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Jury gives slayer life without parole

Published April 14, 2007 2:54 am

His youth was a factor, but jurors felt society would be safer if the admitted killer of a woman were behind bars
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

BOUNTIFUL - A jury weighing the fate of admitted killer Robert Cameron Houston struggled Friday to balance the defendant's youth with what one juror termed the "extreme brutality of the crime."

In the end, jurors sentenced the 18-year-old defendant to life in prison with no possibility of parole for the rape and murder of a female youth home employee.

Said juror Deborah Brady, of Layton: "Our concern for [the safety] of society was a major factor."

The seven women and five men deliberated six hours before returning a verdict of 11-1 in favor of no parole for Houston. The lone hold-out for life with parole was a man.

A female juror burst into tears when asked by the judge to verify her vote. Another juror, Charlotte Francis, of Kaysville, noted, "It was a hard decision."

Houston pleaded guilty last month to capital murder for the Feb. 15, 2006, stabbing and rape of 22-year-old Raechale Elton. He slit her throat, stabbed her six times and tried to break her neck. Houston's plea left jurors with the task of only deciding Houston's sentence.

Members of Elton's family cried when the verdict was announced, but left the 2nd District Court building looking relieved.

"We're pretty happy, and we love our daughter. We're really proud of her," said Elton's father, Bruce Elton.

The victim, who was studying for a criminal justice degree so she could help teens like Houston, was characterized by her father as having "a big heart."

Houston's mother, Carol Houston, told news reporters: "It's a sad day for all of us. There are no winners. Both families lost."

Houston received the harshest sentence possible for the crime. Because he was 17 at the time of the slaying, he was not eligible for the death penalty.

If fewer than 10 jurors had voted for life without parole, Judge Glen Dawson would have discharged the panel and imposed the default sentence of 20 years to life.

Dawson will formally impose Houston's sentence on May 1.

"Justice has been served," Deputy Davis County Attorney William McGuire said after the hearing. "This is a young man who is dangerous, a young man we don't need to be free."

Defense attorney Richard Gallegos said jurors gave the case "thoughtful consideration."

"You've got to respect the jury's verdict," Gallegos said. "The case goes on from here."

Houston does not get an automatic appeal, as with death penalty cases. If Houston requests an appeal, however, the state will foot the bill.

Houston displayed no reaction when the verdict was read. But Gallegos told reporters: "He's upset. He's an 18-year-old kid. It's obvious he would be upset."

During the weeklong sentencing hearing, jurors heard much about the defendant's troubled childhood, reported mental illness and an alleged lack of supervision and treatment at a privately run youth home for teenage sex offenders.

But prosecutors said Friday during closing arguments that the jury could justify the harshest sentence based only on the bloody viciousness of the slaying.

Prosecutor McGuire reminded jurors that Houston, after slitting Elton's neck, had even reached into the neck wound and tried to rip out her throat - all in an effort to quiet the victim, who was crying, screaming and pleading for her life. McGuire also reminded jurors that Houston was sent to the Clearfield youth home because of two prior sex assault convictions in which he used a knife.

Elton was killed after giving Houston a ride home during a snowstorm, a violation of group home rules, which prohibit staff members from being alone with clients - most of whom are sex offenders.

Defense attorney Gallegos asked the jury to give Houston a chance at parole, which would mean treatment and educational programs would be available to him in prison.

Gallegos also emphasized that Houston was a teen at the time of the slaying. "Kids have a different level of culpability," he said.

Houston was physically and sexually abused as a child and no one diagnosed his obsessive/compulsive disorder until after the homicide, according to testimony.

"Is this an excuse? Absolutely not," Gallegos said. "But it explains why we are here today."

"Send him to prison," Gallegos said. "But leave the door open so he can get treatment."

On rebuttal, prosecutor Ryan Perkins asked jurors if they really wanted to give Houston an opportunity for future freedom.

"Opportunity is a dangerous thing when given to the wrong person," he said. "Opportunity can kill. Opportunity can rape. Opportunity can wipe out opportunity for others."

shunt@sltrib.com