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Rodrigo Zapata

Other Robbery Exonerations with Inadequate Legal Defense
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Shortly after noon on April 26, 1999, three men wearing masks and carrying guns held up the International Bank of Commerce in Laredo, Texas and fled with $8,500.

Based on witness accounts, police determined that the robbers used at least two vehicles to escape. One witness said the two men came out of the bank and joined a third man waiting in a red Honda Civic, which sped away and later was found abandoned on the street. Another witness told police she saw three men with backpacks get out of the Civic and get into a Lincoln Continental and drive off.

The Continental also was found abandoned. Police found no fingerprints or other evidence in the Civic, but did find the fingerprints of 25-year-old Rodrigo Zapata in the back seat of the Continental. A records check showed the Continental was owned by one of Zapata’s distant relatives.

Jose Flores, who was washing his vehicle across the street from the bank when the robbery occurred and saw the men flee the bank, helped police create composite sketches of the robbers. After police discovered Zapata’s fingerprints in the Continental, his photograph was put into a photographic lineup. Flores viewed the lineup and identified Zapata as one of the robbers.

On May 7, 1999, Laredo police arrested Zapata and charged him with two counts of aggravated armed bank robbery. No other suspects were ever arrested in the case.

Zapata went to trial in Webb County Criminal District Court in January 2000. Although Flores had died, police officers testified that he had identified Zapata in the photographic lineup.

Two bank employees testified that one robber stood by a doorway with an assault rifle while another man, armed with a handgun, took money from their teller drawers. One of the employees identified Zapata as the robber who cleaned out the teller drawers. The other employee was unable to identify Zapata.

Zapata’s defense lawyer, Richard Gonzalez, called Fernando Lancon, a friend of Zapata’s, who testified that he and Zapata had driven Lancon’s truck to Dr. Ike’s a hardware store to return building materials at about the time of the crime. Lancon said he and Zapata then went to McCoy’s Building Supplies to purchase similar building supplies.

Gonzalez presented two receipts as evidence—both of which had been obtained by an assistant public defender who initially represented Zapata until Zapata privately retained Gonzalez.

One receipt was for the return of materials at Dr. Ike’s, which was located several miles from the bank. A police officer testified, however, that Zapata’s name was written on the receipt in handwriting that differed from the signature that Zapata gave when he signed a statement for police denying he committed the crime.

Gonzalez also presented a copy of a receipt from McCoy’s Building Supply that he said showed Zapata had made a purchase from that business as well on the day of the robbery. But the prosecution noted that the receipt was timed at 9:13 a.m.—about three hours before the robbery.

On January 27, 2000, the jury convicted Zapata of two counts of aggravated armed robbery and imposed a sentence of 25 years in prison.

After the jury was dismissed, Gonzalez spoke to the jury foreman, who said that Lancon’s testimony and the receipts were not persuasive of Zapata’s innocence. The jury thought Lancon’s credibility was suspect because he was Zapata’s friend and the receipts were either at the wrong time or did not appear authentic.

The following day, Gonzalez went to McCoy’s for the first time and found a receipt with a time that closely matched the time of Zapata’s return of merchandise to Dr. Ike’s and his subsequent purchase of similar items at McCoy’s. Gonzalez also learned the name of a McCoy’s employee, Bruce Lee Jimenez, who recalled helping Zapata load the truck while the driver remained in the cab.

After speaking to the employees, Gonzalez discovered that the receipt he possessed was a copy, not the original, and that the time listed on the receipt from McCoy’s was actually the time the receipt was printed out when the defense sought a copy of it.

Gonzalez then filed a motion for a new trial asserting that the prosecution had failed to disclose the original copy of the McCoy’s receipt.

At a hearing on the motion for new trial, an employee of McCoy’s testified that the prosecution had an original copy of the receipt which showed the time was close to noon and had the name of the employee who helped load Zapata’s truck. A manager at McCoy’s also explained that the 9:13 a.m. time on the receipt originally obtained by Zapata’s first lawyer was actually the time of day that the receipt had been printed out for the lawyer, not the time of day that it was issued to Zapata. The actual time of issuance was shortly after midday, about the same time as the robbery.

Jimenez testified at the hearing that he specifically remembered Zapata because Zapata jumped into the back of the truck to help him load the building materials.

The prosecution argued that Zapata had informed his attorney about the purchases prior to trial, but the defense attorney had not made any attempt to obtain an accurate copy. The prosecution argued that it was not required to turn over evidence that the defense knew about and could have obtained on its own.

In July 2000, Judge Manuel Flores vacated Zapata’s convictions and granted him a new trial, but did not specify the grounds for his decision. The prosecution appealed the ruling and in January 2001, the Court of Appeals of Texas upheld the decision.

The appeals court held that the testimony of Jimenez and the McCoy’s manager, if presented at Zapata’s trial, “could have not only cast doubt on the State’s identification evidence but also would have supported Zapata’s alibi. Moreover, unlike Lancon, who was susceptible to impeachment based on his felony record and his relationship with Zapata, Jimenez and other McCoy's employees were disinterested witnesses.”

The appeals court ruled that Gonzalez had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to fully investigate the existence of an accurate receipt. That Gonzalez was able to discover the evidence so quickly once he actually investigated provided further support for the finding of an inadequate legal defense, the court said.

On December 27, 2001, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Zapata was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/19/2016
State:Texas
County:Webb
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1999
Convicted:2000
Exonerated:2001
Sentence:25 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:25
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No