Death Watch: A Startling Last-Minute Claim of Innocence

New evidence emerges in case of man slated for March 8 execution

An explosive last-minute appeal in the case of Michael Gonzales, scheduled for execution on March 8, argues that he is innocent of the 1994 murders of Manuel and Merced Aguirre in Odessa and points blame at another man. Gonzales' attorneys, Richard Burr and Joshua Freiman, will travel to Odessa on Friday to ask a local judge to withdraw Gonzales' execution order so that new evidence in his case can be examined.

No physical evidence has ever connected Gonzales to the murders, and he has always maintained his innocence. The police examined Gonzales on the day of the crime and found no blood on him or his clothes. But at his 1995 trial, prosecutors used three of Gonzales' fingerprints, found on a stereo stolen from the Aguirres' home, to argue that he had stabbed them to death.

Police always had other suspects in the killing, and prosecutors even told the jurors that others were probably involved. Those people may include Jesse Perkins, Daniel Lugo, and Julian Olivarez. Now, a recent investigation conducted by Burr and Freiman has located an acquaintance of Gonzales' named Eduardo Nino, who says that Perkins bragged to him shortly after the killings that he was responsible for Merced Aguirre's murder and that an accomplice killed Manuel Aguirre.

"Jesse told me that he and Julian and Daniel Lugo broke into the Aguirres' house to look for guns," Nino told the attorneys' investigator. "Jesse told me that when they got into the house, he attacked the old lady first, and when the old man tried to defend her, he got stabbed."

Nino also recalled asking Perkins in that 1994 conversation about a large bandage on Perkins' left hand. Perkins replied that he had been cut during the murders. Police never interviewed Nino, however, and soon afterward he was incarcerated on a parole violation, and wound up spending many years in state and federal prison. He was found by accident when he overheard an investigator discussing the case with another witness.

“The police department has gotten to be very helpful lately. ... We have proven with the evidence in the police file that all of the account related to [the exonerating testimony] is true. Every bit of it.” – Attorney Richard Burr

The cut Nino recalled on Perkins' hand is doubly significant, Burr told the Chronicle, because a flannel shirt found in Perkins' closet, but never introduced into evidence, is known to have blood spatters from the Aguirres and from an as-yet-unidentified person. On Feb. 14, at the attorneys' request, the Odessa Police Department inspected the shirt, which has sat in storage for almost 30 years. The attorneys believed that if Perkins had worn the shirt on the night of the killings, and had the cut that Nino described, that he likely would have bled onto the shirt. Sure enough, Odessa PD found visible stains on the inner lining of the shirt that nobody had ever seen before and that have not yet been tested.

"The police department has gotten to be very helpful lately," Burr said. "They have provided us excellent photographs of the inside of the shirt. We have proven with the evidence in the police file that all of the account related to Nino is true. Every bit of it."

The police department also recently found fingerprint evidence from the crime scene which has never been analyzed. A total of 136 copies of prints, which had been placed out of order in a storage box, were sent to Gonzales' attorneys on Feb. 18. A preliminary examination identified 66 of these prints that are of high enough quality to be compared to the known prints from Perkins and Lugo (the attorneys have not yet received copies of Olivarez's prints).

In addition to the new evidence claims, Burr and Freiman argue that prosecutors at Gonzales' original trial suppressed evidence and that their client is barred from execution on account of intellectual disability. But these claims will probably take a backseat to the new evidence of actual innocence, and the attorneys are fervently hoping for a favorable ruling on Friday. "It is critical that we be allowed time to conduct testing on the shirt and to make comparisons of these prints to the prints of the known suspects," Burr said. "Without this opportunity, there is a strong likelihood the state will execute an innocent person next week."

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