July-August 2014

Uncovering the truth

William Lee Hon

Criminal District Attorney in Polk County

Brian Foley

Assistant County ­Attorney in Polk County

Investigators and prosecutors in Polk County were faced with a tangled story when a Polk County man shot a 16-year-old boy on his property. Here’s how they unraveled the defendant’s lies and presented the whole truth to a jury.

The 911 dispatcher answered the phone: “Polk County 911.”
    “Uh, yes ma’am, my friend’s been shot and I’m at the hospital—where can we find the emergency room?”
    “The entrance is in the back. Where was he shot?”
    “In the head!”
    This was the terrified 911 call that John Doe (not his real name, as he is a minor) made after nearly 10 minutes of racing to the hospital from the Livingston home of Timothy and Rachel Leggett, where 16-year-old Rhett Lathan, John’s best friend, had been shot in the head.
    Timothy Leggett, the shooter, also made a 911 call that night—22 minutes after firing the shot that ended Rhett’s life. In a cold and emotionless cadence, he told the dispatcher, “Um, yes ma’am, uh, we had somebody come in our yard and causing a big disturbance and we fired shots at ’em. … They were driving back and forth by here all night cussing and everything else, then they pulled in here, spun out in our yard, I mean cussing us and everything else, and the wife got scared and started shooting.”
    “The wife got scared? Did she shoot?”
    “Yes ma’am.”
    Time, patience, and a DPS scene reconstruction later showed that John Doe and Rhett Lathan, the two boys in the truck on the Leggetts’ property, never cussed, spun out, or made any aggressive move toward Timothy, Rachel, or their property. It took even more time and patience—plus an interrogation by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Rangers—to figure out that it wasn’t “the wife” who shot Rhett that night. It was Timothy Leggett.
    This case was complicated from the start because Rachel Leggett falsely confessed to the crime on the night of the murder. The case seemed open and shut, that Rachel had shot and killed Rhett Lathan in his truck because he had driven aggressively on the Leggett property. And we figured that at some point she would blame her husband, Timothy, but we didn’t expect that that claim would be the truth.
    With so much confusion in this case, we wondered how we would explain it all to a jury. We ended up employing several helpful visual aids, some as simple as Microsoft Excel charts and one as complicated as a computer-animated video reconstruction of the events as they unfolded that night. Unraveling all of the lies had been tough work, but we needed to make it easy for the jury to follow.

A little history
Timothy Leggett had been twice convicted of DWI and was by all accounts a heavy drinker. He was married to Rachel Leggett and lived in Livingston on property that included a house, stables, and a fenced pasture for donkeys in the back. Rachel had a son, Jimmy, from a prior marriage who was attending Livingston High School with the victim, Rhett.
    The Leggett residence was known for Jimmy’s parties involving underage drinking—Timothy Leggett didn’t like them because party-goers left beer cans and trash in the yard. Rhett and John had attended one such party two weeks before Rhett was killed. Again on October 12, 2012, the two heard at the high school football game that there was a party at the Leggett property. They had heard wrong.

What happened that night
The only people at the residence on that night were Rachel and an intoxicated Timothy. Rachel’s son Jimmy had left to see friends in another part of the county. Rhett and John pulled up into the 80-yard dirt driveway and saw the Leggetts standing near a concrete patio in front of the house. Realizing there was no party that night, Rhett pulled to the left, backed up, and started to leave, his tires losing grip on the dirt and spinning for a brief moment.
    That sent Timothy into an angry fit, and he picked up a .22 rifle and fired five shots. He hit the truck twice, missed twice, and fired a single shot through the truck’s open window—into the left side of Rhett’s head. Its driver incapacitated, the vehicle veered sharply, and John jumped out of the passenger door, ran around the still-moving vehicle, and took control from the driver’s seat, having to push his friend’s immobilized body across the center console. The vehicle had taken a sharp left into the yard from the driveway, exited through a ditch, and crossed the county road before John could direct it toward the hospital.
    Timothy saw the truck swerve out of control after the shots and knew the driver was injured because John had gotten out and shouted at him to stop. (Timothy later admitted that he saw the driver slumped over the center console.) And he knew he had no real justification for shooting. He didn’t call 911 for 22 minutes; he used this time to come up with a story to tell police.
    He remembered his neighbor saying something earlier that day about someone on another neighborhood road making loud noises. He looked at a ricochet mark on a camper in his yard in the path of one of the missed shots. He followed the exit tire tracks that tore up the yard (all in directions away from the house), and he plotted. First he convinced Rachel to take the blame by telling her the first lie: “I can’t possess a firearm because of my DWI probation.” Then came another: “I know that nobody got hurt—I just fired in the air.”
    Rachel went along with the lies. Knowing the truck likely belonged to a local teenager, she called her son to see if he knew who it was. Phone records showed that when she found out a child had been shot, Timothy was already on the phone telling 911 dispatch that Rachel was the shooter. It was too late to go back now. She adopted a phony story about the teens’ unruly behavior spinning donuts in the yard.
    All parties involved were interviewed that night, and gun residue samples were taken from both Timothy and Rachel. Detectives saw the inconsistencies between their stories. For example, Timothy said he was out in the pasture feeding the donkeys, but Rachel said he was right by the door. Both of them repeated the same words over and over without going into any detail, claiming the boys were “hootin’ and hollerin’”—a favorite phrase. Rachel also claimed that she fired without thinking “and might have even hit one of those trailers over there. I don’t know.” Detectives could tell Rachel was making up the story to justify the shooting, but they didn’t realize she was lying to protect her husband. She was told that the boy, Rhett, was in critical condition at the hospital, and she broke down crying. Timothy remained calm and composed throughout.
    Rhett was flown to Herman Memorial Hospital in Houston for emergency surgery.  At trial his doctors testified that Rhett had died instantaneously from the gunshot. The only reason they made such extraordinary efforts was because he was so young.     

