Kim Petetan and her 9-year-old daughter, Allyson, began Sunday, September 23, 2012, with morning church services. Afterward, they returned to their Waco apartment where they ate lunch and began watching a movie. In the afternoon they heard a knock on the front door. They weren’t expecting guests so they continued watching their movie. There was another knock a few seconds later, and this time, Kim went to the door to see if someone needed help. When she opened the door, she came face-to-face with her estranged husband, Carnell Petetan, Jr. She tried to close the door, but Petetan forced his way into the apartment and closed the door behind him. He pulled out a pistol, pointed it at Kim, and ordered her and Allyson into an upstairs bedroom.
He demanded that Kim go to Port Arthur with him and retract a statement she had made to police about 10 days earlier. In that statement, she had told police how Petetan had thrown her into a wall in his Port Arthur apartment, pulled a knife on her, and threatened to kill her in front of Allyson. Kim pleaded with Petetan to leave her apartment, but he refused. Instead, he told her to get the keys to her truck and drive him to a nearby motel, warning her that he would shoot her and Allyson if they attempted to escape or get help. The three of them drove to the motel where they picked up two men. Then, the five of them drove back to Kim’s apartment. The two men from the motel stayed downstairs while Petetan took Kim upstairs and again tried to convince her to return to Port Arthur.
Petetan later came downstairs with Kim and Allyson. Kim asked Petetan for permission to take Allyson back upstairs so that she could use the bathroom. He agreed. Kim took Allyson’s hand and started toward the front of the apartment. But instead of turning toward the stairs, she quickly moved to the front door and attempted to open it. Petetan grabbed her, slammed her against a wall, and pulled out his pistol. Kim tried to retreat up the stairs, but, as Allyson looked on, Petetan shot Kim twice, once in the left leg and once in the right shoulder. The latter shot penetrated both of Kim’s lungs and thoracic aorta. She staggered down the stairs and fell to the floor. She died before the first officers arrived at the scene. She was only 41 years old, and she left behind not only Allyson, but three other adult children, Kristin, Tyler, and Wesley.
The first responding officers discovered Kim’s body lying face down in a pool of blood on the entry floor. No one else was in the apartment. Neighbors gathered outside and told police that she was separated from her husband and had a young daughter living with her. Officers attempted but were unable to locate Allyson in the apartment complex. A bystander told them that he saw Petetan force his way into Kim’s apartment earlier that afternoon. As a result, Waco police issued an Amber Alert for Allyson and Petetan’s white SUV.
Police in Bryan stopped Petetan’s SUV about 90 minutes after the murder as it headed south toward Houston. They found four people inside: Allyson, Petetan, and the two men from the Waco motel, Adrian Miller and Kerrie Mouton. Miller and Mouton told officers they had traveled from Port Arthur to Waco with Petetan earlier that morning under the assumption that he was buying a large amount of crack cocaine in Waco.
All four occupants of the SUV were taken to the Bryan Police Department for further questioning. Allyson, Miller, and Mouton told Bryan detectives that they witnessed Petetan shoot Kim as she attempted to flee with Allyson. Detectives then spoke with Petetan. Displaying absolutely no grief or emotion, Petetan repeatedly blamed Adrian Miller for the murder. He terminated the interview when detectives requested a buccal swab for DNA testing. He was charged with murder and returned to Waco the next day.
Criminal District Attorney Abel Reyna, ACDA Michael Jarrett, and I were trying another death penalty case in Waco when we first heard about Kim’s murder and Petetan’s arrest. None of us recognized the names, and a quick search of county records revealed no arrests for Petetan. Given the parties’ relationship, our first assumption was that the murder was an act of domestic violence.
After the conclusion of our other death penalty trial, we began reviewing police reports and witness statements. Two very distinct images began to emerge.
Kim was uniformly described by family members and friends as a devoted mother. At the time of her death, she was taking college classes to become a counselor. She wanted to help young women overcome problems related to addiction and abuse—problems that Kim herself had experienced. Her relationship with Petetan began after a chance meeting with his brother in Waxahachie in which the brother explained that Petetan was an inmate in TDCJ and needed encouragement and support. He asked her to become Petetan’s pen pal. Wanting to help someone else in need, Kim began writing Petetan. Later, she began visiting him at his TDCJ unit. Their relationship grew, and in September 2010, she married him despite her family’s concerns.
