TYLER, Texas — Editor's Note: The above video is from June 2019
The sentencing phase for a Tyler man who fatally struck a 14-year-old boy in 2019 at Lake Palestine is set to conclude Thursday.
Jeffrey Joe Hampton, 33, of Tyler, pleaded guilty last week to manslaughter for striking and killing Roberto "Carlos" Bermejo, 14, on June 2, 2019 with a bass boat on Lake Palestine.
On Wednesday, both the prosecution and defense rested and closed their cases. Closing arguments will start Thursday at 8:30 a.m. in the 114th District Courtroom.
On Tuesday, the prosecution asked the jurors to issue a life sentence. Testimony from various witnesses stated that Hampton was driving the boat recklessly and while intoxicated prior to the boat crash.
Hampton asked for a jury trial to determine his punishment in the sentencing phase. He faces five to 99 years or life in prison.
In Wednesday's testimony, jurors heard from Carlos' mother and sister as well as Hampton who took the witness stand for himself.
CARLOS' MOTHER AND SISTER
Carlos' mother Judith Hernandez testified about who her son was and the crash that caused his death.
She said on June 2, 2019 she and three of her kids were invited to come to Lake Palestine. Carlos was the most excited to go swimming with friends and playing video games afterward.
He had just finished the eighth grade at Moore Middle School in Tyler. He wanted to run an animal shelter when he grew up. He loved dogs, chickens, hamsters and all kinds of animals.
Carlos and his two younger sisters along with other kids were at the lake pier that day. He stayed near the pier with his youngest sister while they were swimming, she testified.
Hernandez testified she suddenly looked up to see a boat moving quickly and had no idea that it would come back again. She heard a noise that sounded like a falling tree and she saw a boat heading toward the pier and children.
She began yelling to get Carlos' attention and many "horrible things" happened after that. She ran over to see the impact of the crash, and as she looked further she saw her son's body floating in the water.
"As I was running I felt like I was in a dream. I just kept thinking I have to wake up. I opened my eyes and people were still screaming," Hernandez said.
Her two daughters came out of the water and she expected Carlos to come, but he didn't. She saw a man holding her son in his arms.
She remembered trying to not look at her son's head or face after the crash. She had to leave him because her daughters needed her in those moments, Hernandez said.
"I tried to be strong (for them)," she said. "My life ended there. The only thing I could have done was get the girls in the car with their change of clothes."
When the boat crashed into the dock, Carlos was holding on to his younger sister in his arms. He was like a father figure to the toddler, and he helped his mother out frequently.
"He was my right hand," she said, adding that he would help make budgets for the family as well.
Nobody ever talked poorly about Carlos and he helped others in many ways, such as holding doors open for the elderly and mowing lawns, Hernandez said.
"I know when he did those things, he did it to make me proud. I would always tell him I was proud of him," she said.
He would pick up dogs on the street and bring them to the animal shelter, she said.
The prosecution then showed the jury photos of Carlos. She said that he had just gotten braces on his teeth three days before the crash.
Carlos and his younger sisters were always together and spending time with each other, she testified.
Hernandez said her family lost everything because of the crash that killed her son.
"Not only did my son die, but I feel like I died as well. My children have been in therapy, had panic and anxiety attacks. Before this we were happy," she said. "Everything is loneliness and sadness. (I've) had to go every day without my other half."
She said she's had to be stronger than she ever thought because her other children need her.
Hampton's attorney Mishae Boren told Hernandez that Hampton is very sorry for her son's death and thanked her for coming to court.
Carlos' sister Alexa Bermejo Hernandez testified that she felt like it was a dream when her brother was killed in the boat crash. Their mother is not the mother she was before Carlos' death. Cooking reminds their mom of Carlos and how he would enjoy her food.
Carlos' youngest sister looks to the moon to talk to her brother. He was a kind friend to many kids at school, Bermejo Hernandez said.
"(When he passed away), I lost half of my life. He would be my secret holder," Bermejo Hernandez said.
She said he was protective of her and always wanted to help her with any problems.
Hampton took the witness stand to testify on his own behalf. When asked about his own children, he became emotional.
"I could never imagine," Hampton said in response to thinking about the loss of a child, such as 14-year-old Carlos or his own child.
Hampton testified he's not racist but he got racist tattoos while he was in his 20s during his time in prison.
He has white pride and lightning bolts spelling "SS" (referencing Nazism) on his body. Hampton said at the time, he agreed with the symbolism of those tattoos.
He said he's never used methamphetamines. He denied having the methamphetamines that he was charged with possessing several years ago, saying that the drugs were owned by someone else.
Hampton said he had used the boat three times within the year he owned it. Driving away from the boat dock he struck was a mistake, Hampton testified.
