Juan Castillo was put to death Wednesday evening, ending his death sentence on his fourth execution date within the year.
The 37-year-old was executed for the 2003 robbery and murder of Tommy Garcia Jr. in San Antonio. The execution had been postponed three times since last May, including a rescheduling because of Hurricane Harvey.
Castillo's advocates and attorneys had insisted on his innocence in Garcia’s murder, pleading unsuccessfully for a last-minute 30-day stay of execution from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott after all of his appeals were rejected in the courts. The Texas Defender Service, a capital defense group who had recently picked up Castillo’s case, asked Abbott for the delay to let its lawyers fully investigate claims they said discredited the prosecution’s evidence against Castillo — including recanted statements and video of police interrogations that contradict testimony at trial.
But with no action from the governor, Castillo was taken into the death chamber in Huntsville, and at 6:21 p.m., injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital, according to the Texas Department of Justice. Twenty-three minutes later, he was pronounced dead.
“To everyone that has been there for me, you know who you are,” Castillo said in his final words. “See y’all on the other side.”
A Houston Chronicle reporter who attended the execution said Castillo added: “Shit does burn."
Prosecutors said Castillo and three others lured Garcia to a secluded area in 2003 to rob him by promising him sex with one of Castillo's female accomplices. When Garcia tried to run, Castillo shot him, according to the accomplices. Castillo was convicted and sentenced to death in 2005.
A man who bunked near Castillo in the Bexar County jail, Gerardo Gutierrez, also testified that Castillo had confessed to him about the murder. The matching testimonies were enough to satisfy a jury, and Castillo was convicted of capital murder. The three others involved in the crime all received lesser charges and sentences — one woman is out on parole, and the other two got 40-year sentences and are eligible for parole within the next six years, according to criminal records.
Prosecutors at the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office remain fully confident that Castillo was the triggerman in Garcia’s murder. Assistant Criminal District Attorney Matt Howard said the death penalty is always a heavy decision to weigh but that Castillo is deserving of the ultimate punishment.
“Understanding the evidence, this was one of those cases where I think the jury came to the right conclusion” of a death sentence, Howard said.
Castillo’s first execution date was set for last May, but it was rescheduled for September, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The September execution — set about a week after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas coast — was also delayed at the request of Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, since some of Castillo’s legal team lived in Houston.
It was moved to December, and that time the courts took action after the jailhouse informant changed his story.
In 2013, Gutierrez signed an affidavit saying that he lied in his testimony against Castillo “to try to help myself.” The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stopped Castillo’s December execution because of the affidavit, telling the trial court to look into the issue of false testimony.
Three days later, the Bexar County court issued its decision: Gutierrez’s new statement saying he lied wasn’t credible since his original testimony so closely matched that from the others who testified against Castillo.
“Gutierrez's 2013 affidavit makes no explanation for how he, while incarcerated in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center, independently manufactured a version of events consistent with multiple other witnesses,” wrote Judge Maria Teresa Herr in her quickly produced opinion.
The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the ruling earlier this year, and Castillo was given an execution date of May 16.
Castillo’s attorneys admonished the trial court for denouncing Gutierrez’s affidavit without holding an evidentiary hearing or getting information from Castillo or Gutierrez, claiming the courts denied their client meaningful consideration on the issue. But the prosecution said the court already had “extensive background” about the affidavit before it officially reached the court, which accounted for the rapid decision to reject it, according to Howard.
Still, Castillo filed a new appeal with claims that the prosecution withheld evidence and presented false or misleading testimony. The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected it on procedural grounds without reviewing the merits of his claims, leaving Castillo’s attorneys to turn to their last shot, Abbott.
In the defense’s letter to the governor Tuesday, Marzullo wrote that her organization has recently discovered new evidence that contradicts the original testimony given at Castillo’s trial — specifically, a video of woman who previously claimed Castillo confessed to her telling police that he had never told her he was the triggerman and a new statement from a man who now says he inaccurately testified that Castillo confessed to him. Marzullo also mentioned a lack of physical evidence connecting Castillo to the murder and the unreliability of testimony from accomplices and jailhouse informants.
“I am sure that your office is inundated with defense counsel pleas for mercy,” she wrote to the governor. “Yet, this is a request that I do not enter lightly. From the moment of his arrest through clemency, Juan has had a litany of lawyers who did not fully examine serious questions regarding his guilt.”
Abbott usually takes no part in death penalty cases, letting the court’s rulings stand, but he did grant a rare commutation of sentence for Thomas Whitaker earlier this year, stopping his execution minutes before it was set to proceed and changing his sentence to life in prison. But that decision came after an even rarer unanimous decision by the state’s parole board to grant clemency and change Whitaker’s sentence.
On Monday, that parole board unanimously voted to reject Castillo’s clemency petition, and following Abbott’s silence on the issue, he became the sixth person executed in Texas this year and the 11th in the country.