Jury sentences 91-year-old Tyler man convicted of arson to life
State asked for life sentence
TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - A jury has sentenced a 91-year-old Tyler man convicted of arson to life in prison.
The jury handed down the sentence after about 30 minutes of deliberation. After the jury left the courtroom, Gabel offered his own thoughts to the judge on his sentence.
“The sentence went from two years to life. Welcome to Texas,” Gabel said. Gabel had previously turned down a deal which would have given him two years of prison time in exchange for a guilty plea.
Gabel’s defense attorney, Kurt Noell, expressed his dismay at the decision to give his client life in prison.
“For the state to argue in front of the jury that after evaluating the case it was worth a life sentence, which is what they asked for and what they got, when they offered two years is incredible,” Knoell said.
On Tuesday, it took the jury just over two hours to find Kermit Gabel guilty of arson. Gabel was accused of setting a structure on fire at 205 S. Beckham Ave. in Tyler on Nov. 6, 2020. He was arrested nearly a week later on Nov. 11 on a charge of 1st Degree Felony Arson. He was 89 years old at the time of his arrest. Gabel pleaded not guilty to the arson charge in court Tuesday.
Court started Wednesday morning without the jury and Gabel asking the judge to read something he had written. The judge indicated that statement would need to go through his attorney.
Gabel’s attorney said the written statement discussed a previous plea offer of two years in prison. Gabel’s attorney stated Gabel had adamantly denied the plea offer several times in court and in private discussions. Gabel had wanted to go to trial.
Two prior felonies were expected to be brought up by prosecutors on Wednesday. Gabel’s attorney had said he intended to plead “not true” to those felonies—which he did once the jury was brought in.
The sentence range for Gabel is 5 to 99 years of life in prison. If the state can prove the two prior felonies, the range would be 25 years to 99 years or life.
“I’m being penalized because I exercised my right to a jury trial,” Gabel said in court.
“Nobody’s punishing you for going to trial,” said Judge Austin Reeve Jackson.
The jury was then brought in for opening statements, in which a prosecutor brought up Gabel’s history of crime and called him a “career criminal.” An assistant district attorney said Tuesday’s arson conviction was Gabel’s 10th felony conviction since 1956.
Prosecutors first called an investigator to the witness stand for testimony. Documents dealing with Gabel’s criminal history were then entered into evidence and shown to the jury.
One document showed burglary of a habitation in Dallas County from 1980. He was sentenced to life on July 8, 1980. Gabel had been previously been convicted of fraud and burglary in Ohio.
Another document was then shown from Illinois in which Gabel was convicted on three counts of residential burglary in 1993. He was sentenced to 20 years on each of the three charges plus a three-year sentence.
Mugshots were also shown of Gabel, one in which he used an alias. Documents shown to the jury indicated Gabel had used several aliases.
Documents shown to the jury also indicated Gabel was convicted of aggravated burglary in Ohio in 1981. He was also sentenced in Ohio to 10 years for burglary and theft in 2008.
Other convictions in Ohio include burglarizing a home in 1956, burglary/larceny in 1961, burglary in 1964, breaking and entering in 1973, along with fraud and swindling in 1974.
An additional misdemeanor conviction in Smith County from 2020 was also brought up.
The investigator matched previous fingerprints with Gabel’s present-day prints.
Gabel’s date of birth has been the center of scrutiny in court. His attorney argues he’s a WWII veteran born in 1925, making him 96-years-old. The date of birth on court documents and arrest reports dating back several decades state he was born Dec. 31, 1930. That would make Gabel 91-years-old.
After a brief morning break, the state rested its case in the punishment phase. Gabel’s defense attorney then asked to approach the bench.
Following conversation with prosecutors at the bench, the jury was excused. Gabel was then wheeled into the court’s office with his attorney. The court’s office has been previously used for conversation between Gabel and his attorney, since he’s hard of hearing,
Following lunch, both the state and defense rested their cases.
Jackson then offered the jury their instructions for deliberation. The range of punishment for arson is five to 99 years or life and fine, if any, of up to $10,000.
Although the state introduced two of Gabel’s previous convictions for burglary in Ohio and Dallas County, Texas, Gabel entered a “not true” plea to those prior felony convictions. If the jury were to find both of the prior convictions to be true, the range of punishment would be 25 years to 99 years or life.
Prosecutors asked he jury to sentence Gabel to life in prison.
“There is nothing else that’s going to stop him,” said one of the assistant district attorneys.
In closing arguments, Gabel’s defense attorney said it’s been years since he’s ever argued over how much time a client should be sentenced to in prison. He told the jury in all of his years practicing law, the state has never asked for less time when the option of life is available.
In their rebuttal, an assistant district attorney called Gabel’s crime “serious business.” He argued Gabel’s age should not make a difference.
“How many chances has Kermit Gabel had in his 90-plus years,” asked an assistant district attorney.
The jury began deliberating punishment at 1:13 p.m. They reached their verdict in about 30 minutes and sentenced Gabel to life in prison.
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