More lies
Two days later Timothy went to the sheriff’s office unannounced and “wanted to make a statement”—but really, he was hoping to take the temperature of the investigation and see if it had begun to turn toward him. At that meeting he told officers for the first time that he had shot a rabbit earlier in the day. Why would he bring that up? Rachel and Timothy had been tested for gunshot residue and he knew the results would come back soon: clean for Rachel and dirty for Timothy.
    When Timothy drank, the odor of alcohol wasn’t the only thing that came out of his mouth. First, he told Rachel’s son Jimmy that he did the shooting and that he would wait to see if Rachel got probation before turning himself in. Later, while drinking at a campfire with his oil-field buddies, he told them, “Let’s just say Rachel didn’t shoot.” In another instance, he admitted his involvement in the shooting to a young man who knew Rachel’s son, and later, he told a coworker from Oklahoma. Leggett told everyone but the police about his guilt, and by that time Rachel had been arrested and indicted for murder. Timothy knew she wouldn’t last long in a jail cell and quickly came up with $1,000 a week to bond her out. He hoped that she wouldn’t turn on him. Rachel’s mother had figured out the truth and was starting to spread the news. In a recorded jail conversation with Rachel before she made bond, Timothy asked her, “Do you want me to go ahead and tell ’em or what?”
    The multiple admissions continued when Rachel’s son Jimmy and Timothy were alone in his travel trailer near an oil field job site. Jimmy was worried about his mother going to jail and decided to use his phone to record Leggett’s confession. He recorded Timothy saying he would tell the police “everything” if Rachel weren’t offered probation: “I won’t let her go to jail.”
    Armed with this latest confession, Texas Rangers and Polk County Sheriff’s investigators arranged a recorded phone call between Timothy and Jimmy on May 13, 2013. Timothy answered but realized it was a trap and hung up. The Rangers and sheriff’s deputies decided to call him in for questioning when Timothy reported for his DWI probation on May 20, 2013. He was questioned for half an hour before finally confessing. On the winding way to the truth, Timothy told police that when they boys pulled up the driveway, he was in the pasture—then his story changed that he was by the house. He told police he was able to cover 100 yards in only a few seconds (running from the property’s back fence to the front porch) while Rachel was firing the gun. One moment he told police that the doors to the truck were open—and then that they were never open.
    Officers told Timothy that they had recordings of him admitting that he was the shooter and that he was waiting to see if Rachel got probation. Timothy asked if he could hear those recordings. Finally Timothy was told, “We know you are the one who shot; we just need to know why.” He responded, “No, I just fired shots … I wasn’t aiming, but it was me.”
    Timothy admitted he fired at the vehicle to scare the boys off—that he fired five shots (three hits and one of them fatal) to “scare” them. Timothy stuck with his story that the truck had raced in the yard and spun around in donuts. But the DPS reconstruction was already complete, and Leggett couldn’t explain his actions when confronted with the results, that the detailed outline of the tires showed they were moving very slowly when the truck backed up to leave the property and proceed down the driveway—there were never any aggressive movements toward the house or where Timothy or Rachel were standing. And the bullet trajectories into the truck showed that it was shot while it was driving away. “Why did you shoot if they were driving away?” investigators asked. Timothy had no answer. He could not justify what he had done.