Petetan’s story was quite different. He grew up in Port Arthur. His criminal history included two 20-year prison sentences for attempted murder out of Jefferson County. He served more than 19 years of his sentence before being paroled in April 2012. Upon his release, he moved into the apartment that Kim shared with Allyson in Waco. Kim’s neighbors described him as a street-wise hustler who enjoyed talking about rap music and boxing, and there were suspicions that he was dealing drugs out of Kim’s apartment. After a brief honeymoon period, he and Kim began experiencing problems. There were numerous arguments. Police were called to their apartment on at least one occasion. Petetan moved out of Kim’s place in July and returned to Port Arthur, but he and Kim continued communicating by phone in the hope of reconciling their marriage. In mid-September, Kim agreed to move to Port Arthur to be with him. She and Allyson moved into his apartment. However, the arguments quickly resumed and eventually led to the violent incident where Petetan threatened to kill Kim in front of Allyson. Kim and Allyson immediately returned to their Waco apartment after that, and she decided to end her marriage.
After making a preliminary report to Mr. Reyna, I began a more in-depth investigation to determine whether we should seek the death penalty against Petetan. I first ordered all of Petetan’s TDCJ paperwork, including his pen packets, disciplinary reports, medical records, and parole records. I also ordered his Jefferson County (Port Arthur) records, including records from his juvenile probation, arrests, and schools.
Petetan’s criminal history
Having tried numerous death penalty cases, I had long ago come to the realization that there are evil and depraved people in this world. How else can you explain the actions of a mother who stabs to death her two young sons or a serial killer who celebrates after murdering five innocent people in a single night? Still, Petetan’s TDCJ records were among the worst I had ever seen.
He was confirmed as a member of the Crips street gang. Numerous homemade weapons were found in his cell during his confinement. He assaulted several inmates and correctional officers, both with and without weapons. Many of these attacks appeared to be planned and premeditated. He severely beat a sleeping inmate in the head with a metal combination lock stuffed in a sock, sending the inmate to a local emergency room. (The attack was so vicious that the first correctional officers on the scene later told us that he would never forget the smell of blood in the air.) On another occasion Petetan repeatedly stabbed an inmate with a 12-inch metal shank. The inmate survived the attack only because of the quick response of emergency medical personnel. Near the end of his prison sentence, Petetan solicited a fellow inmate to rape, torture, mutilate, and murder a female correctional officer in front of her family. Fortunately, the plot was discovered before it was carried out. And finally, the records contained detailed accounts of Petetan’s sexual depravity. He repeatedly exposed himself in front of female correctional officers and on one occasion solicited a male officer for sexual favors. Moreover, he sexually assaulted at least three male inmates. In the last documented incident, Petetan struck the inmate in the head with his fist, dragged him into his cell, and sodomized him while he held a metal shank to the inmate’s throat.
Petetan’s Jefferson County records were no better. Beginning when he was 10, his offenses included burglary, theft, vandalism, assault, aggravated assault, and attempted murder. He assaulted a public school teacher in her classroom and also vandalized another teacher’s truck when ordered to leave the school campus. Later, he broke a teenager’s jaw by striking him in the face with a metal chair. Petetan also assaulted an elderly teacher while in juvenile detention. He was subsequently placed in the Brownwood State School before being returning to Port Arthur on juvenile parole.
His convictions for attempted murder stemmed from two separate shootings in Port Arthur. In the first case, he shot a friend while he and the victim were in his mother’s backyard. In the second case, committed while he was on juvenile parole, Petetan randomly shot an elderly man walking on a sidewalk. He was certified to stand trial as an adult in both cases and was sentenced to 20 years in each.
Petetan’s history of violence left no absolutely doubt that he would be a future threat to society. However, there was still the issue of mitigation. Were there were any mitigating factors to justify a life sentence? To answer that, I turned to his school and juvenile probation records.
Those records showed that Petetan was expelled from school in the ninth grade after numerous disciplinary violations. His overall academic performance was poor. He was raised by his mother in a modest, single-family home. According to his mother, Petetan attended church regularly as a child. His medical records contained no evidence of mental illness, physical disabilities, childhood abuse, or drug or alcohol addiction—despite his admission to a counselor that he sold crack cocaine as a teenager.
His juvenile probation records did, however, contain evidence suggesting that he might be mentally retarded. Two sets of IQ tests had been administered to him prior to his incarceration in TDCJ. The first test, administered when he was 15, resulted in a combined score of 61. He was tested a year later and received a combined score of 64 on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC). Because the psychologist suspected that he was malingering, Petetan was then administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS). It produced a combined score of 74. We also later learned that Petetan had been administered another IQ test in 2012 as part of his application for SSI benefits. The combined score for that test was 55. We obtained the testing psychologist’s records and were relieved to see that his notes contained numerous entries indicating that Petetan had failed to give full effort on the test and appeared to lack motivation.
