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Burnet County applying for grant to pay for possible capital murder trial

Burnet County Commissioners Court on Sept. 14, 2021

The Burnet County Commissioners Court deliberated over a 51-item agenda during its meeting Tuesday, Sept. 14. They voted to apply for a grant to help pay for a possible capital murder case. Seated are Precinct 1 Commissioner Jim Luther, Precinct 2 Commissioner Damon Beierle, County Judge James Oakley, Precinct 3 Commissioner Billy Wall, and Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Don Dockery. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

The first steps are being taken by Burnet County to possibly fund and hold a capital murder trial in what could become the People vs. Joseph Luckenbach. 

A Lampasas resident, Luckenbach is being held in the Burnet County Jail charged with capital murder of multiple persons, a first-degree felony. He was arrested in the Aug. 30 deaths of Frank Whittemore, 42, and Amanda (Romero) Whittemore, 39, in the Overlook subdivision in south Burnet County.

Burnet County commissioners voted Tuesday, Sept. 14, to apply for a Governor’s Office County Essentials Grant for that particular case. County Essential Grants provide emergency funding for unanticipated expenses in criminal justice activities, such as a capital murder case. 

District Attorney Sonny McAfee said the grant application would be submitted before the end of this year, although it’s still too early to know when or even if a trial will be necessary. The defendant in the case could plead out. Motive and whether or not the killings were planned could also play roles in what happens in court. 

“We won’t know that until further down the road, not until the investigation is finished and we have a complete analysis of all the facts and circumstances,” McAfee said.

Circumstances determine whether the district attorney will seek life without parole or the death penalty. The last capital murder trial in Burnet County also involved a double homicide, but the state did not seek the death penalty at that time. 

Garrett James Ballard was sentenced on Dec. 12, 2016, to life without parole for the Aug. 19, 2014, deaths of Elijah Benson, 17, and Travis Fox, 26. According to McAfee in a news release at the time, the state waived the death penalty at the request of some of the victims’ family members. McAfee said the county did not apply for an essentials grant for that case either.

“We have applied for two of these grants in the past,” he said. “We ended up not needing either one.”

As for the possible cost of a capital murder trial, McAfee said that also depends. 

“Each one is different,” he said. “It depends on the particular circumstances. There’s a vast array of costs involved. It’s hard to speculate.”