According to court documents Leo Little and José Zavala would kidnap twenty five year old Christopher Chavez after the pair saw the man entering his vehicle with a bag in his hand. Christopher Chavez would be fatally shot in the head and robbed of the $600 he was carrying. The money belonged to a local church
Leo Little would be arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. However his death sentence would later be commuted to life in prison as he was seventeen when the murder occurred
Leo Little Now
SID Number: 05592562
TDCJ Number: 01306427
Name: LITTLE,LEO GORDON
Maximum Sentence Date: LIFE SENTENCE
Current Facility: COFFIELD
Projected Release Date: LIFE SENTENCE
Parole Eligibility Date: 2038-01-25
Leo Little Case
He has the fresh face and budding vocabulary of a college sophomore, this convict who kidnapped and killed before he reached age 18.
He reads the dictionary and drops big words into conversation like cacophony, copious and manifest, but Leo Gordon Little III’s most striking statement is a simple one.
“I like life — even in here,” says death row inmate No. 999302, once a wannabe Crip from San Antonio who shot a young ministerial worker in 1998.
Now 24, Little talks about studying language, math, history and religion — discovering the world from inside a 5-foot-wide cell even as the nation debates whether it’s acceptable to execute him and 71 other killers condemned as juveniles.
The U.S. Supreme Court could decide as soon as Tuesday whether capital punishment should apply to criminals who were so young when they lashed out that their brains may not have been fully developed.
The case of the Missouri convict Christopher Simmons is the oldest on the court’s docket — a sign that the justices, who are often split when it comes to the death penalty, may again be sharply divided.
Always a polarizing topic, the death penalty debate only intensifies when it comes to kids who kill. It pits parental instincts against the demands of justice and in the process raises tough questions in the murky middle ground between science and ethics.
Texas has conducted most of the country’s juvenile executions — nearly two-thirds — in the past 30 years. And it has joined Missouri and six other states in defending the practice at the Supreme Court.
The ruling could spare two juvenile offenders from Bexar County. One is Randy Arroyo, who at 17 carjacked an Air Force captain and, according to testimony, told his friend to shoot when the officer tried to escape.
Leo Little is the other.
Whether Little should live or die seemed a relatively simple question when it was posed to Bexar County jurors on March 5, 1999.
Little’s crime eclipsed his age, said one of the defense lawyers, Jeff Scott.
“He stalked this guy and led him around town, made him use his credit card to buy gas, then took him out and shot him in the middle of nowhere and then drug him off the side of the road so nobody would find him.
“And when someone did find him the next morning, the poor kid was still alive and, all night long, had been trying to get up,” Scott said.
The Supreme Court reinvigorated the debate over the juvenile death penalty two years ago when a narrow majority of justices decided it was cruel and unusual to execute mentally retarded murderers.
Convinced that the nation had come to view mentally retarded convicts as less culpable than the average criminal, the justices opened the door to similar arguments about juveniles.
For one, research has shown that the parts of the brain in charge of impulse control, judgment and mature reasoning aren’t fully developed in late adolescence — perhaps why drivers between 16 and 19 are most at risk of accidents.
Secondly, opponents cited several figures to argue that national support for executing juveniles had eroded in recent years. For example:
The 19 states with capital punishment for juveniles have applied it less often. Only two adolescents were sent to death row in 2003 — a decline considered significant even after taking into account the falling murder rate.
Just three states — Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma — have actually executed a juvenile offender in the last 11 years.
The cause of the decline is unclear. One study found small but statistically significant evidence that, when wrongful convictions came to light, death sentences for juveniles decreased.
Whatever the reasons behind the decline, its message is clear, according to some opponents of capital punishment for juveniles.
“It goes to show people don’t want to do it anymore,” says Stephen Harper, an expert on the juvenile justice system who teaches at the University of Miami School of Law.
Skeptics say death-penalty opponents overstate the trends and scientific findings.
The research also shows that brains are generally almost 95 percent complete by age 17.
While parts of the brain that control impulses and measure risks versus rewards may still be developing in adolescents, 17-year-olds are advanced enough to understand morals — basic right and wrong.
“A moral sense is one of the first things to develop,” said Jerome Kagan, a Harvard University psychology professor. “Five-year-olds know killing is wrong.”
The science is also inexact. Some brains develop faster than others.
Accordingly, juveniles should be evaluated individually, said Robert Blecker, a New York University law professor who supports capital punishment for only the worst slayings.
Take for example, he said, Mark Anthony Duke of Alabama.
According to Alabama prosecutors, Duke was 16 and tired of being bossed around when he arranged the quadruple murder of his dad, his dad’s girlfriend and her daughters, ages 6 and 7.
Duke’s crime “shows careful planning, callousness, a depravity that unquestionably marks him as one of the worst,” Blecker said.
