On May 11, 1994, police found the body of 49-year-old Robert Cobb, a homeless Vietnam War veteran who lived in his Pontiac Trans-Am, stabbed and bludgeoned to death next to his car in a desert area on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas.
Cobb had been stabbed in the chest and back dozens of times with a small knife, but he had died from being beaten over the head with a vehicle anti-theft device. His blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit.
Five usable fingerprints were recovered from Cobb’s car. Three were Cobb’s and two were unidentified.
The following day, El Paso police detectives visited businesses in a shopping center near the crime scene. The wife of one business owner told them that 17-year-old Augustin Fabio Carreon, the stepson of another business owner, was a gang member and was responsible for graffiti on the back walls of the shopping center. The officers examined the walls and found the alias “Gopy,” which they believed was gang-related. As they were inspecting the graffiti, an employee of one of the businesses there, 40-year-old Roland Echemendia, approached and offered descriptions of vehicles driven by Carreon’s friends.
The officers left and consulted with the department’s gang unit, which informed them that that “Gopy” was not in the gang database, but that “Gory” was the nickname for a gang member named Robert Hernandez. A check of arrest records showed that Robert Hernandez and 22-year-old Alejandro Hernandez, who were not related, had been arrested on a previous occasion for attempting to shoplift a pair of jeans from a department store. Alejandro Hernandez also had previous convictions for delivery of cocaine and unlawful possession of a weapon.
The detectives returned to the shopping center where they were approached again by Echemendia, who now said he had seen Cobb’s murder.
Echemendia was taken to a police station and told officers that at 1:30 a.m. on May 11, he was standing outside the shopping center when he saw three men standing next to a Trans-Am. Echemendia said that one of the men was Carreon, and another was a Latino male in his early 20’s. The third man was white and carried a black bag that Echemendia thought was filled with balloons of heroin.
Echemendia said he heard Carreon say to the white man that he didn’t have any money, but to give them the bag. When the white man gestured toward a nearby business as if to suggest someone was watching them, the three got into the car and drove a little ways off into the desert.
Echemendia said that not long after he heard “moans and groans” coming from near the Trans-Am and then saw Carreon and his companion running away. As they passed under a street light, Echemendia said he heard Carreon say, “You killed him.” The Latin male had blood on his shirt and his hand and asked Carreon to give him his shirt.
The detectives then showed a single photograph of Carreon to Echemendia, who identified him. Shown a photographic lineup that included Alejandro Hernandez’s photograph, Echemendia selected Hernandez as Carreon’s companion.
The detectives then brought Carreon to the station where, after at first saying he was innocent, he signed a statement implicating himself and another man whom he only knew as “Guerro” in the murder. Carreon would later claim that he signed the statement only after detectives told him that if he signed it, he would be released. After signing the statement, the detectives placed a single photograph of Alejandro Hernandez before him and told him, “This is Guerro, just sign the back of the picture and we’ll let you go.” So Carreon signed it, but he was not released.
Robert Hernandez was questioned and told police that he knew Alejandro Hernandez as a violent person, but he also said he did not believe Alejandro Hernandez and Carreon knew each other. He was then released.
That night, detectives arrested Alejandro Hernandez at his home. He and Carreon were both charged with murder.
The following morning, May 14, 1994, Carreon and Hernandez were taken to court. When Carreon attempted to recant his identification of Hernandez en route, one of the detectives told him, “you can’t change it anymore.”
Later that day, police received a call from Dee Stewart, who had seen a television report of the arrests of Carreon and Hernandez. Stewart, who lived near the scene of the crime, said that on the night of Cobb’s murder, a neighbor named Brandon Hamilton had come to his apartment with blood-covered hands and clothing.
Stewart said that Hamilton had a small pocket knife and that Hamilton said, “You are not going to believe this, but I just killed somebody.”
According to Stewart, Hamilton washed the blood off his hands and the knife as he recounted how he had walked up on a man he thought was sleeping in a Trans-Am parked in the desert, intending to rob him. Hamilton said he woke the man up and helped him out of his car and then began stabbing him. Hamilton said that when the man didn’t die, he found a metal car part in the trunk and beat him in the head, then left with the victim’s keys, a combination TV/VCR and other electronic items.
Police brought Hamilton to the station, where he admitted speaking to Cobb a day or two before the murder when Cobb tried to sell him some items from his car. Hamilton denied involvement in the murder. His fingerprints were obtained and matched the two previously unidentified prints that had been lifted from Cobb’s car.
Hamilton was released, but re-interviewed in June 1994. He gave a different account of his conversation with Stewart, saying that he went to Stewart’s house five days after the murder with a newspaper account of the arrests of Carreon and Hernandez and they merely discussed what was in the newspaper.
Although Stewart told police that he had seen a TV/VCR and other electronics items that Hamilton said he took from Cobb’s car, detectives never searched Hamilton’s home.
Hernandez and Carreon were tried separately in El Paso County District Court. Hernandez went on trial first in October 1994. Echemendia identified Hernandez. Carreon was called as a defense witness, but he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify. His identification of Hernandez was not entered into evidence by the prosecution.
Hernandez’s defense attorney, who had met with Hernandez just twice before trial for no more than 15 minutes each time, cross-examined only three of the prosecution’s 12 witnesses. He did not confront Echemendia with significant differences between his trial testimony and his testimony at a preliminary hearing, including the fact that at the preliminary hearing, Echemendia had said he saw Cobb with three men. At the trial, he testified he saw Cobb only with Carreon and Hernandez. The defense lawyer also failed to impeach Echemendia’s testimony that he saw the three men get into Cobb’s car and drive into the desert, although he could have used photographs of Cobb’s car showing it was so stuffed with Cobb’s personal possessions that there was no room to sit anywhere but behind the steering wheel.
Stewart was not called as a defense witness.
Hernandez, his girlfriend and another friend testified that Hernandez was at home on the night of the crime. All testified they did not know Carreon.
On October 19, 1994, the jury convicted Hernandez of murder and he was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Carreon then went on trial before a jury and his trial was markedly different.
Carreon’s attorney extensively cross-examined Echemendia about the inconsistencies between his preliminary hearing testimony and trial testimony. Carreon’s lawyer called Stewart as a witness and he testified about how Hamilton had come to him with bloody hands and confessed to killing someone in the desert. Echemendia admitted that he had been discharged early from his probation for a drug conviction in return for testifying for the prosecution—a fact known by Hernandez’s attorney, but which he did not bring out in Hernandez’s trial.
Carreon testified and denied involvement in the murder. He said he had never met Hernandez and that he only signed the statement because police told him he would be released if he did. And he said he identified Hernandez after police told him Hernandez was the killer.
The jury acquitted Carreon of murder and convicted him of misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced to two years probation.
Hernandez appealed, but the conviction was upheld in 1996.
In 2002, he filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus alleging that his defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense.
On March 3, 2006, by agreement of the prosecution and Hernandez’s attorney, an El Paso County District Court judge recommended the conviction be vacated. because Hernandez’s trial attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call Stewart to testify about Hamilton’s confession to the murder and failing to cross-examine Echemendia about his inconsistent testimony.
On June 21, 2006, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and vacated Hernandez’s conviction. Hernandez was released on bond on September 12, 2006. The prosecution dismissed the case against him on September 17, 2006.
Hernandez later filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against El Paso and the city’s police department, but it was dismissed.
– Maurice Possley