South Texas gang member set for execution Thursday

September 18, 2013 12:18:55 PM PDT
Robert Gene Garza never gave a second thought to joining a far South Texas street gang called the Tri-City Bombers, where the skinny kid of 9 or 10 became known as "Bones."

By age 20 he was on the state's death row, convicted of participating in a gang ambush where four women were shot dead in Donna, in the Rio Grande Valley. He also was later charged, but never tried, for another gang-initiated massacre that left six people dead in nearby Edinburg.

Garza, 30, was set for execution Thursday evening in Huntsville.

"You grow up with it," Garza, from a tiny visiting cage outside death row, said of his gang association. "All my friends were gang members, the same gang. It was just what it was for everybody."

Garza's lethal injection would be the 12th this year in Texas, which executes by far more inmates than any other state. It will also likely be the last to use Texas' existing supply of pentobarbital as the execution drug.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials have said their inventory expires later this month and they would need to find another yet undisclosed source or drug to use in executions because pentobarbital manufacturers are refusing to sell it to state prison agencies. Texas has another execution set for next week.

Garza filed his own appeals to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals challenging use of the pentobarbital, which he argued could be less than full strength because it is close to expiring and leave him with "excessive discomfort" or paralyzed or comatose if it has lost its effectiveness. He also sought DNA testing to support his innocence claim and wants an investigation of evidence used against him at his trial, contending a statement he made to detectives acknowledging involvement in the slayings of the four women was obtained improperly.

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review Garza's case. His attorney, Don Vernay, said Garza's legal avenues were exhausted, but asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Garza's sentence to life in prison. That was rejected Tuesday on a 7-0 vote.

Garza was convicted of two counts of capital murder for the September 2002 slayings of four women who evidence showed worked at a bar in Donna, about 15 miles southeast of McAllen, and were living in the U.S. without legal permission at a trailer park just outside the Rio Grande Valley town.

In his statement to investigators, which Garza insisted was tainted and coerced, he said he carried out the "hit" with three other gunmen in two vehicles who opened fire on six women in their parked car as they were returning home from work. Killed were Maria De La Luz Bazaldua Cobbarubias, Dantizene Lizeth Vasquez Beltran, Celina Linares Sanchez and Lourdes Yesenia Araujo Torres. Two others survived.

Authorities recovered 61 shell casings but the shootings went unsolved for some four months until informants told police the TCB gang could be involved and the ambush was intended to silence witnesses who they believed testified in another gang-related case.

Evidence later would show the women were killed by mistake and had no involvement in the other case where a gang member pleaded guilty to an attempted murder in 2001 and accepted a 20-year prison term.

Garza, who was arrested in late January 2003, was convicted under Texas' law of parties, which makes a non-triggerman equally liable.

"I'm a one-man party," he said from death row. "The state knows I didn't take nobody's life."

But Joseph Orendain, the Hidalgo County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Garza, said Tuesday evidence showed Garza was a gang leader, instructed his companions how to do the killings, was present when the shootings took place and "in all likelihood was a shooter but is downplaying his part."

Garza contended his statement to police came only after two days of questioning and amid fears his pregnant wife was in danger at their home.

"I think they were just trying to close this case ... and they needed somebody," he said from death row. "And I think once they got their claws into me, they weren't going to let go."

Orendain said some of Garza's partners are on death row for the January 2003 robbery-shootings where six were killed at an Edinburg stash house run by a rival gang.

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