A man accused of shooting to death a poker player in Stafford, Texas, four years ago changed his plea to guilty mid-trial on Wednesday.
Eric Norris, 28, had been charged with capital murder, aggravated robbery, and aggravated assault in relation to the death of Missouri City businessman Donald Leonetti at a private, high-stakes poker game. Leonetti was 45 at the time of his murder.
The defendant’s sudden change of heart came after the introduction of a crucial piece of evidence — a video recording of Norris’ original police confession — which the defense team had sought to have tossed.
Norris’ case had been delayed for months by extended negotiations over whether his statement to police on arrest could be submitted at trial as evidence. It was ultimately approved by an appellate court.
King of Shirts
On July 17, 2014, Norris and an unknown accomplice forced their way into an office space in a shopping center where Leonetti and around a dozen friends had gathered for a private poker game. The assailants were masked and carrying rifles.
Leonetti had left the poker game shortly before the robbery and returned to witness it in progress. According to police reports, he attempted to tackle the robbers and was shot dead.
The men allegedly took $20,000 from the poker players.
Leonetti was a much-loved figure in the Missouri City community, where he was known as the “King of Shirts” for his successful T-Shirt-printing business.
Another man, Chuck Olson, was shot in the head but survived to take the stand and testify. His identification of Norris in an identity parade was one of many pieces of evidence the defense sought to have dismissed from the case, arguing the correct courtroom identity procedures had not been adhered to.
Relief for Bereaved
In 2016, Norris turned down a plea deal that would have seen him tried on a lesser charge of first-degree murder. That deal offered three concurrent life sentences with the possibility of parole after 30 years, if found guilty.
After playing the first half of the confession video, prosecutor Thomas Pfeiffer assured Norris that the plea deal still stood,
Following what Houston Chronicle described as “a tearful conversation with his own family,” Norris decided to accept the deal, which he will not be able to appeal.
Leonetti’s wife, Jenni, described the sudden relief the guilty plea brought to friends and family who had waited four agonizing years for closure.
“It’s just been so long, like over four years of just waiting and waiting and wanting justice,” she told the Chronicle. “It was like this weight that lifted off of me. It was such a relief that it was just over.”