TEXAS prison escapee, convicted in officer's death, faces death sentence or life

Wednesday, August 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DALLAS (AP) _ Prosecutors seeking the death penalty for the leader of a gang of escaped convicts told jurors Wednesday that 17 previous life sentences couldn't keep him behind bars.

George Rivas was found guilty of capital murder Tuesday in the Christmas Eve slaying of Officer Aubrey Hawkins, who was shot and run over with a car during the robbery of a sporting goods store in Irving, Texas. Rivas faces the death penalty or life in prison.

Jurors heard for the first time Wednesday about the gang's meticulously planned Dec. 13 breakout from the Connally Unit in Kenedy, where they stole a pickup and 16 guns, and left a note threatening, ``You haven't heard the last of us yet.''

A maintenance supervisor at the Connally Unit testified that Rivas was a good worker in the prison.

``He was a hardworking individual who took time to do his job carefully,'' said Patrick Moczygemba. ``I never had no problems.''

Defense attorneys have indicated that Rivas, 31, may take the stand, which would mean that prosecutors will be able to question him about his past criminal history. He was given 17 life sentences for armed robbery and kidnapping before he and the others escaped.

Bill Lane, a Fort Worth criminal attorney not involved in the case, said Rivas has nothing to lose by testifying.

``If you have no defense, if you can humanize him a little bit with one juror, that will get him a life sentence,'' he said.

Prosecutors presented evidence for five days last week, including a confession in which Rivas asked for forgiveness and said he deserves to die for shooting Hawkins. Jurors also heard testimony from robbery victims, forensic experts and the officer's widow.

``The last thing Aubrey Hawkins saw was this man bearing down on him with all his fury. Without mercy,'' Dallas County prosecutor Toby Shook said during closing statements.

The escapees led authorities on a six-week manhunt. After the robbery, in which authorities said the gang took $70,000 and a cache of weapons, the men lived for about a month in a trailer park in Colorado. They were captured after a neighbor recognized them from broadcasts of TV's ``America's Most Wanted.'' One of the fugitives killed himself.

Rivas' attorneys argued that he never intended to kill Hawkins, only disarm him by shooting him in the shoulders. He said the others joined in the gunfire.

``These guys were just in a panic,'' said attorney Karo Johnson.

The prosecution was not required to prove that bullets fired by Rivas actually killed Hawkins. Under the ``law of parties,'' Rivas is liable for the alleged conduct of the other escapees if he promoted or assisted them during the crime.

Lori Hawkins, the officer's widow, said she was ``ecstatic'' about the verdict and would testify during the sentencing phase, after which she said she hopes to hear the words ``death by lethal injection.''

Rivas was the first of the prison escapees to be tried for Hawkins' murder.

Tom Melsheimer, a former federal prosecutor, said the Rivas case is a difficult one to defend.

``With facts that are this horrible for the defendant, the best strategy is probably prayer,'' Melsheimer said. ``If you are going to adopt any strategy at all, you have to persuade the jury that he is worthy of some slight element of mercy.''