Bexar County case
There are those who might say the same of Leo Gordon Little. But at first, he just seemed to be a troubled kid.
Sometime after his dad left when he was 10, the boy known as Gordy became the angry, depressed and explosive loner described at 13 in an evaluation by school psychologists.
Though his IQ was average at 91, he was labeled “emotionally disturbed” and put in special education classes at Sul Ross Middle School.
Years later, after the murder, his anguished mother would rack her brain trying to understand the violence in her son: Was he furious at his father’s withdrawal?
Was he angry that her work as an insurance clerk left little time for attending to three children? Or was he damaged by blows to the head — once when a baby sitter dropped him as a baby and once when his sister hurled a sugar jar at him?
As a teenager, he gouged holes in walls at home and, according to court documents, punched a sister in the head and threatened his mom with a knife.
“I have a big temper,” he was quoted as saying. “When somebody gets me mad I go wild …”
He exemplified findings of a recent study of juveniles on Texas’ death row: 13 of 18 evaluated were identified as having had emotional problems by sixth grade.
While the study, led by Yale psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, found that 15 of 18 showed signs of serious mental illnesses while in prison, only four of 18 had undergone psychiatric examinations before trial.
Back in 1993, Northside School District’s report recommended Little be put in therapy — he never was — and predicted gang involvement, drug use and trouble with the law.
Arrests for shoplifting and trespassing soon followed. As did experimentation with drugs. First marijuana and later cocaine, heroin, acid and at least one toke of crack.
When the dope ran out, Little inhaled whatever he could find — kerosene, gasoline, spray paint, lighter fluid, felt markers, air freshener, White Out, Freon and nitrous oxide.
Inhalants are known to cause at least mild brain damage.
In Little’s case, what’s certain is this: Drugs kept him from following his father’s footsteps into the Marine Corps. He tried to enlist but failed the drug test.
Rejected by the military, Little joined a gang of sorts. He was given the name Li’l Crazy. He painted his room blue, the gang’s color, and began filling a notebook with rap lyrics:
I may be small but I’m (expletive) crazy
Been smoking herb and my mind is kind of hazy
With all that (expletive) filling up my head, as a Crip,
I’m always ready to kill mother (expletive) dead.
Looking back, Little’s mom, who asked that her name not be published to avoid embarrassment at work, says, “I would’ve been more alert. I would’ve brought myself out of the dark ages and educated myself more on things to look for. I would’ve paid more attention to him.”
Little’s father shares some of the same regret.
Leo Gordon Little Jr. says his job as a bus driver too often took him away from his children. And, even when he was home, he would let long stretches pass without seeing his son.
When they did spend time together, the father found the adolescent surly and beyond reach; he seemed to have a warped concept of life too common among teenagers.
“They think life is a Nintendo game where if someone gets killed, you press restart and they pop up again,” he said.
Juries and death sentences
Perhaps no one can articulate the terror wreaked by Leo Little better than Malachi Wurpts.
A week before Little became a killer, Wurpts woke up around 2 a.m. to find the teenager standing at the foot of his bed and pointing a gun at him.
The 25-year-old computer programmer had returned from the airport a few hours earlier and, exhausted from traveling, forgot to lock his door.
Little forced Wurpts to drive from his gated Medical Center-area apartment complex to two ATMs and withdraw $400.
Then, with a small silver .25-caliber automatic pistol stuck into Wurpts’ side, Little guided him to a rural area and left him there, ditching his burglarized car more than a mile away and fleeing with an accomplice.
To Wurpts, Little didn’t seem high on drugs. Wearing a baseball cap pulled low, the gunman seemed forceful and intent.
Wurpts prayed silently and obeyed as Little barked orders: Get up. Get dressed. Don’t look at me.
“If I get caught, I’m not going down for robbery,” Wurpts remembered Little warning him. “I’m going down for murder.”
Prosecutors and jurors were willing to oblige that wish when Little was charged with the January 1998 kidnapping and slaying of Antonio Christopher Chavez, a 22-year-old ministerial servant for a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation.
The trial featured testimony from friends Little visited after the slaying, videotape of Little with Chavez in a convenience store and Little’s own confession.
An acquittal seemed out of the question. The defense lawyers hoped only to spare Little the death penalty and, during the trial’s punishment phase, he took the stand to apologize.
“I didn’t want to hurt him,” Little told Chavez’s family. “Something took over me that night.”
The jurors were not impressed. Not by Little’s remorseful words. Or by his baby face.
What stuck most in their minds, several jurors recalled, was how the videotape showed a dark blotch on Chavez’s gray slacks. The victim was so scared he had lost control of his bladder.
Chavez’s mother said the family couldn’t bear to discuss the tragedy yet again. Six months ago, Antonio Chavez Sr. spoke with a reporter about his grief.
