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A jury convicted O'Brien of the capital murder of Jennifer Ertman in April 1994 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence in May 1996. All of his subsequent appeals in state and federal court were denied.
Four of the other assailants that night were also convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Peter Cantu and Jose Medellin remain on death row. Raul Omar Villareal and Efrain Perez had their sentences commuted to life in June 2005 because they were 17 at the time of the crime. A sixth assailant, Vernancio Medellin, who was 14 at the time, was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He remains in custody as of this writing. No information was available on the disposition or status of Roman or Frank Sandoval.
The Pena and Ertman families were instrumental in getting Texas law changed so that victims' relatives are allowed to make statements at a trial's conclusion and to witness the execution of their loved ones' killers. According to Andy Kahan, crime victims advocate for Houston Mayor Bill White, 75 percent of victims' families elect to witness executions.
In September 2002, O'Brien wrote a statement advocating the abolition of the death penalty, which was posted an anti-death-penalty web site. O'Brien wrote, "I wonder how many children could be saved or kept living, who would otherwise die, with the monies, states use to kill men and women on death row ... We bear the responsibility of showing our children how to be human and if we can't then our world will continue to suffer for it. Life is a miracle and therefore precious each time one is taken before its time, the world loses something special." O'Brien did not address his crime in the statement. He refused media requests for interviews.
O'Brien's lawyer filed an unsuccessful last-chance appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, alleging that the drugs used in lethal injection "will cause O'Brien to endure unnecessary, excessive, and excruciating pain during the course of this execution." The court rejected this appeal at about 5:40 p.m., twenty minutes before the execution was scheduled to begin.
"I am sorry. I have always been sorry," O'Brien said in his last statement. "It is the worst mistake that I ever made in my whole life." The lethal injection was then started. He was pronounced dead at 6:19 p.m.
Adolfo Pena, Elizabeth's father, watched O'Brien die. When asked if he witnessed any "excruciating pain," Pena answered, "I didn't see any suffering ... he just closed his eyes and went to sleep."
"I wish to God my daughter could have died like that."
By David Carson. Posted on 11 July 2006.
Sources: Texas Attorney General's office, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Associated Press, Houston Chronicle, Huntsville Item, court documents.