SAN ANGELO, Texas — The Tom Green County District Attorney’s Offices faced many trials and tribulations in 2017.
Three teens were sent to prison for a double homicide. A judge postponed the trial of a capital murder suspect for the fifth time. And two late indictments — one of which led to the release of a man who was being held on $1 million bail — made residents question the judicial process.
“There were a lot of frustrations this year,” 51st District Attorney Allison Palmer said. “We did resolve some major crimes. That’s always good, but there were some very frustrating setbacks as well.”
Palmer has said the primary duty of the district attorney is to seek justice and resolution rather than mere convictions.
That position was tested when a dramatic scene unfolded on the steps of the Tom Green County Courthouse following a capital murder plea hearing in May.
Fred Angel Garcia, 19, had pleaded guilty to two counts of murder as part of a plea agreement with state prosecutors and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Garcia was among seven individuals, some juveniles, who were arrested on charges of capital murder in the 2016 shooting deaths of Juan Julio Guerrero, 18, and Zane Lopez, 16.
Guerrero’s mother, Maribel Guerrero, decried the sentence, telling Palmer and 340th District Judge Jay Weatherby the punishment wasn’t enough for the two lives lost.
Tension simmered inside the courtroom, packed with about 50 people, including almost a dozen law enforcement officials. The hostility boiled over outside the courthouse as some family members got into a violent shouting and shoving match, which forced security to disperse the crowd and escort prosecutors to their offices.
“There may be situations where the family disagrees, but we have to make an assessment of the strength of our case based on all the evidence and make the best decision we can,” said 119th District Attorney John Best. “Ultimately it’s our decision.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has called elected prosecutors the single most powerful and influential people in local criminal justice systems. The ACLU argues prosecutors unilaterally decide who gets a second chance and who goes to prison and for how long before a judge even sees the case.
Palmer has said these decisions are based on many factors — largely evidence — and are not driven by emotions. She said prosecutors are unremittingly cognizant of the voices of all parties involved — from police to the families — the community standard and what can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in the courtroom.
“While I appreciate the public being critical of us” on the outcome of any particular case, Palmer said. “The details of our work, the information, don’t get released to the public. They just don’t often get to see the whole story.”
Best said it’s challenging to provide the public with the full story because prosecutors are not allowed to comment on the case before it goes to trial, and they sometimes won’t even after the case is resolved out of respect for the families involved.
“I’m not going to broadcast that information, especially before a plea or even after a plea,” Best said. “I don’t think that would be doing justice to our victims to be talking about those kinds of conversations in the media.”
Best said prosecutors work closely with the families involved to walk them through the process as best they can to seek justice, and sometimes that might mean the case gets resolved through a plea bargain.
“It may be a resolution that the community doesn’t understand or doesn’t approve of, but we have to do the best we can with what we got,” Best said. “Many times the community isn’t aware of all the dynamics associated with any particular case and what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Eric Ramos and Giliberto Salvador Reyes, both 19, were accused in the same 2016 shooting deaths as Garcia, and they pleaded guilty as well. Each was sentenced 30 years in prison. All three pleaded guilty to two counts of murder instead of capital murder as part of the plea agreement.
“I listen to all of the victims’ families and factor it in,” Palmer said, adding that the families have the most influence on her judgement, but ultimately “the main purpose is to seek justice.”
Two juveniles — Nicholas Abel Rodriguez and Neo Kristofer Perez, both 17 — will be tried as adults in the 2016 homicides. Another suspect, 16, remains in custody at the local juvenile detention center. San Angelo police did not charge the remaining juvenile suspect.
Another hurdle prosecutors witnessed this year involved trial schedules.
“Some of the frustrations have been with trial delays that we really wanted to take to trial this year,” Palmer said. “I don’t believe I could have done anything differently to make them go. It’s just as frustrating.”
One bookmarked case involves a San Angelo man who was supposed to stand trial this summer in the September 2014 slaying of his ex-girlfriend’s 5-year-old daughter, Naiya Villegas.
First responders found the girl, whose throat had been cut, lying on the living room floor while the suspect reportedly held paper towels against her neck. She later died at Shannon Medical Center.
San Angelo police arrested Isidro Miguel Delacruz, 27, and charged him with capital murder. He has been held at the Tom Green County Jail on $1 million bail since the day of the incident
Delacruz’s trial had been slated to begin in July, with some 400 San Angelo residents set to appear at the McNease Convention Center for jury duty.
119th District Judge Ben Woodward granted a fifth continuance in the case because of some last-minute disclosures of evidence by the Tom Green County Jail and the San Angelo Police Department.
Some of the materials were turned over just days before Delacruz’s trial date, which Woodward ruled at the 11th hour warranted a continuance in the case.
“When those unexpected but unavoidable setbacks occur, it’s easy to get down,” Palmer said, adding she had to refocus, recenter and move forward. “Maybe what all it means is in the long run there is no appellate error, so maybe there’s even a bright side to it.”
Delacruz’s court-appointed attorney, Robert R. Cowie, of the Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases, requested the continuances.
“You do everything in your power to make sure there can be no further setbacks and frustration. There are things beyond our control, and that is what resulted in some setbacks this year,” Palmer said. “That is very frustrating to deal with, but you just have to refocus and remember that your whole purpose is to seek justice, and justice is patient. And justice will happen.”
