On the night of July 13, 1982, Houston, Texas police stopped a black Buick after a pedestrian reported that the car had nearly run him over. Twenty-year-old Ricardo Aldape Guerra was driving, and Roberto Carrasco Flores was in the passenger seat. Officer James Harris ordered both men to get out and put their hands on the car. Aldape Guerra began to comply, but Carrasco Flores took a gun from his belt and shot the police officer four times, killing him. Both men ran. As Carrasco Flores was fleeing, he shot into a passing car and killed the driver.
Police sealed off the Hispanic neighborhood where the crimes had occurred and searched for the two men. Carrasco Flores was found two hours later, hiding in a garage. There was a shoot-out as police tried to arrest him. Carrasco Flores shot, but did not kill, another officer before being killed by the police. Aldape Guerra was found soon after, hiding under a trailer. He was arrested and taken to the scene of the crime, where police were interviewing witnesses.
The investigation was marred by extreme police misconduct. While searching homes for the suspects, police officers forced residents to lie face-down outside and pointed guns at their heads, and many were rounded up and detained at the police station until the following morning. Multiple people witnessed the shooting, and overwhelmingly, they identified Carrasco Flores as the shooter. The police, however, willfully recorded inaccurate information or refused to include information that would exculpate Aldape Guerra. Witnesses – many of whom were not proficient in English – were threatened with legal action if they failed to sign the statements prepared by police. During a lineup, police walked the handcuffed Aldape Guerra past witnesses before asking them to identify the perpetrator. Witnesses were permitted to discuss their opinions and even encourage each other to select Aldape Guerra – and several did.
Nonetheless three witnesses specifically told police that Aldape Guerra was not the killer, but this information was inaccurately recorded.
At trial, prosecutors centered their case on the eyewitness testimony. Though Carrasco Flores had been found with the murder weapon, prosecutors claimed that Aldape Guerra had given it to him after shooting Officer Harris. Carrasco Flores’s hand had tested positive for traces of metal from the murder weapon, while both of Aldape Guerra’s hands tested negative, but the prosecutor never revealed this to the defense. At one point during the trial, a juror complained that an interpreter was misrepresenting the witness’s testimony, and the interpreter was dismissed. Aldape Guerra was convicted on October 12, 1982, and on October 14, he was sentenced to death.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Aldape Guerra’s conviction on May 4, 1988. A writ of habeas corpus and a request for an evidentiary hearing were denied. Aldape Guerra then secured representation from a private pro bono attorney, who uncovered evidence of police and prosecutorial misconduct during the investigation and trial, and filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. In a scathing indictment of the Houston Police Department, Judge Kenneth Hoyt agreed that, due to gross official misconduct, Aldape Guerra had been denied a fair trial. On May 18, 1995, the judge granted Aldape Guerra’s writ, and ordered that he be retried or released, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision on July 30, 1996. After a Texas state trial-court judge ruled that much of the eyewitness testimony from the first trial would be excluded on retrial, the state dropped charges against Aldape Guerra, and on April 16, 1997, he was released.
– Alexandra Gross