The IQ test results obviously caused concern in light of the Atkins decision. We had three sub-70 test results. Still, Petetan’s TDCJ and parole records, as well as his school records, contained no evidence of retardation. Furthermore, the test results appeared suspect due to Petetan’s malingering.
I made my final report to Mr. Reyna and recommended that we seek the death penalty notwithstanding the IQ test results. He agreed that Petetan’s crime and violent criminal history called for the ultimate punishment. He was also firm in his belief that Kim’s family deserved a full measure of justice. Petetan was indicted for capital murder, and Mr. Reyna, Michael, and I began our trial preparations.
Preparation for trial
Following her mother’s death, Allyson had gone to live with her older sister, Kristin, outside of Houston. I made arrangements to meet them at their home on my way to TDCAA’s Annual Criminal & Civil Law Update last year in Galveston. After my arrival, Kristin and I sat in her living room where we spoke about the upcoming trial. She was concerned about possible delays, explaining that the pending trial was taking a heavy emotional toll on her and the rest of the family. I assured her that there would be no delays. When we finished talking, she brought Allyson into the room so that I could speak with her.
I began by having Allyson tell me about school and her favorite activities. I quickly realized that she was mature beyond her years. Her communication skills were excellent. She was focused and surprisingly poised given the circumstances. After a few minutes, I told her that I needed to speak with her about what happened to her mother. She hesitated for a moment before telling me about their last day together: the church services, the lunch she and her mother picked up at McDonald’s after church, and the movies they rented on their way home. I let her go at her own pace. Her recall of the day’s events seemed remarkable. She appeared to be reliving the moment as he told me how Petetan forced his way into the apartment. I could almost see the fear in her eyes as she told me how it felt to see Petetan point his gun at her mother. When she began describing the moments leading up to her mother’s death, she looked down and began crying. She cried as she told me how Petetan slammed her mother against the wall and then shot her as she tried to run up the stairs. It was heartbreaking to hear her describe how her mother “flopped like a fish” after she fell to floor.
She finished her story by describing how they drove out of Waco after the shooting, stopping somewhere outside of Waco so that Petetan could throw his pistol into a field. After she concluded, I told Allyson that I needed her to be strong for her mother and testify at Petetan’s trial. Without missing a beat, she said that she wanted to testify and was not afraid of seeing Petetan in a courtroom. I left Kristin’s home that evening filled with outrage over the damage that Petetan had inflicted on these two innocent daughters.
After we returned from Galveston, we began trying to locate correctional officers and inmates who could testify to Petetan’s violent acts in prison. That was no easy task given the passage of time. Many of the officers from the early- and mid-’90s had retired, and most of the inmates had been either released from prison or transferred to different units. Investigators Mark Leger and Jason Chambers began communicating with the last known TDCJ units and TDCJ’s Office of Inspector General. With their help, they were eventually able to locate almost every key officer and inmate. Remarkably, almost every one of them still remembered Petetan and agreed to testify about their interactions with him.
That left Jefferson County. We needed to locate people who had known Petetan during his childhood to rebut his retardation claim. And to do that, we needed boots on the ground in Jefferson County. Michael Jarrett and Mark Leger spent several days there, and with the help of the Port Arthur Police Department and the Jefferson County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, they located Petetan’s crime victims. Michael persuaded all of them to testify.
Michael and Mark spoke with numerous police officers in Port Arthur. To a man, they still remembered Petetan as someone with no regard for the law or the rights of others. Not a single officer believed that he was retarded. Michael and Mark also spoke with Petetan’s probation and parole officers who later testified at trial that he showed no signs of mental retardation while under their supervision. New witnesses were also identified. One was the retired justice of the peace who had arraigned Petetan after his first arrest for attempted murder. Her later trial testimony allowed us to introduce Petetan’s written confession in which he admitted that he tried to shoot his friend in the head after shooting him in the arm. Other new witnesses included Petetan’s first- and third-grade teachers who testified that Petetan was a troublemaker whose poor grades were due to lack of effort rather than mental retardation, and one of Petetan’s former principals testified that Petetan was the worst student he had seen in his 40-year career with the Port Arthur ISD. The principal also said that Petetan was placed in the district’s special education program not because he was mentally challenged but because of his repeated disciplinary violations. Finally, Michael convinced Adrian Miller to testify—despite Petetan’s claim that Miller had killed Kim. The trip to Petetan’s hometown gave us powerful anecdotal testimony to rebut the retardation claim.
