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Sparring over evidence marks first day of Border Patrol agent's trial

A state judge ruled that a statement Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna voluntarily gave authorities can be used in his murder trial. Sparring over evidence marked the first day of his trial in South Texas, in a case that has stoked concern about alleged law enforcement corruption on the U.S. side of the border.

Lead defense attorney Carlos Garcia assists defendant Joel Luna in putting on a tie prior to Luna's murder trial in Brownsville on January 17, 2017.

BROWNSVILLE — Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna got to trade in his jail-issued orange uniform for a suit and tie Tuesday, but the judge turned down his bid to have potentially damaging testimony thrown out on the first day of his capital murder trial.

Luna and his brother Eduardo are accused of murder and drug cartel ties in the grisly beheading death of Franky Palacios, whose headless body was found floating off the waters of South Padre Island during the height of spring break in 2015.

Both have pleaded not guilty.

Defense lawyers for the two men sparred with prosecutors over evidence Tuesday morning before jury selection began in the afternoon. Joel Luna briefly took the stand as his lawyer attempted to suppress a statement he gave police after they seized a safe — later found with cocaine and cash inside — from his mother-in-law’s house. Luna was recorded on video saying he knew nothing about the safe, though prosecutors have tied him to it in court records.

Police did not read the federal agent and Iraq War veteran his rights during the encounter. The dispute about the statement centered on whether Luna was being detained by law enforcement, which would have required a reading of Miranda rights. The investigator who took the statement from Luna, Texas Ranger Cody Lankford, said on the stand Tuesday that he did not consider Luna to be in his custody.

“I did not detain him,” Lankford said. “If I feel somebody needs to be detained, I’m going to put them in handcuffs."

When Luna took the stand, he said a rifle-toting policeman followed him into his house while he checked on his two-year-old son. Acting on a search warrant, police removed the safe from his mother-in-law’s house, adjacent to his own.

“I didn’t feel I was free to leave,” Luna said.

Judge Benjamin Euresti ruled against the defense, clearing the way for Luna’s statement to be played for the jury during the trial. Euresti also gave prosecutors a green light to call as a witness a DNA analyst, despite defense objections that the state did not give them the required advance notice.

In a partial victory for the defense, the judge agreed not to allow prosecutors to refer to Eduardo Luna’s immigration status at the request of his lawyer, Gabriela Garcia.

Gus Garza, the Cameron County district attorney leading the prosecution, told the judge that a third brother who is cooperating with authorities after taking a plea deal, Fernando Luna, is prepared to testify that Eduardo illegally crossed into the United States “through a coyote, a smuggler.”

“Whether my client was passed by a coyote or a coyota, I don’t care,” Garcia said. “That is irrelevant.”

Euresti instructed prosecutors not “allude to any illegal crossing or illegal method of crossing — just that they crossed over to live over here.”

The murder case began with the discovery of Franky Palacios’ headless body floating in the Laguna Madre in March 2015. Investigators traced him back to an Edinburg tire shop where Eduardo and Fernando Luna worked. Joel Luna, who worked at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Hebbronville, was charged in the case after police found the safe stuffed with drugs and money (and his commemorative Border Patrol badge) at his mother-in-law’s house.

Fernando pleaded guilty to one cocaine possession charge in August and is expected to testify against his brothers. There are two other defendants, both of whom worked at the tire shop, who will be tried separately.

Joel Luna, wearing glasses and looking thinner than during previous appearances, was the first Luna brother to arrive in the courtroom Tuesday. After being instructed that inmates could not wear ties at the county jail, his attorney, Carlos A. Garcia, put the tie on his client at the defense table just before the proceedings began.

His younger brother Eduardo, a native of Reynosa, Mexico, was dressed in a light blue shirt and black pants. He listened to the proceedings through a translator.

Garza, the prosecutor, has said the three brothers were part of a criminal enterprise connected to the powerful Gulf Cartel involved in drug trafficking and gun running. On Tuesday, Garza said the Gulf Cartel was not on trial, but contraband pointing to illicit activity will be on full display.

“We cannot separate the findings of the material in the safe from this case,” Garza said. “Not only was there cocaine and money and records and notebooks, but there was also different ammunitions for different weapons, .50 caliber weapons and so forth. We can’t separate that.”

Related Tribune coverage:  

  • When Franky Palacios Paz was found floating naked and decapitated off South Padre Island, the local sheriff thought the murder would lead investigators back to Mexican drug cartel violence. He didn't expect a U.S. Border Patrol agent to be among those arrested.
  • In an unusual twist to an already unusual case, federal immigration authorities are questioning the nationality of a U.S. Border Patrol agent accused of capital murder and drug cartel ties in deep South Texas. 

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