Convenience store killer sentenced to death in Fort Worth

Posted Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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FORT WORTH -- Convicted killer Kwame Rockwell was sentenced to death by injection Friday for the slaying of a 22-year-old store clerk in a pre-dawn robbery.

The jury of seven women and four men deliberated for about 14 hours over two days before rejecting defense attorneys' request that Rockwell be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Rockwell sat silent and unmoving -- as he had through most of the trial -- as his sentence was read. Many of the jurors were in tears.

Relatives of the victims wept, too, including the parents of store clerk Daniel Rojas and the widow and sister of Jerry Burnett, a Mrs Baird's deliveryman who was fatally wounded.

Rockwell's relatives sat quietly as Rockwell's mother silently left the courtroom.

"This was a particularly senseless and coldblooded crime," said prosecutor Kevin Rousseau, who tried the case with Sean Colston. "I think the decision reached today was the only one that made sense under the law."

Rockwell, 36, part-owner of a used-car lot next to the Valero convenience store on the Mansfield Highway, was convicted last week of capital murder in the slaying of Rojas.

Key evidence against him was a chilling surveillance video that showed the hardworking Rojas and Burnett moving through their early-morning chores on March 23, 2010.

Three men wearing ski masks and dark clothes burst into the store; two were carrying guns, and one was carrying a gas can.

"It was probably the single most abhorrent piece of evidence we had," Rousseau said.

A left-handed gunman took just a few steps into the store before shooting Burnett in the head. The men chased Rojas into the store office, where they forced him at gunpoint to collect a bag of cash from a store freezer and from the store's two cash registers.

Throughout, Rojas cooperated fully and raised his arms. But the robbers took him back to the office, and the left-handed gunman shot him in the head at nearly point-blank range.

As they left the store, the third robber scattered gasoline around the store and onto Burnett. He tried in vain to start a fire, and the men fled as a customer drove up.

Rojas died instantly, but Burnett was able to call 911 for help. Jurors heard the tape of his call.

"I've been shot," a raspy-voiced Burnett, 69, of Joshua, told the dispatcher. "I'm bleeding to death. ... Hurry up. There'll be a bread truck outside."

He then asked police to call his wife, Sue Burnett. He lapsed into unconsciousness at the hospital before she arrived.

Also key was testimony from co-conspirator Chance Smith, 25, of Fort Worth, who was a lookout man. In a deal with prosecutors, Smith pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in exchange for his testimony.

Smith identified Rockwell -- who is left-handed -- as the gunman and said Rockwell planned the robbery for weeks because he believed that the store owners kept as much as several hundred thousand dollars on hand for their check-cashing service.

Smith said Rockwell planned an elaborate scheme, at one point following the owner in a vehicle because he believed that he was going to the bank. Rockwell eventually set the man's house on fire in the night to force the couple to take their cash to the store, Smith testified.

In the end, the robbers got less than $3,000, Smith testified.

Defense attorneys Mark Daniel and Tim Moore sharply questioned Smith, pointing out inconsistencies in his statements to police that suggested he was covering up the depth of his involvement.

During the punishment phase of the trial, the defense presented witnesses who testified that Rockwell was a kind, hardworking man whose only prior brush with the law was a domestic violence case.

Rockwell had apparently been having money problems, however. His car business was failing, he owed $30,000 in back child support, and he had recently been hit with an $80,000 civil judgment, prosecutors said.

Rockwell's father, Kenneth Rockwell, made an emotional plea to the jury Wednesday.

"I'm asking you to let him live," he said. "Let God take care of this."

The jury spent 45 minutes Friday watching the video again before reaching their decision.

"It was a very senseless crime," Colston said. "The victims were going about their business, and when you see this brutal killing..."

Three co-defendants are awaiting trial. Prosecutors have indicated that they will seek the death penalty against the men believed to be in the store: Randy Siebel, 37, of Granbury, identified as the other gunman, and Tyrone Thomas, 25, of Fort Worth, identified as the man with the gas can. They won't seek the death penalty for Timothy Thomas, 23, of Fort Worth, who Smith said stood watch at a nearby police station.

The case was heard by visiting Judge Elizabeth Berry after the sitting judge in Criminal District Court No. 4, Mike Thomas, became ill.

Dianna Hunt, 817-390-7084

Twitter: @diannahunt

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