By Kathi Bliss
After several harrowing days of testimony, a Caldwell County jury decided on Tuesday afternoon to send a Lockhart man to prison for the rest of his life after convicting him of murdering his 77-year-old uncle in 2007.
Wesley Lee Hill, now 50, has struggled with schizophrenia for much of his life, according to his sister, Cynthia Hill Patterson, who testified during the punishment phase of Hill’s trial on Tuesday. Though Patterson said her brother poses no threat when receiving proper medical treatment for his mental illness, she also noted he was dangerous and sometimes violent when not taking his medication.
She said she could not be sure, but believed her brother was off his medication when he went to the Sabine Street home of Johnnie Riles, Jr., on the evening of Dec. 2, 2007, and brutally beat the elderly man. Though Riles was still clinging to life when EMS arrived at his home, he died before he could be flown via helicopter to an Austin trauma center for treatment.
Evidence presented by prosecutors during the trial showed Hill struck Riles in the head, face and upper back more than 30 times. According to Travis County Medical Examiner David Dolinek, Riles’ injuries included facial trauma, a fractured skull a broken leg and more than 20 rib fractures.
At trial, Hill’s attorneys, Marcus Hernandez and Chevo Pastrano, admitted their client was responsible for his uncle’s death. However, they claimed Hill had been invited into the home and later started an altercation with a shotgun. During the struggle, they said, the gun was fired into the floor and later broken. Hernandez and Pastrano suggested Hill’s actions were a matter of self defense.
However, during the initial investigation police determined Hill was trying to collect money from Riles, possibly to buy drugs for self-medication, and became enraged when his uncle refused to give him the money.
Riles’ empty wallet was found at the scene of the crime, and Hill had more than $1,300 in his possession at the time of his arrest.
A jury of six men and six women deliberated for less than half an hour on Monday before deciding to find Hill guilty of murder. On Tuesday, the jury was asked to assess a punishment, which under state law could have ranged between five and 99 years in prison, or a life term.
Patterson told the jury she hoped her brother could be remanded to a mental health institution for the rest of his life, where he would receive the treatment he needs for his disease. However, that option was not available to the jury.
Riles’ three sons, Donnie, Ronnie and Jackie, asked the jury to sentence Hill to life in prison. Each said he feared for the safety of not only their immediate families, but also their extended family, if their cousin was allowed to go free.
“He won’t stay on his medication, and someone else will wind up dead,” D. Riles told the jury on Tuesday morning.
Hill’s attorneys suggested a reduced sentence would be most beneficial. Hernandez said his client’s treatment would be overseen in prison, and reminded the jury of anecdotal evidence that Hill went for years, medicated and without incident.
After about an hour of deliberation on Tuesday afternoon, the jury unanimously voted to impose a life sentence and a fine of $10,000, the maximum punishment available after a murder conviction.
“I hope this brings an end to a part of the Riles family’s grieving process,” Caldwell County District Attorney Trey Hicks said on Tuesday afternoon. “I again want to express my condolences to the family of Johnny Riles, who lost a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather because of the actions of Wesley Hill.”
Members of the Riles family testified they and their children had trouble sleeping, experienced nightmares, and continued to be traumatized after Riles’ death in 2007.
In a written statement released Tuesday evening, the Riles family thanked the police officers, investigators, victim assistance staff and members of Hicks’ staff for securing justice for Riles, and a bittersweet victory for their family. They also warmly thanked friends and family members for their “steadfast and unwavering support.”
“Since Dec. 2, 2007, we have heard a voice crying from beyond the grave,” the statement said. “But today, March 3, 2009, that voice of Johnnie Riles, Jr., cries no more, for today, justice did prevail.”