Forensic testing backlog at issue in RGV courts - Brownsville Herald: Local News

Forensic testing backlog at issue in RGV courts

BY MARK REAGAN STAFF WRITER | Posted: Sunday, September 8, 2019 3:34 pm

Gabriel Keith Escalante has been incarcerated in Hidalgo County for 18 months.

His chances of making the $1.25 million bond on charges of capital murder of multiple persons are slim to none.

And as he sits behind bars, a serious question remains unanswered.

Will the Hidalgo County District Attorney's Office seek the death penalty against the 40-year-old Edinburg man on accusations that he, along with his girlfriend, 41-year-old Irene Navejar, beat 53-year-old Alejandro Salinas Sr. to death and suffocated the man's mother, 73-year-old Oliva Salinas, on April 23, 2018.

The answer depends on what the analysts at the Texas Department of Public Safety's Weslaco Crime Lab find when those officials test forensic evidence in the case.

As of Aug. 21, the crime lab hadn't even started.

At a court hearing in Escalante's case last Thursday, Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorney Andrew Almaguer could only tell Judge Linda Reyna Yáñez that the DPS crime lab told him that officials there would begin analysis on several items.

That's a problem for Escalante's defense attorney, O. Rene Flores.

"There currently exists an epidemic of delay with forensic analyses of evidence at the Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab — the crime lab of choice for prosecutions in Hidalgo County, Texas," he said in a motion filed on Aug. 21, the day DPS notified the state testing would begin on several pieces of evidence in the case. "Several announcements have been made by the State in the instant case, effectively placing the accused and this Court on notice that there is a chronic delay in the forensic analysis of evidence across the board in criminal cases in Hidalgo County."

The state, through Almaguer, didn't disagree. Neither did the judge, Yáñez.

"This is an issue for many cases," she said, while listening to Flores' argument.

But Flores suggested a solution: send the samples to a private lab since forensic testing is "backlogged" at the DPS crime lab in Weslaco.

Yáñez is considering the motion, but agreed to give Almaguer until Sept. 16 to provide her with a status of where DPS is at with the forensic analysis.

Escalante wasn't the only defendant at the Hidalgo County Courthouse this week where delays in evidence testing at the crime lab impacted their cases.

Take 23-year-old Alamo resident Alex Arevalo, who has admitted to shooting and killing 41-year-old McAllen resident Nicolas Anthony Bazan on June 19, 2017.

Court records indicate he agreed to a plea agreement on March 27 to a charge of murder, escaping a capital murder charge. The state in this case said it would recommend a 45-year prison sentence, court records indicate.

He was scheduled to receive his sentence Wednesday morning. But he didn't.

Flores also represents Arevalo and said that case has fallen victim to the "crime lab epidemic."

Arevalo's sentencing was rescheduled until Nov. 6.

The spector of the DPS crime lab backup also raised its head on Thursday afternoon during a hearing for 25-year-old Mission resident Guadalupe Garcia Vela, who is accused of gunning down Yvette Garza and Natalie Hernandez on Dec. 20, 2015 during a botched drug deal.

Vela has been in jail since January 2016.

Nereyda Morales-Martinez and Regina "Regi" Richardson, Vela's attorneys, said during a pre-trial hearing that DPS began testing cannisters found at the crime scene in early August. The crime happened more than three years ago.

Vela's jury trial, which was scheduled for late September, was canceled in part to wait for the forensic analysis of the cannisters. There was also a delay due to additional ballistic testing that may be conducted in the case due to a request made by the defense on Thursday to test the service weapon of a police officer who may have had a relationship with one of the victims.

PROCEDURAL DISMISSAL

In the early morning hours of April 11, 2018, after 38-year-old Brownsville resident Robert Galvan finished cutting hair at the Mr. Flawless barbershop and having some beers at a friend's house, he took a ride that sent him right back to state prison.

The Brownsville Police Department arrested Galvan, who was on probation for a violent assault against his former girlfriend, and charged him with murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for killing 54-year-old Horacio Eguia and seriously injuring 43-year-old Brian Scott during an argument over gas money in the 200 block of East 10th Street.

From the moment police began interrogating Galvan, the man maintained that he acted in self defense when he used a pair of scissors from his barber kit to slash Eguia and Scott, who he claimed were the agressors.

