By Jean Cole
Despite a tearful plea from a new mother convicted of murder, a Limestone County judge on Wednesday sentenced her to serve life in prison for her crime.
During a sentencing hearing for Lisa Mechelle Pate, 43, of Arab, Circuit Judge Robert Baker listened patiently as Pate’s friends and family vouched for her character. He listened as Pate expressed sympathy to the family of the man she killed in November 2009 — 59-year-old James Miller of Athens. He listened as she and others asked for leniency from the court. In the end, Baker showed her none.
He sentenced her to life in prison. The minimum sentence possible was 20 years.
Pate was convicted in August in the fatal shooting of Miller. Both she and Miller were married. They met while working at Redstone Arsenal for the Army Corp of Engineers and they began an affair. She had told jurors during the trial she was trying to break off the relationship with Miller when an argument ensued at his home the night of the shooting. She said she feared for her life because Miller was armed and because he threatened her, saying, “If I can’t have you, no one will.”
She fired one round from her 9-milimeter handgun into the back of Miller’s head then another round into his chest while he lay on the kitchen floor of his North Jefferson Street home. He was found dead two days later.
Pleas for punishment, leniency
During Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, two witnesses delivered particularly powerful pleas to the court.
After taking a long pause to gain her composure on the stand, Miller’s daughter, Meagan, said she and her family understood relationships but they didn’t understand how one could end in murder.
“To take it upon yourself to take another life is not right,” she said. “We are taught as children that if you do wrong you have to pay the consequences.”
She told the court just how her father’s absence continues to haunt her family.
“My sister graduated without her dad there,” she said. “Both of us walked down the aisle without our dad.”
She said where her father’s “warm, safe hug and his smile” once existed there is now a void. The family member who always came to the rescue of the others is gone.
In closing, she said, “The decision made today won’t bring my dad back but it can bring some closure and the consequences we have waited for for three years.”
When Pate’s father, Gene Cooley of Arab, rose to take the stand, Pate crumbled; her face red, her body shaking and her crying audible in the courtroom.
Cooley, crying through his entire statement, begged the judge to give his daughter the least time possible, mainly because she has a 17-month old daughter, Ivy, at home who needs her, as well as a 17-year-old daughter and her husband of 22 years.
“She’s always been a good girl,” Cooley said through tears. “Things change. I’m sorry this happened and I know Lisa is. I beg the court to give the lightest sentence it can possibly give. This hurts so much. She is just like her mother — as sweet as she can be. It hurts us all. She’s got a baby girl. Lets forgive and pray to Jesus Christ that he forgives her, too.”
He was one of several witnesses that defense attorney Thomas Woodall of Albertville called to vouch for Pate. Some had know Pate for 10 to 40 years and testified that she was always a laid-back, peaceful, nonviolent, loving person who was an excellent mother. When their testimony ended, it was Pate’s turn.
With tears streaming down her face, she rose from her chair at the defense table, looked at Miller’s wife, Donna, who was seated at the prosecution’s table and said, “I’m so sorry for your loss” and “God’s peace to your family.”
Prosecutor John Gibbs of the Alabama Attorney General’s Office then reminded the court of Pate’s trial testimony.
“You heard the defendant under oath (during the trial) continually not accept responsibility,” Gibbs said, adding that the physical evidence showed “she lied to the court.”
Gibbs told Judge Baker, “This is not a minimum-sentence case; we request more than the minimum sentence.”
Baker then ordered Pate to stand so he could bestow his sentence.
“You shot an innocent man in the back of the head and shot him a second time in the chest. You locked the door, left the house, fled to Arab, hid the weapon under a railroad tie and went to work for two days until law-enforcement found you and then you signed a confession,” Baker said.
“You had a convoluted story of self-defense that the jury did not accept nor did I,” he said. “I can’t understand what happened that day and probably never will. You shot an unarmed man in the back of the head and then in the chest to make sure he died. You have not been honest with the jury and you have not been honest with me.”
With that, Baker sentenced Pate to life in the state penitentiary and ordered her to pay $17,345 to Miller’s widow, which includes funeral expenses.
Some members of both the Miller and the Pate families were left in tears.