Christine Greer remembers spending afternoons playing in the West Texas sandhills with her grandmother, who would slide down the hills for hours despite the persistent aching in her arthritis-ridden hands.
“She wasn’t the typical, tender, bake-you-cookies, that kind of thing, but she was a tough old broad,” Greer, now 44, said of her grandmother, Iona Dikes.
Greer also remembers the day nearly 30 years ago when her family drove from Monahans to El Paso for the funerals of her great-grandmother, Julia Fleenor, 82, and Dikes, 62. The two had been tortured and strangled, and the home they were in was set on fire.
“Life went on, but our world changed,” Greer said.
Angel Galvan Rivera was a suspect in the deaths but never tried. Instead, he was convicted of murdering Jewel Haygood, 88, who lived just blocks away from the two women, in a similar fashion. He was sentenced to death in 1986, and Greer and her family were satisfied that the man they believe killed her grandmother and “granny” would never walk free. Now, Rivera — who has long proclaimed his innocence and who prosecutors agree received ineffective representation — could soon become eligible for parole and potentially walk away from death row. After nearly three decades awaiting execution for a crime he maintains he did not commit, Rivera was faced with a life-or-death choice: He could get a chance to leave prison, but only if he relinquished his claims of wrongful conviction.
For both sides, the case represents the ravages time can wreak on the pursuit of justice. For the family of Fleenor and Dikes, the evidence needed to prosecute a killer may have evaporated over the decades. And for Rivera, the clues that could bolster his claims of innocence probably have long faded.
“It blows my mind that our justice system can be so slow,” Greer said, her voice cracking through tears. “I just don’t get it.”
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is reviewing a state district judge’s recommendation to approve an agreement between Rivera and the El Paso County prosecutor’s office in which his sentence would be commuted to life. In exchange, he would drop claims that he was wrongly convicted. If the court approves the agreement, Rivera, now 56, could be eligible for parole but his murder conviction would stand.
It is a decision several inmates have made, one that some defense lawyers say is a byproduct of a criminal justice system so flawed that it is easier to convict an innocent person than to free the wrongly imprisoned. “Just because somebody is innocent doesn’t mean you’re going to ever be able get them found innocent,” said Jeff Blackburn, the founder and chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas.
Prosecutors argue that the Texas justice system has improved and that rare cases like Rivera’s are a fading vestige of past problems that lawmakers and courts have addressed in recent years. “They are just trying to make the best out of a mess created by their predecessors,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations at the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
Fleenor and her daughter Dikes were killed 11 days before Haygood was found strangled on the bathroom floor of her El Paso trailer in 1984. Prosecutors indicted Rivera in Haygood’s case, but Greer said her family was told that investigators did not have enough evidence to pursue Rivera in the killings of her relatives.
Rivera, who had previously been convicted of aggravated rape and sentenced to 20 years, was found guilty and sentenced to death. No physical evidence tied him to the crime. The state’s case rested largely on what were presented as confession letters obtained by jailhouse snitches and on their testimony. It also relied on witnesses — including a woman who regularly reported her neighbors to Crime Stoppers — who said they saw Rivera in a car similar to Haygood’s soon after her death.
Rivera's initial appeals were denied. He filed a writ of habeas corpus in 1995 arguing that his conviction should be reversed because it was secured through prosecutorial misconduct — including withholding information about another potential suspect — lying witnesses, and police who brutalized and bribed jailhouse informants.
His appellate lawyers argue in court documents that his trial lawyers offered no witnesses to advocate for a lesser sentence and only perfunctorily questioned the state’s witnesses.
More than 12 years later, in 2007, the El Paso County prosecutor’s office responded to Rivera’s claims, denying allegations of misconduct on the part of police and prosecutors.
But in a September filing, prosecutors agreed with the inmate’s current lawyers that he received inadequate defense during his trial’s penalty phase. Rivera and prosecutors reached a deal in which his sentence would be commuted to life with parole eligibility after 15 years and he would get credit for the 27 years he has served. In exchange, he would drop the challenges to his conviction.
Rivera declined an interview request, as did his lawyer, Danalynn Recer, the founder of the Gulf Region Advocacy Center. A spokeswoman for District Attorney Jaime Esparza of El Paso County declined to comment.
Blackburn, of the Texas Innocence Project, said it is not unusual for an inmate who has legitimate wrongful conviction claims to take a deal to get off death row, even if it means the conviction will remain. Kerry Max Cook, who spent 20 years on death row before cutting a deal to be released in 1999, is still fighting in court to prove his innocence. Delma Banks, who was convicted of murder in 1980, saw his sentence overturned in 2004 after the courts ruled that prosecutors engaged in misconduct. Last year, he agreed to a commuted life sentence and will be eligible for parole in 2024.
Part of the problem in such cases is that evidence has been lost, witnesses have died and the memories of those who remain have faded.
“The defendant has to present proof of actual innocence, and in a lot of cases, you just can’t do it,” Blackburn said.
Greer and her cousin Cindy Wawrzyniak said time has worked against their quest for justice, too. They said they hoped that Rivera could still be tried for the murders of their grandmother and great-grandmother. Prosecutors have told the cousins they would consider the case, but that evidence was limited.
Even before the appeals court decides whether to approve Rivera’s deal, the cousins are preparing letters urging the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to ensure that he stays behind bars until he dies.
“I think all of us have grasped that he might not be put to death,” Wawrzyniak said. “I can handle that. I can’t handle him being free.”