Galvan told police that the men offered to give him a ride to a residence and once at the location, demanded gas money. Galvan claims they jumped him, but Scott, who survived, told investigators that a quarrel between Galvan and Eguia over the victim smoking marijuana near Galvan boiled over into violence.

His defense attorney, Nat C. Perez, prepared a self defense argument and told state District Judge Gloria Rincones that he was ready for trial.

But there was a problem. The DPS Weslaco crime lab hadn't tested fingerprints on the knife used to kill Eguia. The Cameron County District Attorney's Office wanted results of the forensic evidence testing from the crime lab back before going to trial.

For Galvan, that wasn't a problem. Testimony showed he readily admitted his fingerprints were likely on the murder weapon because he said he acted in self defense. He even stipulated to it.

Galvan also invoked his right to a speedy trial instead of waiving it. He wanted his day in court.

When that day neared, Rincones, the judge, ordered the DA's office to find a lab that could return the forensic analysis by January of this year. Cameron County Assistant District Attorney Oscar Guzman told Rincones the DA's office was unable to find one that could and the state filed what Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz said was a procedural dismissal because of delays in the testing.

"Once we get that completed, the case will be re-represented to a grand jury for indictment," Saenz said at the time.

As of Friday afternoon, a search of public court records did not reveal a new indictment against Galvan.

Approximately seven months after his arrest, Rincones found him guilty of violating his probation because of substance abuse and sentenced Galvan to four years in prison. Rincones also ruled Galvan acted in self defense.

SPEEDY TRAL VIOLATION

On April 30, 31-year-old San Juan resident Rafael Puebla had been in jail for 18 months.

The Pharr Police Department accused the man of sexual assault and arrested him on Oct. 26, 2017, and a Hidalgo County grand jury indicted the man on Jan. 23, 2018.

Puebla, dissatisfied with his attorney's inability to get him a trial, filed a hand-written motion for a speedy trial on April 16.

"In 18 months still no trial," Puebla wrote in a letter. "Constant resets and motion for delays. The state has dragged its feet in gathering evidence to prove its case."

Flores, the defense attorney, was Puebla's lawyer.

Transcripts of hearings held on April 25 and 30, detail what happened next.

During that April 30 hearing in front of Yáñez, the judge, Flores said the DPS crime lab in Weslaco had the sexual assault kit in Puebla's case in its possession since Aug. 16, 2017, more than a month before the man was arrested.

By that April 30 hearing, the crime lab had still not compared Puebla's DNA to a small amount of DNA recovered from the sexual assault kit.

The minimum sentence Puebla faced in the case was 15 years because he had a previous conviction for possession of more than 50 pounds, but less than 2,000 pounds of marijuana out of Victoria County.

Five days before the April 30 setting, the state announced that it had offered a deal of two years in prison to Puebla, who had already spent nearly two years in jail.

Puebla rejected the deal. He wanted to go to trial.

And on April 30, Flores asked Yáñez to dismiss the indictment against Puebla over a speedy trial violation.

At the hearing, the state argued that the backlog is not its fault, though testimony showed authorities never obtained a warrant for a DNA sample from Puebla and that the man voluntarily provided a sample in August 2018.

"And, so, although ... the State had nothing to do with the analysis of the samples, they sure have the authority, at the very least, to either expedite the matter or for that matter, take those samples to a private lab in order to expedite their analysis, especially given a defendant who was so angry with his trial counsel, he's filing his own Motion for a Speedy Trial and they chose not to do that," Flores said during the hearing.

Puebla even took the stand during two hearings in April, telling the court that at the time of his arrest he was gainfully employed and since his incarceration, he had not fostered any relationships with his family.

"I think if the Court would set a very dangerous precedent here if we were to suggest that the backlog of the Department of Public Safety trumps one's right to a speedy trial," Flores said during the hearing.

At the end of the hearing, Yáñez told the attorneys she was leaning one way and would issue a ruling on May 1.

Like in Galvan's case, the Brownsville man, Puebla's demand for a speedy trial conflicted with an apparent backlog in testing at the DPS crime lab in Weslaco.

The day after the hearing, Yáñez dismissed Puebla's charges based on speedy trial violations.

mreagan@themonitor.com