Ricardo Aldape Guerra spent 15 years on Texas death row before he received habeas relief in 1995 and returned to Mexico with the help of volunteer attorney Scott Atlas and Vinson & Elkins. Ricardo was 20 years old at the time of the crime and had only been in the country for two months before he was arrested for the murder of a Houston police officer. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas opinion granting relief is filled with troubling descriptions of police and prosecutorial misconduct, ranging from intimidating witnesses at gunpoint to using false evidence at trial.
On the night of the crime, police transported several witnesses who were minors to the police station and held them for questioning until 6:30 the next morning. Most of the witnesses spoke little English and lacked a formal education. There were several reports of mistreatment of witnesses. One woman testified that a police officer threatened to take away her infant daughter unless she cooperated with them. Another woman, who was in her home at the time of the shooting and did not witness the events, was handcuffed and taken barefoot to the police station where the police did not remove the handcuffs until two hours later. There were reports of police officers yelling and entering the homes of residents in the area, forcing the occupants to go outside, pointing guns at their heads, and forcing them to the ground while police searched their homes. Officers threatened to revoke the parole of another woman’s husband if she did not comply with their demands.
The court also found that police used improper identification procedures in an effort to manipulate the witnesses’ statements and testimony, including allowing witnesses to see Ricardo in handcuffs on several occasions while they were waiting to view the lineup and permitting the witnesses to talk about and discuss identification before, during, and after the lineup. Before the police line-up, many of the witnesses described another man, Roberto Carrasco, as the shooter. Carrasco was at the scene of the murder with Ricardo and was killed during a shoot-out with police. After the lineup and learning that Carrasco was dead, several witnesses then gave different testimony alleging that Ricardo was the shooter. One witness spent most of her time in the hallway talking to child witnesses, encouraging them to identify Ricardo as the shooter. At one point, she told them that Mexicans only came to the United States to commit crimes and take jobs away from Americans.
Police officers and prosecutors failed to record statements by witnesses, fully investigate the case, and share information with the defense that would have shown that Ricardo was not the shooter. During trial, prosecutors knowingly used false testimony. The prosecutor told four jurors during voir dire that Ricardo was an “illegal alien” and that this was something the jurors could consider when deciding his sentence.
Writing the opinion granting Ricardo relief, Judge Hoyt stated in his conclusion:
The police officers’ and the prosecutors’ actions described in these findings were intentional, were done in bad faith, and are outrageous. These men and women, sworn to uphold the law, abandoned their charge and became merchants of chaos. It is these type [of] flag-festooned police and law-and-order prosecutors who bring cases of this nature, giving the public the unwarranted notion that the justice system has failed when a conviction is not obtained or a conviction is reversed. Their misconduct was designed and calculated to obtain a conviction and another “notch in their guns” despite the overwhelming evidence that Carrasco was the killer and the lack of evidence pointing to Guerra.