Prosecutors: Text messages, emails tell tale of troubled teen in murder trial

By Brandon Walker - Reporter

HOUSTON - The relationship between A.J. Armstrong Jr. and his parents grew increasingly harried leading up to the night Dawn and Antonio Armstrong Sr. were killed, according to text messages and emails revealed Wednesday by prosecutors.

Armstrong, 19, is standing trial in his parents' death. He was 16 the morning his parents were killed in July 2016.

Armstrong maintains his innocence.

However, prosecutors argue months of text and email exchanges between Armstrong and his parents weave a web of frustration, disappointment and anger over the teen's grades and apparent dishonesty. Dawn and Armstrong Sr. repeatedly disciplined their son, who was accused of lying multiple times, the messages revealed.

Prosecutors read excerpts from a stack of records during the testimony of Nathan Gates, an investigator with the Harris County District Attorney's Office. Gates worked to extract data from the mobile devices following the killings.

According to correspondences, Armstrong began to struggle in several classes in the fall of 2015. Emails revealed the teen would skip tutorial lessons and lie about his whereabouts when asked.

“I am sick of getting report [sic] about silly crap you are doing. Keep screwing up and doing silly things like speeding through the parking lot. I am trading your car for one that fits your maturity," wrote Armstrong Sr. in a text to his son April 22, 2016.

Other exchanges consisted of emails Dawn Armstrong forwarded to Armstrong from his teachers, accusing him of failing to turn in assignments and lying about attending basketball practice.

"You flat out lied to me," wrote Dawn Armstrong on June 2, 2016. "Flat out lied. You did not go to basketball practice," the text continued.

Other messages included the Armstrongs accusing their son of smoking marijuana in the house, an allegation Armstrong denied, claiming he was smoking a vaporizer instead.

While prosecutors claim the correspondences string together a timeline of increased tension leading up to the brutal slaying, Armstrong's defense questioned whether the messages gave a fair account of Armstrong and his relationship with his parents.

Rick DeToto, Armstrong's defense attorney, accused the prosecution of cherry-picking some 80,000-100,000 pages of records to sway jurors.

"There's so much out there. There are 80,000 pages, up to 100,000 pages of phone and text messages," DeToto said to reporters after court recessed for the day.

During cross-examination, DeToto peppered Gates on the significance of context, claiming the emails fall short of that because they only tell what the prosecution wants jurors to know. Absent were other exchanges showing happier times during the same period.

"AJ is guilty of being an all-American young man who probably fibbed to his mom about going to see his girlfriend," DeToto said to reporters, referencing other exchanges during which Armstrong seemingly lied to his parents about his whereabouts in an attempt to visit his girlfriend.

Gates' testimony regarding the correspondences spanned five hours. He testified on behalf of the prosecution, which is close to wrapping its case.

Following the testimony regarding text and email exchanges, jurors heard testimony from two to other witnesses: employees of ADT, which owns the alarm system installed in the Armstrong family home.

A central part of the prosecution's case rests on the belief that Armstrong had to kill his parents. The alarm system indicated no one entered or exited the home leading up to and following the shooting. Moreover, a sensor on the second floor, near Dawn Armstrong and Antonio Armstrong Sr.'s bedroom, recorded movement between the third and second floor roughly 30 minutes before Armstrong called 911 to report an intruder in the home.

AJ's bedroom was on the third floor of the family's townhome on Palmetto Street in southwest Houston.

The defense questioned whether the alarm system, as installed, could be trusted.

"We're not necessarily claiming the alarm system didn't work. The alarm system worked, as it should have. The problem is that there are holes in the alarm system, even when it functions like it's supposed to function," said Chris Collings, an attorney of Armstrong's defense team.

Collings told reporters the defense plans to call its alarm expert to the stand once the prosecution rests its case.

"We'll demonstrate exactly how we believed somebody was able to gain entry into the house," Collings added.

Day eight of the capital murder trial wrapped with more witness testimony expected from the prosecution. The defense said Wednesday it was confident it would begin its case Thursday.

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