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Fourth execution date arrives for Texas man who says he's innocent

 

For the fourth time in a year, Juan Castillo has a date with death.

The 37-year-old is scheduled to be executed Wednesday evening for the 2003 robbery and murder of Tommy Garcia Jr. in San Antonio. The execution has been postponed three times since last May, including a rescheduling because of Hurricane Harvey, but his case may finally be winding to a close.

Though Castillo's advocates and attorneys insist on his innocence in Garcia’s murder, there are no pending fights in court, with denials handed down in his final appeals on Monday. His last chance is for a 30-day stay of execution from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Texas Defender Service, a capital defense group who recently picked up Castillo’s case, sent a letter to Abbott Tuesday pleading for the delay to let its lawyers fully investigate claims they say discredit the prosecution’s evidence against Castillo — including recanted statements and video of police interrogations that contradict testimony at trial.

“Even in just a few short weeks, our team has uncovered evidence that casts doubt upon much of the evidence against Juan,” wrote Amanda Marzullo, the group’s executive director, in the letter.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed Castillo’s final appeal with similar claims, though, and prosecutors at the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office remain fully confident that Castillo was the triggerman in Garcia’s murder. Assistant Criminal District Attorney Matt Howard said the death penalty is always a heavy decision to weigh, but that Castillo is deserving of the ultimate punishment.

“Understanding the evidence, this was one of those cases where I think the jury came to the right conclusion” of a death sentence, Howard said.

Prosecutors said Castillo and three others lured Garcia to a secluded area to rob him by promising him sex with one of his female accomplices. When Garcia tried to run, Castillo shot him, according to the accomplices. Castillo was convicted and sentenced to death in 2005.

A man who bunked near Castillo in the Bexar County jail, Gerardo Gutierrez, also testified that Castillo had confessed to him about the murder. The matching testimonies were enough to satisfy a jury, and Castillo was convicted of capital murder. The three others involved in the crime all received lesser charges and sentences — one woman is out on parole, and the other two got 40-year sentences and are eligible for parole within the next six years, according to criminal records.

Castillo’s first execution date was set for last May, but it was rescheduled for September, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The September execution — set about a week after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas coast — was also delayed at the request of Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, since some of Castillo’s legal team lived in Houston.

It was moved to December, and that time, the courts took action after the jailhouse informant changed his story.

In 2013, Gutierrez signed an affidavit saying that he lied in his testimony against Castillo “to try to help myself.” The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stopped Castillo’s December execution because of the affidavit, telling the trial court to look into the issue of false testimony.

Three days later, the Bexar County court issued its decision: Gutierrez’s new statement saying he lied wasn’t credible since his original testimony so closely matched that from the others who testified against Castillo.

“Gutierrez's 2013 affidavit makes no explanation for how he, while incarcerated in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center, independently manufactured a version of events consistent with multiple other witnesses,” wrote Judge Maria Teresa Herr in her quickly produced opinion.

The court of criminal appeals upheld the ruling earlier this year, and again Castillo was given an execution date of May 16, in line to be the sixth man put to death in Texas this year.

Castillo’s attorneys have admonished the trial court for denouncing Gutierrez’s affidavit without holding an evidentiary hearing or getting information from Castillo or Gutierrez, claiming the courts denied their client meaningful consideration on the issue. But the prosecution said the court already had “extensive background” about the affidavit before it officially reached the court, which accounted for the rapid decision to reject it, according to Howard.

Still, Castillo filed a new appeal with claims that the prosecution withheld evidence and presented false or misleading testimony. The court of criminal appeals rejected it on procedural grounds without reviewing the merits of his claims, leaving Castillo’s attorneys to turn to their last shot, Abbott.

In the defense’s letter to the governor Tuesday, Marzullo wrote that her organization has recently discovered new evidence that contradicts the original testimony given at Castillo’s trial — specifically, a video of woman who previously claimed Castillo confessed to her telling police that he had never told her he was the triggerman and a new statement from a man who now says he inaccurately testified that Castillo confessed to him. Marzullo also mentioned a lack of physical evidence connecting Castillo to the murder and the unreliability of testimony from accomplices and jailhouse informants.

“I am sure that your office is inundated with defense counsel pleas for mercy,” she wrote to the governor. “Yet, this is a request that I do not enter lightly. From the moment of his arrest through clemency, Juan has had a litany of lawyers who did not fully examine serious questions regarding his guilt.”

Abbott usually takes no part in death penalty cases, letting the court’s rulings stand, but he did grant a rare commutation of sentence for Thomas Whitaker earlier this year, stopping his execution minutes before it was set to proceed and changing his sentence to life in prison. But that decision came after an even rarer unanimous decision by the state’s parole board to grant clemency and change Whitaker’s sentence.

On Monday, that parole board unanimously voted to reject Castillo’s clemency petition.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/05/16/texas-execute-juan-castillo-murder-tommy-garcia/.

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