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Death Watch

The Texas death chamber gets back into gear

By Jordan Smith, September 13, 2013, News

Texas' death chamber will gear up to take the first of five lives before the end of 2013 with the execution of Robert Garza, scheduled for Sept. 19. Garza was convicted and sentenced to die as a party to the gang killing of four women in the Rio Grande Valley.

According to court records, Garza, a member of the Tri-City Bombers gang, allegedly rode with two others to carry out a hit on a group of women that was supposed to include two who'd previously testified against another TCB member serving time in prison for attempted murder. However, the group targeted the wrong group of women, and on Sept. 5, 2002, the botched hit claimed the lives of four innocent women just outside the town of Donna: Maria De La Luz Bazaldua Cobarubias, Danitzene Lizeth Vasquez Beltran, Celina Linares Sanchez, and Lourdes Yesenia Araujo Torres died in a hail of more than 60 bullets fired at a car in which they were riding home after a night spent working at a local bar. Two other women survived the attack.

During questioning by police – questioning that Garza's lawyer subsequently argued was done illegally, after Garza had invoked his right to an attorney – Garza reportedly said that the "hit was organized for us," according to court records, and that "apparently [the gang member who ordered the hit] was mad 'cause it wasn't done right" (killing the wrong people). Garza claimed he was there when the shooting went down, but didn't actually fire any shots; he was ultimately tried for the slayings as a "party" to the homicide – a legal concept that holds individuals responsible for the actions of others that they should have anticipated.

Among the issues raised on appeal were that Garza's lawyers were ineffective, not only for failing to protest that Garza's self-incriminating statements to police were obtained illegally, but also for failing to present any evidence that might mitigate his sentence. Indeed, there was plenty of information to be had: Garza grew up in a violent household and was virtually abandoned by each of his parents, among other allegations raised in his writ of habeas corpus.

Each of Garza's points of appeal were contested by the state and ultimately denied in both state and federal courts. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider his case. If executed next Thursday, he would be the 12th inmate put to death this year, the 504th since the reinstatement of the death penalty, and according to records from the Death Penalty Information Center, the 1,259th inmate ever executed in Texas.

At press time, Garza's mother was scheduled to plead for her son's life before the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Sylvia Garza says her son should not die as a party to a crime when none of the actual perpetrators have ever been tried for the murders. In a press release, Garza echoed his mother's sentiment: "The question that should be asked [is] who and where is the party?"

Also at press time, lawyers for Rigoberto Avila, on death row for the 2000 murder in El Paso of a child left in his care, were notified that the El Paso district court would pull Avila's execution date – Jan. 15, 2014 – from the calendar in order to give the courts a reasonable amount of time to consider a new appeal. At issue is the rising use of biomechanical analysis that calls into question whether the death of Nicholas Macias, 19 months old at the time of his death, was anything more than a tragic accident at the hands of his 4-year-old brother, Dylan, who loved to play like a professional wrestler. Nicholas died from extensive internal injuries to his abdomen. Despite lacking any expertise in the area, doctors testified at Avila's 2001 trial that there would be no way for a 4-year-old to deliver the kind of fatal blow they saw on the toddler.

A revolution in injury biomechanics – essentially, the study of the effects of force on human tissues – has raised questions about the subjective conclusions made about Nicholas' death. The new appeal was filed just days after a new law passed this spring took effect on Sept. 1, allowing inmates to appeal when an initial conviction relied on junk or otherwise outdated science. Cathryn Crawford, post-conviction director for the Texas Defender Service, who is handling Avila's appeal, says the execution date should be pulled and the courts should consider carefully the new analysis of the evidence in Avila's case. He "should be granted the opportunity to present a biomechanical analysis of the death," she said, and then it will "become clear that today's science shows that no murder was committed."

Avila's case will first have to be considered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has the authority to order the district court to hold a hearing to consider the new evidence.

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