To help further undermine the validity of Petetan’s IQ tests, we employed the services of Dr. Randy Price, a Dallas-area forensic psychologist. I had seen him speak at numerous capital murder conferences and knew that he would be a valuable asset at trial.
Jury selection took more than six weeks to complete. During that time, Michael and I questioned approximately 150 prospective jurors. No one was accepted as juror unless they agreed that: 1) IQ tests could be manipulated, and 2) lay testimony from teachers, counselors, and others would assist them in determining a defendant’s adaptive functioning.
Testimony began in the 19th District Court in Waco on April 15, 2014. The courtroom was packed as Mr. Reyna read the indictment to the jury. Due to the nature of the case and Petetan’s violent history, all trial spectators had been searched for weapons, and Petetan wore an electric stun belt under his suit coat. Over the next two weeks we presented 49 witnesses and offered approximately 150 pieces of evidence. Like most trials, this one had several memorable and decisive moments. The first occurred when Allyson testified as our last witness on guilt-innocence.
By the time she testified, Petetan’s guilt had been conclusively established through a combination of overwhelming eyewitness and circumstantial evidence. However, we still wanted the jury to see first-hand the damage he had inflicted on this 9-year-old girl. As I began questioning her, she displayed the same maturity and poise I had witnessed in Kristin’s home months earlier. Her recall of events was still remarkable. She had the jury’s undivided attention as she described the events of that fateful Sunday afternoon. She fought back tears as she told the jury how Petetan gunned down her mother in cold blood. Many of the jurors cried during this portion of her testimony, and it was obvious that they too felt a sense of outrage over Petetan’s actions. When I asked her to identify her mother’s killer, Allyson quietly but confidently pointed directly at Petetan. She remained just as poised on cross-examination, answering each question politely and directly. As she stepped down from the witness stand I was certain that her testimony had moved us much closer to a death sentence. (The presiding judge, Ralph Strother, later said that he had never seen a better child witness than Allyson. Neither had I nor any other member of the trial team.)
The second pivotal moment came when Petetan elected to testify at the guilt phase. As a result, jurors had the chance to judge his intellectual functioning for themselves, rather than having to rely on secondhand accounts from Petetan’s family or defense experts. They quickly saw that he had above-average communication skills. He had no difficulty understanding and answering questions—even those Michael asked on cross-examination. During his three hours of testimony, Petetan showed his true nature as a calculating and remorseless individual. He certainly did not come across as retarded.
The jury took approximately an hour to convict Petetan of capital murder.
We began the punishment phase with testimony from Petetan’s crime victims, including correctional officers and inmates he assaulted—including the three inmates he had raped. The defense then began its effort to prove mental retardation through the testimony of family members and two psychologists, one from San Marcos on the issue of adaptive functioning and another from Dallas on the issue of intellectual functioning. The latter had administered a pretrial IQ test to Petetan that purported to show a combined score of 51.
Rather than present our own expert testimony, we chose to rebut the defense’s experts through cross-examination, the testimony of lay persons from Jefferson County, and Petetan’s own words—lengthy letters he had written to Kim while he was still in TDCJ, letters that included discussions, among other things, of economics and world affairs, letters that clearly were not written by a mentally retarded individual.
The jury deliberated about three hours on punishment. The courtroom was packed again as Judge Strother received the jury’s verdict. The jury rejected the defense’s retardation claim and found that there were no sufficient mitigating circumstances to justify a life sentence. Petetan then stood with his lawyers. He was by this time fully shackled and surrounded by deputies. With Allyson, Kristin, Tyler, and Wesley silently watching from the gallery, Judge Strother imposed the death sentence.
Then, one by one, Kim’s children delivered their impact statements. And, as she had been during our guilt phase, Allyson was the last to speak. She calmly walked to the witness stand, pulled out a piece of paper, and began reading the statement that she had written earlier that day: “My name is Allyson Williams. I am Kimberly’s youngest daughter. You took the most important person in this world that loved me. My mom will never see me get married or graduate. You would not like it if your stepdad killed your mom right in front of you. And I know that you’re not stupid. You could write songs and everything just fine. God knows the truth.”
This case was another battle in our ongoing war with evil. We are thankful that good prevailed this time.
As members of the trial team, we were privileged to be the voices for Kim, Allyson, Kristin, Tyler, and Wesley. We will never forget them. It is our sincere hope and prayer that what we did in this case will have a positive and lasting effect on their lives.