Thursday, January 29, 2009

Killer executed for deaths of ex-girlfriend and children

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HUNTSVILLE — Texas has executed a former Houston security guard for gunning down four people, including his ex-girlfriend and her two small children, during a 1996 shooting frenzy.

Virgil Martinez, 41, was pronounced dead at 6:50 p.m. CDT Wednesday.

Martinez was the fourth Texas inmate executed this year and the first of two on consecutive nights this week in the nation’s most active death penalty state.

Martinez was condemned for the slayings of Veronica Fuentes, 27; her son, Joshua, 5; her daughter, Casandra, 3, and an 18-year-old neighbor, John Gomez. Gomez, mortally wounded, told a police officer at the slaying scene in October 1996 that Fuentes’ former boyfriend was the gunman.

In a rambling final statement, Martinez told relatives he loved them, then blamed Gomez for three of the slayings.

“I know what you’ve been told and that’s all a lie,” he said, looking toward the victims’ relatives watching through a window. “ John Gomez killed your kids and sister.

“I wish I would have shot him in the leg, then he would be here. Those investigators were just trying to convict somebody.”

He was recalling the slaying scene when prison officials, who warn condemned inmates they will have only a couple of minutes for their final comments, began pumping in the lethal drugs.

Nine minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

Lawyers for Martinez had hoped to get the punishment postponed, raising questions he may be so mentally ill that he could be disqualified for execution. Appeals pending in the federal courts briefly delayed the lethal injection beyond the scheduled 6 p.m. time.

Martinez, who declined to speak with reporters in the weeks preceding his execution date, was picked up by police in Del Rio, ranting about voices telling him to kill. He was taken to the Kerrville State Hospital for a mental evaluation. Two weeks later, authorities determined he had given them a false name and that he was the man wanted for the four slayings 300 miles away in Alvin, just south of Houston.

Prosecutors said Martinez faked the mental illness to avoid police.

Fuentes had been shot 14 times. Her son was shot five times and her daughter three times. Gomez, who had been helping the woman watch her children, was shot eight times.

Witnesses testified they saw Martinez shoot Fuentes. Her two children were found dead in their beds, both shot in the head at point-blank range. Gomez was gunned down as he ran to Fuentes’ aid.

“Anybody that saw these two little kids, laying out like cordwood with a bullet in their heads, shot for no reason — that sort of sticks with you,” said Dale Summa, a former Brazoria County district attorney.

In earlier appeals in the courts, lawyers argued unsuccessfully that temporal lobe epilepsy suffered by Martinez was responsible for the shooting spree.

“The problem was, it was a bad crime,” said Don Vernay, who handled some of Martinez’s earlier appeals.

At trial, Martinez was defended by Jeri Yenne, who later was elected district attorney in Brazoria County. After she took office, the Texas Attorney General’s Office took over the case, handling all appeals for the state.

In 2004, a federal appeals court ordered a hearing to look into Martinez’s claims that defense lawyers didn’t present enough evidence about his medical condition blamed for the shootings. Lawyers said that would have contradicted Martinez’s stance going into the trial that he didn’t do the shooting.

Prosecutors combined all four slayings into a single capital murder charge. Police concluded a single 9 mm gun fired all the bullets. A holster for the gun was recovered in Martinez’s car, and a box designed to house the same caliber weapon was found in his mother’s Houston home, where he lived. The murder weapon, however, never was recovered.

The shootings occurred a short time after Fuentes ended a relationship with Martinez.

On Thursday, Texas prisoner Ricardo Ortiz is set to die for the retaliation killing of Gerardo Garcia, 22, a fellow inmate at the El Paso County Jail, in 1997. Garcia died of a lethal injection of heroin.

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