Palmer said the DA’s offices went digital in 2014, which changed the game by making filing evidence electronic.
She said the DA’s offices have two employees dedicated solely to gathering material from law enforcement agencies and converting such evidence into a format that’s usable in court.
Palmer said the second position opened this year alone and this type of proactive work has paid dividends by allowing prosecutors more time to focus on the less technical side of their roles and hopefully prevent delays like those in Delacruz’s case.
Delacruz is scheduled to stand trial beginning Jan. 11. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Palmer said she has been ready to take the case to trial.
Sixteen people — including four juveniles — have been arrested on charges of capital murder in San Angelo since Delacruz’s case. There were no arrests on capital murder charges in 2017.
Two noteworthy indictments that were turned in late this year drew raised eyebrows from some residents toward the DA’s offices.
In one case, a San Angelo man who was held on a $1 million bond on suspicion of aggravated kidnapping and sexual abuse was released because prosecutors failed to file an indictment within 90 days of his arrest.
Alegandro Herman Fevala Jr., 35, was placed on electronic monitoring and ordered to abide by conditions set by the probation office July 17.
Court documents said a 17-year-old girl was reportedly tricked through Facebook in March, forced into a man’s vehicle and driven to a residence in the 1300 block of North Jefferson Street, where the man abused, assaulted, drugged and raped the teen until she escaped in the morning.
Police arrested Fevala after staking out the home the teen came from after the incident.
Because no indictment had been filed by the 90-day mark of his detainment, Texas law mandated Fevala was either entitled to release on a personal bond set by a judge or that the bond be reduced to an amount that he could post .
Prosecutor Jason Ferguson had said he couldn’t indict Fevala because the District Attorney’s Offices didn’t receive a complete investigation report from SAPD in time.
SAPD had said “there is no way to put a timeline on investigations, as they are all inherently different. Some conclude in a day and some go on for years.”
In the same month, a Brady man accused in the slaying of his wife, who disappeared 12 years earlier, was almost released under house arrest also because of a late indictment.
The Sheriff’s Office arrested and charged Robert Lamar Miller, 45, with murder following a break in a December 2005 cold-case investigation in March.
A search-and-rescue dog discovered the body of Naomi Miller, 32 — who was married to Robert Miller when she disappeared — just north of San Angelo’s city limits.
“I just didn’t have an opportunity to (file an indictment) within 90 days,” Best said.
“Fortunately he stayed in jail” because Miller ended up breaking the terms of his release by communicating with his codefendent while he was awaiting release.
“That all worked out. But we do try to make sure we bring cases within 90 days when we need to,” Best said. “We don’t start at Day 1. We really start when the investigation is turned over to our office and we have an opportunity to start reviewing all the evidence.”
Best said some setbacks prosecutors faced this year stems from not having enough staffing to meet the workload.
“I think the biggest challenge is trying to match workload with needed resources and trying to find that right balance for the office and the community,” Best said. “Ideally each prosecutors would have smaller caseloads so that they could give as much attention as possible to every case, and right now they do give as much attention as possible to every case. But the more cases you have the less time you can get to those cases.”
Palmer said there are 11 prosecutors, including the DAs, assigned to about 100 cases. There are about 940 active pending cases in Tom Green County courts, and half are drug crimes.
Prosecutors reviewed more than 2,000 cases in 2017 and completed about 1,200 of them, Palmer said. To put that into context, she said 1,200 is roughly the same number of cases that were indicted by Tom Green County grand juries this year.
“It’s a ton of work to sort through. The ratio of caseload to prosecutors are higher to similar jurisdictions,” Palmer said. “We’re not sitting idle. We are in trial advocating for justice, and every day is a proof beyond a reasonable doubt for us.”
The sequence of events generally goes like this: A crime happens, police get involved, and charges are brought to the district attorney’s office, Palmer said.
“By the nature of our work we’re reacting,” she said. “We’ve been reacting. We’ve been consumed by so many crimes and cases that require attention.”
Palmer said most local crime stems from drug use, and some of the crimes begin with youths who live in dysfunctional or unhealthy environments. That’s why she advocates for outreach to San Angelo families and juveniles.
Palmer said the focus of crime prevention should be to provide a better network of support for juveniles and mental health services.
“I think that’s where efforts could prevail, because people return home to their same environment” when they are released from custody, Palmer said. “Intervention and rehabilitation is important.”
Palmer said the bulk of the crimes against children stem from parents who are ill-equipped to raise them, whether it be because the parents are using drugs, have mental issues or don’t have the resources. The children then grow up in a hostile environment and more often than not spiral down a path similar to their parents.
“I would like to get more proactive movement with our youth,” but prosecutors are stretched too thin already, Palmer said. “It does feel like we have an onslaught of cases to manage that we can’t keep our heads above the water to make any proactive movement.”
Palmer and Best said they would like to secure more staff in the coming years. Both said they are proud of the work they have done so far by going above and beyond their jobs.
“When I talk to people about how hard we’re working for the community, people jokingly say, ‘Well, you asked for it,'” Best said. “And I laugh back. I did ask for it. And I’m just still very honored. It’s a big responsibility. “
Palmer said her greatest hope and goal for the coming year is to take many more cases to resolution.
“This goal is a very notable goal. It’s achievable,” she said. “The main purpose is to seek justice. What I hope to do in 2018 is to get everyone’s perspective. We’re here to do justice.”
Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.