* Note: This story has been updated throughout.
A Cameron County jury on Tuesday found Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna guilty of engaging in organized criminal activity but acquitted him of the murder charge that could have put him in prison for life without the chance of parole. He is expected to be sentenced to 20 years in the state penitentiary.
His younger brother Eduardo, an alleged hitman for the Gulf Cartel, was convicted on all four counts, including capital murder. He was given a mandatory life sentence without parole. Prosecutors had already taken the death penalty off the table in the case.
Both Luna men were on trial for the same four counts, which included engaging in drug trafficking and organized crime — and murdering a would-be snitch who threatened to rat them out. The body of the victim, Franky Palacios, was found naked and decapitated in the waters off South Padre Island almost two years ago.
His common law widow, Martha Sanchez, gave a tearful statement after the verdicts were announced.
"The violent assassination of my husband Franky changed my life forever," Sanchez said in Spanish. "I lost peace, tranquility and the feeling of purpose in my life.”
During the trial Sanchez was portrayed as hostile to her common law husband. The state’s star witness — the elder Luna brother, Fernando — testified that he had received text messages from Sanchez calling Franky a "fucking traitor" and warning that he was going to divulge the drug trafficking operation to law enforcement.
Fernando said he forwarded her texts to Eduardo the day before the alleged hitman shot Franky in the head at an Edinburg tire shop, and prosecutors described the messages as a major catalyst for the murder.
Because it involved a U.S. Border Patrol agent, the case stoked concerns about federal law enforcement corruption along the U.S.-Mexico border. After the verdict was announced, Joel Luna waived his right to have the jury decide his punishment and agreed to a 20-year sentence. The sentencing is scheduled for March 2.
The federal agent, who had been on "indefinite suspension" at the U.S. Border Patrol before and during the trial, also waived his right to appeal as part of the agreement.
“I think what comes out of this for the public is the evils of drugs and money and corruption," said Assistant District Attorney Gustavo Garza, who prosecuted the case. "Eventually this country is going to have to deal with its insatiable appetite for illegal drugs. It doesn't lead to anything good for the society.”
Asked if the verdict left the U.S. Border Patrol with a black eye, Garza said, "Any time that you have a peace officer who has sworn to uphold the law and protect the public and then goes rogue — that is not a good experience for the organization."
Joel Luna's attorney, Carlos Garcia, said he was disappointed.
"I thought that through the state's witnesses we were able to pretty much establish uncontradicted that my client had been put in a bad spot by his delinquent brothers, and his brothers did everything they could to keep secret from my client their wrongdoing," Garcia said. He said Luna's family was "devastated."
"They were living the American dream," he said.
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.