'Legally dead' man's kidnapping trial delayed

November 23, 2012 11:00:11 AM

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JACKSON -- A federal trial has been pushed back to August for a man who was declared dead in Mississippi in 1994 and surfaced years later as a suspect in the deaths of his Las Vegas girlfriend and her daughter. 

 

The trial is now set to begin Aug. 26 in Louisiana, almost three years after the mother and daughter went missing over Labor Day weekend in 2010. 

 

Authorities say hunters found 12-year-old Lexis Roberts' body in the woods in Catahoula Parish, La., in October 2010. She had been shot and her throat was cut.  

 

Thomas Steven Sanders, who had been declared legally dead after abandoning his family years earlier, was arrested in Gulfport, Miss., the month after the child's body was found. Authorities say he directed them to Suellen Roberts' body in Yavapai County, Ariz. 

 

Sanders, 55, is charged in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, La., with kidnapping resulting in the child's death. He's also charged with using a gun during a crime that resulted in death. Both carry the possibility of a death penalty. 

 

Court records show both parties agreed to delay the trial.  

 

In delaying the trial, U.S. District Judge Dee Drell wrote in court records that there's a need for "additional investigation and expert review" related to the government's decision to seek the death penalty. Drell also said he expects "voluminous pretrial motions" to be filed in the case. 

 

The case has already been subject to much legal wrangling.  

 

Sanders was first indicted on the federal kidnapping charge in Louisiana on Nov. 18, 2010. The second count, related to the gun, was added in a subsequent indictment on Jan. 26, 2011.  

 

His attorneys failed to have that indictment thrown out based on arguments that it violated his right to a speedy trial and the Double Jeopardy Clause, which protects people from being convicted twice of the same crime. The argument had been that Sanders was charged with two separate offenses and could be sentenced to "two separate death sentences, arising from the same alleged offense." 

 

Drell rejected those arguments, saying the two crimes require proof of different elements.  

 

As for the speedy trial arguments, Sanders' lawyers claimed the subsequent indictment -- known as a superseding indictment -- had been filed after the 30-day period allowed after Sanders' arrest. Drell said the first indictment was filed within 30 days of Sanders' arrest, while the superseding indictment added an entirely new charge. 

 

Sanders' attorneys also unsuccessfully tried to get his alleged confession thrown out. 

 

According to court documents related to the alleged confession, Sanders was living at a storage facility in Las Vegas when he met Suellen Roberts. A relationship developed, and they planned to take her daughter on a trip to Bearizona, a wildlife park near the Grand Canyon, for the Labor Day weekend in 2010. 

 

On their way back to Nevada, Sanders pulled over in the desert "ostensibly so Suellen could shoot his .22 rifle," but he instead shot her in the head, court records said.  

 

Court records say Sanders then took Lexis, in hysterics after seeing her mother killed, to a wooded area in Louisiana. She didn't die after three gunshots to the head and a shot to the heart, so Sanders then cut her throat, U.S. Magistrate James Kirk wrote as part of his recommendation that the confession be allowed at trial.  

 

Sanders was arrested in November 2010 at a truck stop on the Mississippi coast.  

 

Sanders had walked away from his family in Mississippi in 1987, and they didn't hear for him for years. His parents, brother and ex-wife petitioned a Pike County, Miss., court in July 1994 to have him declared dead. Sanders was able to move about easily and undetected, and was arrested numerous times on various charges over the years, even though a death certificate had been issued for him.