The capital murder conviction of Lanny Bush, who was found guilty in 2014 in the slaying of Michele Reiter of Brownwood, will stand, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled.
The appellate court overturned an earlier ruling by a lower court — the 11th Court of Appeals in Eastland — that had reversed the capital murder conviction and ordered a new trial on punishment.
District Attorney Micheal Murray and then-First Assistant District Attorney Sam Moss won the capital murder conviction against Bush in a jury trial in Coleman County in April 2014, and Bush, now 58, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“He is a cold-blooded, diabolical killer,” Murray said.
The prosecution team — which included Coleman County District Attorney Heath Hemphill — presented evidence that Bush met up with Reiter, his former girlfriend, in Brownwood one evening in September 2012, then kidnapped and killed her. Law enforcement officials found Reiter’s body in a shallow grave under a bridge in Coleman County.
Bush was defended by Perry Sims, a former prosecutor in Murray’s office.
The 11th Court of Appeals ruled in August 2016 that there was insufficient evidence at Bush’s trial to support a capital murder conviction based on kidnapping. That court ruled that Bush is guilty of the “lesser included offense of murder” in the Reiter slaying.
Elisha Bird, a prosecutor in Murray’s office, submitted a brief to the Court of Criminal Appeals — the highest criminal appeals court in Texas — arguing that the capital murder conviction should stand.
The higher court agreed with Bird, ruling that the lower court “erred in its evaluation of the sufficiency of the evidence.” A rational jury could conclude Bush “murdered Reiter in the course of kidnapping or attempting to kidnap her,” the court ruled.
“We’re really glad that the family was able to see justice, and we’re glad that the Court of Criminal Appeals was willing to review the case in light of the 11th Court of Appeals’ decision,” Bird said.
“I really believe that the prosecutors who tried the case did a phenomenal job at the trial court level, and the jury verdict was appropriate. The Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision appropriately valued the jury’s determination in the case. We were really honored that the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with arguments we made in the appeal.”
Life without parole was the only sentence allowable in a non-death-penalty capital murder case.
Had prosecutors been forced to retry Bush on punishment, Bush would have faced a maximum sentence of 99 years or life in prison, and parole rules would have applied.
Higher court’s opinion
In its 7-2 ruling, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the lower court erred when it “substituted its judgment for the jury’s about the weight of the evidence, ignored incriminating inferences supported by the evidence, speculated about evidence that was not presented and credited hypotheses that were inconsistent with (Bush’s) guilt.”
The higher court recounted the evidence against Bush.
The prosecution’s case was based on “circumstantial evidence that highlighted the relationship between (Bush and Reiter), the circumstances surrounding her disappearance on Sept. 10 (in 2012) and (Bush’s) behavior before and after her disappearance,” the court wrote in its ruling.
Bush and Reiter dated for about five years and lived together in Brownwood, the court wrote in its ruling. Bush was “jealous and controlling,” always wanted to know Reiter’s whereabouts and was suspicious of her answers. Bush’s possessiveness and jealousy “were even more pronounced in the last week-and-a-half of the relationship,” the court wrote.
Reiter left Bush and moved in with a friend. Bush created a fake Facebook profile under the name Rocky Switzer and “friended” Reiter. “Rocky” and Reiter chatted on Facebook, and the two made a dinner date at a restaurant in Santa Anna.
Bush bought .32 caliber ammunition after earlier asking a relative about a .32 caliber pistol that belonged to another relative.
Reiter left her friend’s home at 6:15 p.m. on Sept. 10, 2012, planning to meet with Bush to retrieve some of her property and then go on her dinner date with “Rocky.”
At 6:33 p.m., Bush’s and Reiter’s phones were at the Bert Massey Sports Complex in Brownwood, and by 6:40 p.m., both phones were traveling toward Santa Anna.
At 7:56 p.m., Bush texted Reiter’s friend from Reiter’s phone. Bush pretended to be Reiter when he sent the text, indicating she was on her way to meet “Rocky” and would be home late.
Bush’s and Reiter’s phones eventually reached the location that turned out to be Reiter’s isolated burial site — under a bridge on FM 1026 that crosses Home Creek.
A forensic examination of Bush’s computer showed that Bush had earlier researched topics on the Internet including: how to make homemade knockout drops, missing person protocol, Brownwood police blotter, jail records, the name of Reiter’s new boyfriend and the location of heart and lungs in the human body.
The 11th Court of Appeals made observations about what the evidence did not show, including the time and location of Reiter’s death, whether she was alive when she left the sports complex and whether she left the sports complex against her will, the higher court wrote in its ruling.
Those observations caused the court to divert its attention away from from the evidence presented at trial and entertain hypotheses inconsistent with guilt. Those observations were erroneous because they raised the state’s burden of proof, the court ruled.
The lower court displayed “a classic example of weighing the evidence, a job that belongs exclusively to the jury, and erred by invading the jury’s province,” the court ruled.
By its verdict, the jury believed that Reiter had been restrained in some manner prior to her death,” the court ruled. “We must uphold the conviction unless no rational trier of fact could agree with this verdict.”