Published Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 | 11:59 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 | noon
ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) — The lawyer for a Mississippi man who was declared dead two decades ago, only to resurface as a murder suspect, does not deny that her client killed his girlfriend and her daughter, but she said Wednesday that he's being tried in the wrong court.
In opening statements, attorney Cristie Gibbens said it was improper to charge Thomas Steven Sanders in federal court for the 2010 slaying of 12-year-old Lexis Roberts. She said prosecutors lack evidence to prove that Sanders committed a federal crime, rather than a crime that should be addressed in local courts.
Otherwise, she said, "We agree with the government on almost all of the facts."
Gibbens said Sanders "accepts full responsibility for the death of Lexis Roberts."
Roberts' skeletal remains were found off a gravel trail in rural Catahoula Parish, Louisiana, in October 2010, a month after authorities say Sanders dumped her body. Her mother's body was found later in Arizona.
Prosecutor Bill Flanagan said Sanders shot the girl's mother, Suellen Roberts, on a trip all three took to a wildlife park near the Grand Canyon, then drove Lexis Roberts to Louisiana, where he shot her four times and cut her throat.
Gibbens, who offered no explanation for the shootings called it "a vacation that went terribly, horribly, sadly wrong,"
Sanders was identified as a suspect long after he was thought dead. Sanders had left his family in Mississippi in 1987, and his relatives and ex-wife had him declared dead in 1994 after he had been missing for years.
A middle-aged, balding man, Sanders sat quietly with his lawyers as the killings were described, periodically wiping his eyes. Dressed in a blue shirt and khakis, he wasn't handcuffed, but a U.S. marshal sat nearby.
Sanders is charged with two crimes: kidnapping resulting in death and using a firearm in a crime of violence that caused a person's death. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
After opening statements Wednesday, witnesses described finding Lexis Roberts' remains on hunting property.
Photos of a skull with small pink braces still attached to the upper teeth were shown in court, along with a purple unicorn stuffed animal that was found in the woods near Roberts' bones. Sanders' lawyers didn't dispute that the remains were identified as Lexis Roberts.
Flanagan said Sanders met Suellen Roberts while working and living at a storage facility in Las Vegas. Within a few months, they started dating and planned the Labor Day weekend trip that would end with both mother and daughter shot and killed, the prosecutor said.
After visiting a wildlife refuge known as Bearizona and stopping at the Grand Canyon, the trio pulled into a remote stretch of desert off an interstate so Suellen Roberts could shoot Sanders' .22-caliber rifle, Flangan said. Instead, Sanders shot the mother in the head while her daughter sat on a blanket nearby, Flanagan said.
Sanders left the body where it fell and drove Lexis Roberts over several days to northeast Louisiana, where he shot her three times in the head and once in the chest, the prosecutor said.
"Lexis Roberts still had not died, and so he took his knife and he cut her throat," Flanagan told jurors.
Flanagan said Sanders confessed to the child's death after being arrested in Gulfport, Mississippi, while still driving Suellen Roberts' car, and told investigators how to find her body in Arizona.
Gibbens said Sanders was in love with the mother. She said he acknowledged, "I just shot her. I didn't know what to do after that." Gibbens said after learning how Lexis Roberts' body had decomposed in the woods, Sanders replied: "She didn't deserve that."