Over the past ten days I have been observing the capital murder trial of Fidencio “Filo” Valdez. Mr. Valdez had been charged with the murder and robbery of Julio Barrios, an 18 year old high school student who was attempting to sell Mr. Valdez $300 worth of ecstasy pills (approximately 30 pills).
As the facts of the case came out, there was little doubt that Mr. Valdez shot and killed Mr. Barrios. His assigned defense attorney, Louis Lopez, said so much in the closing arguments of the first phase of the trial which determines the defendant’s guilt. The question that Mr. Lopez asked in his closing was if the act was in fact a robbery or rather a drug deal gone bad. Whether there was a robbery is critical in that the robbery is the aggravating factor that led to the capital murder charge. If there were no robbery, then only a verdict of guilty could be leveled and Mr. Valdez would not be eligible for the death penalty.
Mr. Lopez suggested a seemingly plausible scenario: Mr. Valdez and his girlfriend, Veronica Cera, went to the deal hoping to buy four pills for the going rate of $40, but Mr. Barrios attempted to push the entire quantity of 30 pills onto his buyers. As a result an argument ensued and Mr. Valdez shot Mr. Barrios.
It was a story that the jury did not find convincing, perhaps due to the remate, or second head shot to ensure death, delivered to Mr. Barrios. After they were sent to deliberate, the jury of ten men and two women came back in less than an hour to find Mr. Valdez guilty of capital murder, thus making him eligible for the death penalty.
We are now at the end of the punishment phase of the trial. The prosecution paraded an array of evidence to show that Mr. Valdez is a “bad” man, a statement which is seemingly universally shared by the police, court personnel, and the district attorney.
The evidence that has been submitted during the penalty phase of his trial indicates that Mr. Valdez is a confirmed gang member, he has assaulted numerous people, and he has consistently failed to stay out of trouble when on probation. The prosecution also presented evidence which strongly suggests that Mr. Valdez was the trigger man in a robbery gone awry less than two weeks before the slaying of Mr. Barrios.
While that information is all likely to be true, there are two outstanding questions. First, does Mr. Valdez even have a shot of getting life without the possibility of parole? Second, does the population of El Paso even want him to be executed?
The first question comes up by evaluating the composition of the jury. One law enforcement officer with knowledge of the case told me that “getting a good jury is difficult in El Paso.” In this context, a “good” jury is one that would be willing to sentence Mr. Valdez to death for his crime. The voir dire took nearly five months to complete with six potential jurors being called in per day over that time span to be interviewed by the attorneys in order to settle on the fourteen jurors who would hear the trial.
In El Paso, a generally Catholic community that historically supports Democratic (though not necessarily leftist) candidates, there are apparently relatively few people who would be willing to support the death penalty. In answering truthfully, all of the anti-death penalty individuals would be automatically excluded from serving on that jury. If such a large proportion of the El Paso population is excluded from serving on the jury, there is a legitimate concern of whether or not Mr. Valdez is being tried by a jury of his peers.
On its face, it would not appear that the jury consists of many people who could be considered Mr. Valdez’ peers. Only two of the jurors appear to be around his age. Most, if not all, are college educated and do not share his socio-economic status. In short, there is unlikely to be anyone who, from the outset, would be able to empathize or understand with Mr. Valdez. As it stands, it is unlikely that mitigating circumstances that led to the development of Mr. Valdez as the man who stands before the court today will be seriously entertained by the jury.
Moreover, considering the jury is wholly composed of with people who are not adverse to handing down the ultimate punishment, one must consider whether the jury was predisposed to rejecting any claims by the defense and, from the outset, likely to convict the defendant of capital murder. Research by the Capital Jury Project suggests such a phenomenon. If that is the case, can we truly consider the trial to be fair? Yes, the judge in the trial gives directions to the jury and decides what evidence can be admitted, but there were instances in this trial, as I’m sure there are in many, where testimony or argument was objected to, sustained, but the jury heard it all already. Disregarding the shared information would be difficult if not impossible.
In addition, it is fascinating to watch the changes in body language of the jury. At the start of the trial, they all appeared reasonably attentive. As the trial has dragged on, however, jurors seem to be less attentive. Some close their eyes at any possible moment, others rock back and forth in their chairs, and others yet seem to be looking at the audience rather than the witness. Given the eight hour days, it is a small wonder that the jury is expected to retain and reflect on all of the evidence presented to them throughout the course of the day.
If their minds are already made up, which the defense believes is the case, the jury is probably subconsciously prioritizing the evidence which would bolster their rationale while simultaneously minimizing the impact of any evidence that would disturb it. In other words, the jurors would develop a confirmation bias towards their thesis without considering all of the facts. It would be a reaction not unlike the way that people consume news media, listening to reports that support their views while discounting anything that challenges it. If that is the case, the jury is categorically failing at its job – and the defendant stands little chance of even small victories, even when they are deserved.
The second question we need to ask in this El Paso-based case is whether the people of El Paso support the death penalty and, in fact, would like Mr. Valdez to be executed. Given the difficulties in populating a death-certified jury and from private conversations with various people around this trial, I would conclude that that is not likely the case.
This trend is clearly different from Texas as a whole. The state executes more inmates than any other in the Union. However, as I mentioned before, the demographics and political attitudes of El Paso are not consistent with the state of Texas taken all together, and the relevant community to decide whether or not the death penalty should be an acceptable outcome ought to be El Paso – the place where the crime was committed and whose people were affected. With that we must ask If the people do not support the sentence of death in El Paso, can it be fairly deemed to be legitimate?
I don’t think so.
It is true that, given the facts of the case, Mr. Valdez is not a sympathetic figure. He nonetheless has his supporters who show up regularly to the trial – family friends and his mother, all of whom are unwavering in their view point that Mr. Valdez is “not as bad as they are going to make him out to be.” It is unlikely that become the posterboy for someone to champion on the failings of the system. In spite of that, we must ask these questions because they speak volumes about El Paso as a community and whether or not the community’s will is, in fact, being represented.
So in the end if we ask if Mr. Valdez’ trial is indeed a fair trial, the answer might be “yes,” under the law. But if the law is meant to reflect the will of the people, we may well have to reconsider that answer.