CONNIE SWINNEY • STAFF WRITER
BLANCO — The Texas Governor’s Office awarded the 33rd/424th Judicial District Attorney’s Office a $223,000 grant Dec. 13 for costs associated with an upcoming capital murder trial that could potentially result in the state seeking the death penalty, officials said.
The case involves 24-year-old John Lawrence, accused in May of sexually and physically abusing a 15-month-old female child who was found unresponsive by EMS personnel at a Blanco residence. The child later died, authorities reported.
In June, Lawrence was indicted on a capital murder charge, which carries a possible sentence of life in prison or the death penalty.
He also faces a charge of super-aggravated sexual assault of a child, a first-degree felony, due to the age of the alleged victim.
“If a state seeks the death penalty in a case in Blanco that is currently pending, the cost of the experts, the testing, and the resources necessary to effectively prosecute the case are more extensive than other criminal prosecutions,” District Attorney Wiley “Sonny” McAfee said. “The preparation for that case, selection for the jury, and actual prosecution are very intense, and we have to ensure that everything is done prior to trial such as DNA testing of all relevant evidence.”
Two other small children in the home were also treated for injuries, including a toddler boy who suffered from bleeding of the brain, according to Blanco police officials.
Jamie Petronella, the mother of the toddler who died, also faces first-degree felony charges of injury to a child punishable by five to 99 years or life in prison with a conviction. Authorities identified Lawrence as Petronella’s boyfriend after their arrests in May.
McAfee said he and his staff will consider a number of factors before the final determination to pursue the death penalty.
“We look for the facts of the case. We look at the age of the victim, and the defendant in this case is charged with the murder of a child less than 10 years of age,” McAfee said. “We’ve talked to the family members of victims as well as law enforcement and anybody that might have relevant information in a decision to seek the death penalty.”
Funding to assist with the upcoming trial will be administered through Burnet County, which is the grant writing administrator for the district attorney’s office. The 33rd/424th Judicial District encompasses Burnet, Blanco, Llano, and San Saba counties.
“We have some time before we’re seeking the death penalty or not, but in order to do that effectively, we have to have the resources in place,” McAfee said. “If we had those same costs (without the grant), they’d be borne by the taxpayers of Blanco County.”
The capital murder trial is tentatively scheduled for August 2017.