He said he denied everything he did to detectives because he didn't want to get in trouble. When he was told a child died, he testified he did not believe the detectives.
Hampton said he was "highly intoxicated" when driving and crashing the boat on Lake Palestine in 2019. He testified that he drinks alcohol to "use it as an escape."
He said there's not anything that he could say to Carlos' family.
"I just wish they could find it in their hearts to forgive me so that they can have peace," Hampton said.
In tears, Hampton said, "I'm sorry" and "I deserve to get punished for what I did." He agreed with his lawyer that his actions on the boat were reckless.
"I did not intend to hurt anyone at all," he said.
If the roles were reserved and someone struck and killed his son with a boat, Hampton said he would want that person to go to prison for sometime.
Hampton testified the boat he was driving was not a deadly weapon because the crash was an "accident."
Hampton's mother Bobbi Lacy testified that she had Hampton when she was 16 years old. She had left Hampton's father because there was drug use going on around her.
It would have been hard to find proper role models for Hampton other than people who dealt drugs, Lacy testified.
She said she worked at a gentlemen's club in Dallas to provide for her kids, and she was ashamed so she sent her children, including Hampton, back to their father's home.
Lacy testified she returned to Tyler three years ago as both she and Hampton worked to get their lives in order.
She told the jurors he has a good heart and he did not mean to crash the boat and kill Carlos.
Nicole White, Hampton’s second cousin, testified that nearly everybody in their family was an alcoholic and Hampton did not have a solid male role model.
White told the jury he has agonized over Carlos' death since the 2019 wreck. When they speak to each other, the conversation always goes back to the crash.
White added Hampton is a good man fundamentally at his core.
Tabitha Martinez, Hampton's ex-wife and mother of his children, testified that Hampton was loving to her and kind to her young daughter.
She told the jury they had split up six months before the wreck, and she testified that Hampton was not an experienced boat driver.
Martinez testified that she has spoken with Hampton about his remorse regarding the wreck. She added he’s not the same since his time in jail because of depression and he doesn’t care to take care of himself.
Hampton is ready to accept the sentence the jurors give, Martinez said.
Teresa Smith, a Smith County Sheriff's Office detective, who investigated the case, took the stand to discuss an interview she conducted with Hampton.
Hampton said during an interview that he couldn't drink alcohol in June 2019 because he was on probation out of Dallas. He then changed his story to say he didn't drink until he got home after a day at the lake.
Despite other passengers' statements, Hampton denied that he struck a dock at Lake Palestine with a boat during an interview with law enforcement.
He asked deputies why he was in the interview multiple times. Hampton, who said he is a father of two, repeatedly denied striking the dock, and Smith then brought up how Carlos was killed after Hampton struck the dock with the boat.
"If I hit a dock, I would have known, and I ain't trying to run from nothing," Hampton told detectives. "I'm not going to admit something I didn't do. If I hit a boat dock and a kid, I would have known it. I didn't hit no dock, man."
It then became heated during the interview as Hampton continued to deny hitting the boat dock. Smith said this is an interview tactic when suspects aren't talking or being cooperative.
Hampton denied drinking alcohol on the boat because he wouldn't risk drinking while driving. He claimed that if he hit the dock, the boat would have sank.
The interview ended and about 20 minutes later, Hampton was seen laying on the floor going to sleep.
Hampton was told the child was killed in the wreck because detectives wanted him to tell his side of the story, Smith testified.
Hampton's defense attorney Bobby Mims noted Smith was using the Reid technique (when an investigator tells the suspect an investigation clearly indicates that they did commit the crime in question) by raising her voice.
Mims said that technique has been criticized, but Smith said she would continue to use it. Mims also asked Smith if she was knowledgeable of alcohol amnesia, and she said she was not.
Tasha Greenberg, a medical examiner out of Tarrant County, testified about the autopsy she performed on Carlos' body. She described the injuries as "chop wounds" to the child's head, which caused Carlos' death.
She said there was cutting around the brain stem and because of that the main hemispheres of the brain were removed from teen's head. The vast majority of Carlos' brain was missing. She ruled the death a homicide under the medical definition.
Greenberg testified that Carlos' death would have happened instantly.
PREVIOUS CRIMINAL RECORD
Smith County Sheriff's Office Det. Travis Brazil testified that records show Hampton was convicted on aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and robbery charges out of Dallas County. He was originally placed on community supervised probation, but later sentenced to four years in prison.
In Smith County, he was found guilty of evading arrest and driving while intoxicated during different incidents in 2008 while he was on probation. In Rockwall, he was found guilty of evading arrest with a vehicle in 2015 and sentenced to two years in prison, Brazil testified.
He was placed on probation in 2016 for unlawful possession with an intent to deliver a controlled substance out of Dallas County.