Telling the story at trial
After a few meetings we agreed that it was critical for the jury to understand exactly what Timothy would have seen that night. We decided that a video based on the DPS reconstruction of the tire tracks would help jurors feel like they were on the scene. We reached out to Century Legal Technologies in Houston and asked the graphics people there to create a three-dimensional video rendering of the truck’s movements that night.  It took about four weeks to complete the rendering at a cost of about $4,000. This was the third most powerful piece of evidence (behind the testimony of Rhett’s parents). Using actual photographs from the scene and aerial photographs obtained by police, Century Legal Technologies inserted a moving truck (that looked exactly like Rhett’s Ford F-150) into those photographic settings and were even able to make it look like nighttime. This 90-second video proved that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a thousand witnesses.
    After jurors watched the events of that night unfold, they understood that what happened was not the result of a man scared for his life or his property. It was the result of heavy drinking and a short temper. And it took the life of a child.
    Proving the cover-up helped show Timothy’s guilty mind and that he knew there was no justification for the shooting. Timing became an important issue—which meant that timelines were essential. We needed the jury to understand how long it took for the truth to come out and how long it took for Leggett to call 911. Visual aids made the point without muddying the waters. We created two different timelines. The first was of the general investigation and was created with a Microsoft Excel template that is readily available online. The second timeline detailed the phone calls made by Rachel, her son Jimmy, Timothy, and Rhett’s friend John between 10:00 p.m. (the time of the shooting) and 10:22 p.m. (Timothy’s 911 call). We had to create it on our own by modifying a Microsoft Excel chart. We used the general investigation timeline in opening statement to show how many months Timothy allowed Rachel to stand accused of a crime he committed; it also helped show when Timothy started an affair with another woman.
    The phone call timeline showed that Rachel and her son called each other the night of the shooting in two flurries. Each calling spree had a five-minute gap between the other. This allowed time for Rachel and Timothy to come up with the story that Timothy would tell the 911 dispatcher. The timeline also showed the 911 calls that Rhett’s friend John made when he arrived at the hospital and the call where he spoke to Rachel’s son Jimmy and told him Rhett had been shot. The final calls on the timeline showed when Rachel spoke to Jimmy and heard the tragic news. Before she could get off the phone, Timothy dialed 911. Perhaps most importantly, this timeline proved that he waited more than 22 minutes to call authorities. To show the jury just how long 22 minutes can be, we showed a graphic of a static-screened TV and told them that when commercials are edited out, 22 minutes is the length of an entire TV sitcom.
    During closing arguments we wanted to remind jurors of all the lies that Leggett had told about how things happened that night. But replaying hours of his multiple recorded statements wasn’t possible, and simply reminding jurors of what he said wouldn’t have had the same impact as playing the videos of his statements. So we spliced clips of the videos together so that his various lies played one after another. One moment in the video, Timothy was saying the truck doors were open, and in the next, that they were closed; that he never saw anyone in the truck, then that he saw the driver slumped over. We ended up with five short clips that could have appeared on an episode of “America’s Stupidest Criminals.” The videos relayed an important concept, that Timothy was a liar. He knew he was the shooter, and he knew he had no justification.
    The jury returned a guilty verdict in eight minutes.

When punishment came around, we expected the defense to offer respect for the jury’s verdict but to call the situation a misunderstanding or a mistake in judgment; after all, Timothy’s criminal history of only two DWI convictions wouldn’t necessarily mean a strong punishment verdict, if only he showed some remorse for his crime. What we were not expecting was all the ammunition Leggett provided us through his recorded jail phone calls.
    He showed his true colors by berating his father for not bonding him out of jail, calling him a “prick” and a “retard.” He showed no remorse as he joked around with his new mistress from the oil fields about how he would get back to her even if “I may have dogs hanging off my a$$.” Timothy showed that he didn’t care about Rachel taking the fall for him when jail calls revealed he was planning his next wedding and said about Rachel, “That b**** will have her day in H***.” Leggett blamed everyone but himself. He claimed, “I ain’t done nothing wrong to deserve this.” He called the jury “chicken-s*** sons of b******” when speaking about how much time they might give him. His callousness included a statement that he and (Criminal District Attorney) “Lee Hon are fixing to go 12 rounds.”
    The calls were the knockout blow. We sent the jury off to deliberate after a replay of the video recreation of the truck’s movements, this time overlaid with the frantic 911 call of Rhett Lathan’s best friend, John. As the video ended, a photograph of Rhett appeared, then slowly faded to black as audio from a Polk County Sheriff’s Office investigator asked Timothy, “Do you think you ought to pay for what you did?”
    “Yes,” came his answer.
    “What’s the price of that?” the investigator asked.
    The jury returned the punishment verdict, and Timothy was sentenced to the maximum of 99 years and a $10,000 fine.