The 1982 Death Penalty Case of Ricardo Aldape Guerra

By Nick Braune

[According to the front page of the San Antonio Express-News today, the Texas criminal justice record is receiving national attention again. The Columbia University Human Rights Law Review (HRLR) has announced that it is devoting its entire current issue to the examination of a Texas murder case from the 1980s in which it is apparent that Carlos DeLuna was convicted of a crime he did not commit and was wrongfully executed. This HRLR article will be very important for several reasons, one of which is that it will continue to highlight the treatment of Mexican-Americans in the Texas criminal justice system. I was unaware of the HRLR article, but this weekend I wrote a brief reflection about another well-documented unjust Texas murder conviction in the 1980s. The following short piece appeared today (May 15, 2012) in my column, “Reflection and Change” in the Mid-Valley Town Crier.]

Thirty years ago, Ricardo Aldape Guerra left Monterrey, Mexico to go to the United States to find a better paying job to help himself and his mother. The smart, responsible young man, who had never been in legal trouble in Mexico, quickly found a job in Houston installing sheetrock. But soon he was to suffer an injustice which gained considerable publicity and troubled people of conscience on both sides of the border.

I just read a beautiful 40-page essay on Aldape in Mexicans on Death Row, by Ricardo Ampudia, the former head of the Mexican consulate in Houston. The author gives a glimpse of the social climate in 1982. The poor Magnolia area of Houston where Aldape landed was “not a bucolic neighborhood” — street fights and gunfire were not that uncommon – and the police were particularly wary, and cynical, that year. They accused Aldape of shooting an officer and then, with the help of unprincipled prosecutors, railroaded Aldape into death row.

“The year 1982 was a tragic one for the Houston Police Department. Four HPD officers died in the line of duty. In addition, anti-immigrant sentiment filled Texans. Congress was debating a new bill [Simpson-Rodino] targeting illegal immigration. Its controversial provisions included penalties against employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers…The Houston newspapers reflected the thought that illegal immigration was ‘causing a national crime wave.’ In addition, the unemployment rate then stood at 9.4 percent, increasing anti-immigrant sentiment, given the fear of U.S. citizens losing their jobs.” (Mexicans on Death Row, 174)

Aldape was charged with murder in the summer of 1982, just a few months after arriving in Texas. Although his court appointed attorney soon asked him to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty, Aldape insisted on his innocence. By October 12 he was convicted.

One day after the guilty verdict, the sentencing proceedings started. The defense called only one witness, Aldape’s mother. “The defense brought none of Aldape’s former teachers, employers or friends from Monterrey. It introduced no records demonstrating that Aldape did not have a criminal record in Mexico or the United States. The defense did not show how assiduously Aldape worked on his family’s behalf. To be sure, the defense lacked the money to obtain much of this material or to fly witnesses to Houston on a day’s notice.” (188)

After the prosecutor reminded them that the only character witness for Aldape was his mother, the jury quickly voted to execute him. The Ku Klux Klan demonstrated outside the courthouse: “For once, justice has been served,” “No sympathy for cop killers,” and “Houston will not tolerate illegal alien crimes.” (I moved to Houston in 1982, where I worked for two years. I remember that when my wife and I arrived on our first day in Houston, we were startled by the KIKK Radio sign on a billboard and how it emphasized the three K’s in the ad and proclaimed, “Don’t mess with Houston’s radio station.”)

In 1997, after 15 years and an intense international campaign, Aldape was freed; soon, according to an article by anti-death penalty activist Gloria Rubac, a crowd of 43,000 people in Monterrey at a soccer game rose to their feet at the mention of his name. The appeals judge had declared the actions of the Houston police and prosecutors “were done in bad faith, designed and calculated to obtain a conviction” despite “overwhelming evidence” that Aldape was innocent.

Because Aldape had survived Texas’ horrible death row for so many years, and because once during the long appeals process he was only one day away from being executed, many people honored him and hundreds turned out on both sides of the bridge to cheer him. A Texas vehicle took him halfway across, let him out and took his handcuffs off, and he walked to the Mexico side in April 1997. (That same month, however, 460 other people were still on death row in Texas…many of whom have been killed during the governorship of Rick Perry.)

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