Death Watch: Insufficient Arguments

Manuel Vasquez hasn't had a lot of luck convincing judges that he shouldn't be on death row

Death Watch: Insufficient Arguments

In March 1998, alleged Mexican Mafia member Manuel Vasquez broke into a San Antonio motel room and, with the help of two accomplices, assaulted Moses Bazan, and strangled his girlfriend, 51-year-old Juanita Ybarra, to death with a telephone cord because she wouldn't pay "el dime" – a 10% tax levied upon drug dealers who operate under the influential gang.

The Idaho native had already accrued a lengthy criminal record by the time Ybarra's death occurred, serving two-and-a-half years in prison in the Eighties for aggravated assault and another three in the mid-Nineties after pleading guilty to attempted murder. While Johnny Joe Cruz and Oligario Lujan, his accomplices in Ybarra's killing, each received smaller sentences (35 years for Lujan for aggravated robbery, seven for Cruz as part of a plea deal contingent on testimony), Vasquez got tagged with capital murder. The Bexar County jury determined that Vasquez was likely a continuing threat, and sentenced him to death in late 1999.

Manuel Vasquez
Manuel Vasquez

Vasquez has made a number of appeals since first receiving his sentence 16 years ago, though none has carried much weight with the courts. His direct appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, filed in the immediate wake of his sentencing, attempted to introduce new testimony that would change the recognized time of the murder from shortly after 3am to roughly 6am – arguing that Ybarra actually died after Vasquez had already left the motel. He challenged Bazan's credibility, as well as Cruz's testimony concerning "el dime" serving as a motive, and offered affidavits from witnesses saying that Vasquez was elsewhere during the time of the murder. The CCA determined each argument to be insufficient and refused to acknowledge his alibi. It denied Vasquez's appeal in early 2002.

Hearings for Vasquez's 2001 state writ of habeas corpus occurred in 2005 and 2006, but in March 2009 he learned that his application was denied. He filed a petition for relief with the U.S. District Court in November 2010, also to no avail.

Vasquez's efforts to save his life have long remain unchanged – even as he's cycled through different court-appointed attorneys. He believes that he received ineffective counsel during his 1999 trial, and argued in a 2012 application for certificate of appealability to the 5th Circuit that he never received the opportunity to properly establish that he wasn't at the motel when he says the murder occurred. He's argued for more DNA testing, and taken issue with the assertion that he spent the night before at "a drug party." He's claimed that the prosecution did not inform his counsel that, in August 1999, Bazan described the events of the murder differently than he did at trial. Vasquez has also argued that the 33% Hispanic jury didn't properly reflect Bexar County's population – though the 5th Cir­cuit noted in its January 2013 order that Vasquez arrived at the 33% figure by using each juror's surname to guess at their ethnicity.

The 46-year-old was originally scheduled to die on Aug. 6, 2014, but his attorney, Michael Gross, fell behind on filing a writ of certiorari and was able to get the date postponed. He's currently slated for the gurney on Wednesday, March 11. Should it happen as scheduled, he'll be the fourth Texan executed in 2015, and the 522nd since the state's reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

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Manuel Vasquez, Juanita Ybarra, Bexar County, Mexican Mafia, Michael Gross, death penalty, death row

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