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Sergio Castillo

Other Attempted Murder Exonerations with Mistaken Witness ID

On September 23, 1993 an argument erupted during a rehearsal for a quinceañera, a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, which ended with a shootout in the 1600 block of El Matador Street in Brownsville, Texas.

Police said 18-year-old Sergio Garcia, Jr. was wounded in a shootout between 22-year-old Alfredo Casas and a passenger in a car driven by 29-year-old Sergio Castillo.

Castillo, who also was shot, fled the scene. He was arrested on January 21, 1994, when he crossed into Brownsville from Mexico on the Gateway International Bridge. He was charged with one count of attempted murder.

At his trial in Cameron County Criminal District Court, a 15-year-old boy testified that he saw Castillo fire several shots from his Chevrolet Suburban and that one of them struck Garcia.

On July 1, 1994, the jury convicted Castillo of attempted murder. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Castillo’s conviction and sentence in 1996.

In 2002, Castillo filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus. At a hearing in 2005, his attorney, Keith Hampton, presented witnesses who testified that Castillo did not fire a gun that day. Three witnesses testified that a passenger, Hilario Garcia—also known as “Tito”—fired the shots from Castillo’s vehicle. The witnesses said that the time, they told the police that the passenger was the gunman.

Hampton presented police reports prepared during the investigation of the shooting by Brownsville police. The reports showed that they interviewed numerous witnesses, including Oralia Garcia, whose 15th birthday was going to be celebrated at the quinceañera, her brother, Horacio Garcia, and Olegario Rodriguez, a participant in the quinceañera practice. All three said that “Tito” was the gunman who fired the shots that wounded Sergio Garcia, Jr.

Oralia Garcia told police that the shooting was triggered when Castillo’s Chevrolet Suburban hit Casas, who then pulled a gun and began running toward the passenger side of the vehicle. She said the passenger struck Casas in the head with a pistol and then began firing shots. Casas ran away, firing behind him as he ran. Oralia estimated that 15 to 20 shots were fired in all.

Horacio Garcia told police that Castillo pulled up in his Surburban and began arguing with Casas. The passenger in the Suburban, who wore a yellow shirt, struck Casas in the face with a handgun. Casas then pulled out a handgun and gunfire erupted. “The passenger and (Casas) began to shoot at each as (Casas) was running away and shooting at them at the same time,” he said.

Two new witnesses—Veronica Saldana and George Gaytan—also testified at the evidentiary hearing. Saldana testified that she saw the passenger in the Suburban shoot wildly at Casas. Gaytan said after the shooting, Tito admitted that he shot at Casas because Casas had shot Castillo. Gaytan said Tito said that Castillo did not have a gun at the time of the shooting.

Hampton also presented subpoenas issued by the prosecution for all three witnesses to appear at Castillo’s trial, although none was called to testify.

Castillo’s trial defense attorney, Abel Limas, who became a Cameron County District Judge in 2000, presented a sworn affidavit. He stated that he had viewed the prosecution’s trial file twice prior to Castillo’s trial and that he never saw any police reports or witness statements.

The prosecutors who handled Castillo’s case denied concealing the evidence from the defense, but neither could affirmatively say that the reports and witness statements were in the file.

On March 6, 2006, Cameron County District Judge Robert Jones ruled that the writ should be granted and that Castillo had “unquestionably established his innocence.”

“The police reports and the eyewitnesses interviewed by police, combined with the evidence discovered since the trial, establish that Sergio Castillo is innocent of firing a weapon…Instead this evidence establishes that Hilario ‘Tito’ Garcia fired the weapon during the gun battle with Casas,” Jones ruled.

On July 24, 2006, in a three-paragraph ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ, vacated Castillo’s conviction, and ordered a new trial. “Applicant (Castillo) contends that he was denied exculpatory… material by the State. The trial court recommends that relief be granted. We agree. Relief is granted,” the appeals court said.

Hampton then filed a motion to dismiss the charges and to bar the prosecution from retrying Castillo because Judge Jones had unequivocally determined that the gunman was “Tito” and not Castillo.

The motion was denied and Hampton appealed. In the meantime, Castillo was released on bond after spending about 13 years in prison.

In January 2008, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling that denied the defense motion to dismiss the case. The appeals court noted that its ruling granting the writ in 2006 was “silent” on the issue of Castillo’s actual innocence, and that appeals court was not bound by Judge Jones’s finding of actual innocence.

The case remained on the docket, but no attempt was made to retry Castillo as a scandal unfolded that involved then-Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos and Abel Limas (who left the bench in 2008). The scandal involved allegations of a wide-ranging bribery scheme, including payment of tens of thousands of dollars to fix civil and criminal cases. (Villalobos was not in the prosecutor’s office in 1994 when Castillo was convicted.)

Federal prosecutors obtained convictions of Limas, who pled guilty, Villalobos, and more than a dozen others. In August 2013, Limas was sentenced to six years in prison.

In November 2014, the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office and Hampton filed a joint motion to dismiss Castillo’s case.

The motion said that after further investigation, the prosecution and the defense concluded that “Abel Limas lied on the affiavit” submitted to support Castillo’s habeas petition when he said he had looked at the prosecution’s file twice and did not see the police reports or witness statements.

The motion said that “in all probability,” the witness statements and police reports were in the prosecution file, but Limas likely never looked at the file and instead went to trial “blindly.” The motion said Castillo still was entitled to the granting of the writ because Limas provided an inadequate legal defense.

On November 20, 2014, the charge against Castillo was dismissed. Because the appeals court never found Castillo factually innocent, he was unable to obtain compensation from the state of Texas.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/9/2017
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1993
Sentence:25 years
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No