“The pain and agony never leaves,” Chavez said. “Time only helps you adjust and cope with that pain. It never eliminates it.”
Age was not mentioned during the deliberations. No juror believed Little would change, said one of the jurors, Daniel Mere.
“It felt like Mr. Little had no remorse whatsoever,” he said. “The whole case he sat there and basically he had that kind of thug-punk attitude.”
It was different at Randy Arroyo’s trial. Several jurors were crying when they returned with death sentences for the skinny and bookish Arroyo and his accomplice, Vincent “Flaco” Gutierrez, who was the shooter.
Gutierrez was 18 when they carjacked Air Force Capt. José Renato Cobo in March 1997 and left the officer dying in the rain and morning rush-hour traffic on Loop 410.
During deliberations, two jurors argued that Arroyo deserved a life sentence because he was young. One, Leticia Puente, reluctantly changed her mind because of sentencing guidelines:
If someone’s found to be a continuing threat to society and there aren’t mitigating circumstances, Texas law demands the death penalty.
“That trial was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Puente, 48, then a Wal-Mart sales clerk who suffered stress-related nosebleeds throughout the trial.
Other jurors ganged up on the lone holdout, a schoolteacher, until she relented, Puente said.
Arroyo’s mother died of AIDS when he was 12 and, according to his brother and sister, his father was an alcoholic.
“I really didn’t have no teenage years for the simple fact that my mother passed away, so I was growing up by myself,” Arroyo said in a death row interview last week. “When I first moved into my neighborhood, our clothes were stolen off the clothesline. So the mentality is, ‘Well, I’m going to steal it right back.’ There’s no, ‘Well, I’ll feel sorry for him,’ when I’m doing so bad already, I’m down on my knees.”
‘The right factors’
Six years after Leo Little arrived on death row, there is no sign of the thug who chose a stranger at random and killed him — at least not when a reporter and photographer come to visit.
The thick plastic window of the visiting booth reveals only a thin young man in a worn white shirt who unlike many other inmates readily admits his guilt.
Without visible emotion, he acknowledges that he killed Chavez but says he’s a different person today and is still discovering himself.
“I have a lot more worth now that I’ve had a change in mindset — now that I’ve been given the opportunity over these past six years to reflect on my behavior, to reflect on the rights and wrongs of a man in society,” he says.
Sounding at times like a philosophy major puzzling out new ideas, he tries explaining why he squeezed the trigger.
He had few influences as a child, he says. Had anyone encouraged him, he might have tried to become a chef. Instead, he latched onto gangster rap and pals who wanted to live the lyrics.
Soon, he was one more white suburban kid aping the bravado of rappers with flashy jewelry and long limousines.
“I didn’t have the money, the copious amounts of money they brag about,” he said. “So the next best thing was a gun.”
Once the weapon was in his hand, it was the final ingredient, mixing with the music and drugs like an intoxicating cocktail.
After that, it didn’t take much.
“You don’t need any reasonable reason to flick your finger, you know, it’s real simple. It doesn’t need a philosophy behind it. It doesn’t need a why. It happens if the right factors are present,” he said.
The factors fell in place on Jan. 22, 1998, seven days after he and a friend had left Wurpts, alive but stranded, on the side of a country road.
Rap songs were ringing in his ears. Cocaine, marijuana and mescal were flowing through his arteries. Little and his pal José Zavala began the search for a new victim.
They had stopped to use the restroom at Maggie’s Restaurant on San Pedro Avenue when Little saw a well-dressed young man go to his car, deposit a bag and return to the restaurant.
Little scrawled a note to Zavala — follow the blue car behind us — and crawled into the back seat of the man’s car.
About 10 minutes later, Christopher Chavez finished dinner with other members of his congregation and returned to his car without noticing the passenger.
The car had barely left the parking lot when Little emerged from the shadowy back seat with a gun. They went first to Chavez’s apartment, then to get gas. They drove southeast for about an hour.
Chavez did as Little commanded until they came to a stop on an empty stretch of Old Sutherland Springs Road, not far from where Little had briefly lived with his father.
There, Li’l Crazy marched Chavez in front of the headlights and told him to kneel so that he faced away from the gun.
Aiming at the back of Chavez’s head, Little pulled the trigger three times. Fear and excitement mixed with the stimulants in his system.
With Zavala’s help, he dragged Chavez away from the road, over rocks and weeds to a spot near a barbed-wire fence.
Leaving Chavez to die slowly — he would survive another two days — the teenagers took the car and headed to a nearby friend’s house.
There, Little would strip the car of its stereo and, the next day, he would spend Chavez’s money on a new set of tires.
But first, upon arriving at his friend’s house, he played Nintendo.