Sullivan trial ends in mistrial

FORT DAVIS — The Sullivan murder trial ended Monday evening in a mistrial after jurors deliberated for around 17 hours but couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict.

In a trial that started last week, authorities accused Daniel Sullivan, now 32, of fatally stabbing his wife Sophia Sullivan at their Fort Davis home in March 2018 in view of their then-seven-year-old child. Sophia, née Sabey, 31, was an early college high school coordinator at Marfa ISD. She was reportedly stabbed dozens of times.

Jurors first told the court around 8 p.m. Friday that they couldn’t reach a verdict, but presiding Judge Roy Ferguson — with the agreement of the prosecution and defense — asked them to try again on Monday.

By Monday evening, though, jurors couldn’t all agree beyond a reasonable doubt that Daniel Sullivan had murdered his wife. After summoning the jurors into the courtroom at around 6 p.m., Ferguson asked if they were “hopelessly deadlocked.”

“Yes, sir,” the presiding juror said.

He asked them again if they couldn’t reach a verdict “in spite of your best efforts.”

“Yes, sir,” the presiding juror said.

And just like that, the Sullivan trial in Jeff Davis County courthouse was over — though the murder charge is still pending, and prosecutors say they’ll try Sullivan again. Judge Ferguson acknowledged the dedication of the jury, who had repeatedly requested to review evidence in an effort to reach full agreement on Sullivan’s innocence or guilt.

“I know you’re disappointed,” he told them. “I can see it on your faces. However, this is the system we have, and this is how the system works.”

“You have not failed,” he added. “You’ve fulfilled your duty, and you’ve clearly done it with heart and conviction.”

After the trial, Sullivan was transferred back into custody of the Jeff Davis County Sheriff’s Office and taken to Hudspeth County Jail. Last year, he was freed on a $130,000 bond, but that bond was later revoked and Daniel was re-incarcerated.

The Jeff Davis County District Attorney’s Office did not respond by press time to questions about the bond revocation, citing the still-pending murder charge. Jim Darnell, defense attorney, did not respond by press time to a request for comment on the case.

Daniel’s mother declined to comment after the trial, citing advice from Darnell. Sophia’s family also declined to comment on the particulars of the case, though they expressed gratitude for the jury, Judge Roy Ferguson and DA Sandy Wilson — as well as for Sophia’s friends in the area, who they said had welcomed and comforted them.

“The love from [Marfa] is amazing and the love from Fort Davis is amazing,” said Chuck Sabey, Sophia’s father. “That’s what soothed us.”

“Sophia’s last words were ‘I love you, it’ll be alright,’” he said. “That’s how we need to do things.”

Approached after the trial, jurors declined to comment on the case. But if the evidence they requested during deliberation is any indication, they were particularly interested in the Sullivan’scouple’s young son, now nine. (Although the child has been publicly identified in court, The Big Bend Sentinel is choosing to redact his name because he is a minor.)

The son allegedly told a neighbor and authorities that Daniel had killed Sophia, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. He repeated those assertions in court last week, telling jurors that his father “pretended not to be the killer.”

During testimony, the child recalled waking up around 4 a.m. on March 16 to find what he thought was a man wrestling his mother. The killer saw the child and grabbed him, he recalled. He said he was “your worst nightmare” and asked the child if he knew who he was.

“My daddy,” the child recalled saying.

The man said “no” and asked him to try again. “I said the Golden State killer because that’s the only other killer I knew at the time,” the child recalled in court.

The killer then removed the home’s phone and ran out the back door. The young boy spent some time talking to and trying to help his mother, who later died.

The boy then spent all of March 16 at the house before Daniel arrived home on Friday evening. Daniel lived and worked in Odessa but returned over the weekends to visit his family. He told investigators he came home to discover the scene — but authorities were skeptical from the start.

In earlier interviews with investigators, the young child had also blamed the Golden State killer — a serial killer who was active in California in the 1970s and 1980s — for killing his mother. In his closing arguments Friday, defense attorney Darnell said the boy was “coached” into fingering his father for the crime.

Since the young boy now lives with relatives of Sophia, Darnell also arguedsuggested he was no longer impartial. When Darnell asked him during testimony what he planned to do after the trial, the child — technically a witness — said his family might have a celebration “if we win.”

“In the recordings with [authorities], he’s all over the place,” Darnell said Friday. “He is happy, he is sad, he changes subjects quickly. In other words, he’s just a little boy.”

“But he wasn’t that way when he testified here. He was more rehearsed,” Darnell added. “And he was promised a celebration if this case came out the way they wanted it. Wow.”

After The Big Bend Sentinel went to press last week, jurors heard more from friends of Sophia. Eliza Barton, a Marfa elementary school teacher, described Sophia as “very kind, funny and extremely shy.” But in the months before the murder, Barton said, Sophia seemed to be coming out of her shell.

“She seemed to be putting on makeup more often,” Barton said. “She was going out with a different set of people. She called them her crew.”

Barton, who taught the Sullivans’ young child at the time of the murder, was asked about the relationship the boy had with Daniel.

Daniel “was the world to [the young boy]. He was his favorite person,” Barton said. “He absolutely adored him.”

Emily Steriti, another Marfa elementary school teacher and friend of Sophia, recalled spending the day with Sophia and her young son the day before the murder — a day that Daniel falsely told investigators he had been working. “It was a barbecue or some kind of gathering at a park in Marfa,” Steriti said.

Like earlier witnesses, Steriti also testified that the Sullivans were having marital problems.

“She talked about being afraid of hiding money from him,” she told jurors. “She talked about what it would look like for her to move to Marfa.”

Jurors heard testimony from other possible suspects. There was Josh Steinberg, the former Marfa ISD shop teacher who allegedly exchanged “flirtatious” texts with Sophia; former Marfa ISD custodian David Gomez, who allegedly sent Sophia an intimidating text; and the great-grandmother of a then-13-year-old Marfa student who allegedly threatened Sophia. All three were on family vacations on or around the time of the killing.

Jurors also heard from a 17-year-old girl who was suspended from (and ultimately dropped out of) Marfa High School after Sophia reported her for drawing a picture with guns. But she had no apparent motive to kill Sophia.

“She was my favorite teacher, honestly,” the girl told jurors. “There was no reason to be upset [with Sophia]. I understood why they had to make sure that students at the school were okay.”

During closing arguments on Friday, Sandy Wilson, district attorney for Jeff Davis County and lead prosecutor for the case, summarized the evidence against Daniel, which included cellphone and work records and testimony from over a dozen witnesses. But no bloody clothes were apparently ever found in Daniel’s possession, and a medical examiner couldn’t pinpoint a precise time of death for Sophia.

Wilson also made her final case against Daniel. Sophia was apparently planning to leave Daniel, whom her friend Britney Mann described as “very jealous.” She was also apparently hiding money from him. No one but Daniel had a motive, Wilson argued.

The child didn’t remember his family’s pet dogs cowering (not barking) during the murder. But the killer would have had to make it past their rottweiler, which even Sophia’s friends and neighbors wouldn’t go near.

And while defense attorney Darnell said the boy was “coached” to blame his father for the crime, Wilson instead said Daniel had coached the boy to talk about the Golden State killer. Arguing that the child had no reason to wrongfully imprison his own father for the crime, she urged jurors to listen to his testimony.

“[The child] told you his truth,” she said, her voice breaking slightly. “He’s the only one. Nobody else in this courtroom other than Danny Sullivan was a witness to that murder. Nobody else but [the boy].”

For eight days, jurors heard testimony and evidence like this. But for at least one juror and possibly more, it wasn’t enough to find Daniel guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.