorney, told reporters the jury's apparent impasse was a good sign that at least one of the jurors did not agree with the state's case.
In building their case, prosecutors argued Armstrong killed his parents, Dawn and Antonio Sr., because he was angry with them for a number of reasons.
During closing arguments Wednesday, Armstrong watched as prosecutors summed up what they said was a trail of lies, all detailed in the trove of texts and other messages extracted from Armstrong's mobile devices.
The texts are central to the prosecution's case because attorneys argue they prove Armstrong was in trouble: poor grades, speeding tickets and smoking weed -- documented in heated exchanges between the teen and his parents. Prosecutors told jurors those examples do not establish a motive. Instead, they provide context: examples of a liar, the state contends -- a manipulator who knew what he wanted.
But the defense has claimed Armstrong's very existence as a suspect is based on a confirmation bias.
DeToto argued Houston police zeroed in on Armstrong in haste, neglecting to properly investigate, for example, Armstrong's oldest brother, Joshua Armstrong.
The defense also argued the trove of text messages admitted into evidence -- tens of thousands of pages -- are void of context.
What they show, DeToto said, is a 16-year-old getting into 16-year-old-related trouble.
During their closing arguments, defense attorneys pointed to what they called incomplete evidence that had been presented to jurors. They also recounted testimony from Armstrong's younger sister who said their oldest brother has been acting strange and getting into arguments with his mother and stepfather in the weeks leading up to the homicides.
WHAT'S THE SIGNIFICANCE OF TWO NOTES DETALING DEADLOCK?
While Thursday's notes to Judge Johnson signal jurors are having trouble reaching a unanimous decision, it's too early to tell things are headed to a mistrial, according to KPRC 2 legal analyst Brian Wice.
"I think it's like asking your wife for a divorce on your honeymoon. I think it's too much a little too soon,” Wice said.
Truth be told, this case is a whammy: there's a wealth of evidence to consider, and most of it is circumstantial. Armstrong's fingerprints were not found on the murder weapon. Moreover, tests for gunshot residue on Armstrong's hands and clothes came back negative. Armstrong's age at the time of the shooting, 16, could also sit heavily with some on the jury.
"In a situation like that, this might be (a) juror or two confounded by the prospect of reaching a decision involving a teenage boy and the rest of his life in a cage," Wice said.
The first notice of deadlock also came with a request to see four pieces of evidence from the state's case:
- The log of the Armstrong family's alarm system the night leading up to the shooting and following it.
- The compilation of texts and other messages extracted from Armstrong's cellphone and iPad.
- Armstrong's magistrate warning.
- The note the killer left next to the gun used to kill Dawn and Antonio, Sr.
"The alarm logs and the text messages certainly don't bode well for the defense because I think they're among the more inculpatory pieces of evidence the state brought to bear," Wice said.
GUILTY, NOT GUILTY AND A THIRD OPTION
Along with options to declare Armstrong either guilty or not guilty, jurors have a third choice, and it's a controversial one: the Texas law of parties.
The law of parties states that a person can be criminally responsible for another's actions, if their role is considered culpable.
Here's how it would work in the Armstrong trial, if jurors take that route:
A.J. Armstrong could be convicted of capital murder as a conspirator, essentially. If jurors cannot agree on whether Armstrong himself pulled the trigger, the Texas law of parties makes it so that he could be convicted for actions that contributed to the deaths of Dawn and Antonio Sr.
The defense says that's not fair, as the state never took into account the existence of anyone else in the home at the time of the shooting. They solely focused on Armstrong.
Armstrong's defense urged jurors not to choose the option, claiming the move would speak directly to reasonable doubt; thus, any thought of the law of parties should be replaced with an acquittal.
Wice considered the option a self-secured safety net for the prosecution.
"I think it's the ultimate insurance policy for the prosecution," Wice said. "I think (DeToto) did his best to show that the prosecution had their hand on the chicken switch by having it in there, because they didn't have confidence in the face that there was only one individual responsible for this offense."
Deliberations resume at 9 a.m. Friday. If convicted, Armstrong faces life in prison.