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Luis Galarza

Other Connecticut Exonerations
At around 2 a.m. on October 15, 1999, police in Bridgeport, Connecticut responded to a 911 call of shots being fired and found the bodies of 25-year-old Magdiel Rivera Jr. and his half-brother, 20-year-old Luis Velez, inside a van parked on Corn Tassel Road on the city’s north side.

According to early news accounts of the murders, police said that Velez and Rivera had been ambushed after they left a nearby house where they had been cooking crack cocaine with a street value of between $40,000 and $50,000.

Police recovered ten 9-millimeter shells and 13 bullets or bullet fragments from the crime scene. Forensic testing later reported that all the bullets came from the same gun. The autopsy report said that Velez and Rivera had been shot from the outside, through the passenger window.

More than two years after the murders, on November 15, 2001, police arrested 27-year-old Luis Galarza and charged him with two counts of capital murder and illegal use of a firearm. The state’s theory of the crime was that Galarza had shot Rivera, a rival drug dealer, and Velez in retaliation after Rivera intruded on Galarza’s territory in east Bridgeport. The state sought the death penalty.

No eyewitnesses saw the shooting, and no weapon was recovered.

The trial in Bridgeport Judicial District Superior Court began on June 2, 2003, presided over by Judge Howard Owens Jr. Gary Mastronardi and Jeffrey Beck represented Galarza. Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Satti Jr. of the Bridgeport Judicial District led the prosecution.

Maggie Montes testified that she and her husband, Edwin Bonilla, ran into Velez and Rivera at a local mall on the afternoon of October 14, 1999. She said that everyone appeared happy until Rivera received a page and then made a telephone call. Eventually, they all ended up at a bar called the Latin Spirit Club. At some point, Rivera walked to the back of the bar and talked to someone near the restrooms for about 10 minutes. When Rivera returned, Montes said, he told Montes, Bonilla, and Velez to leave immediately.

Bonilla testified that after they left the club, he asked Rivera why he was upset. Bonilla testified: “He said, ‘Because I just found out that somebody just paid to kill me.’ And I said, ‘Who? What you talking about?’ And he said, ‘[Galarza] just paid a guy I seen in the bathroom.’ I said, ‘Who is that?’ I wanted to know who was in the bathroom. And he said, ‘[Jose Arciniega]. He paid him. He was my friend. And he said that.’’’

On cross-examination, Bonilla testified that Rivera also said that Arciniega also told him not to worry, that he intended to double-cross Galarza and kill him instead.

Because Rivera was dead, Galarza’s attorneys tried to exclude Bonilla’s testimony about this conversation, arguing that it was hearsay. Judge Owens denied the motion, but gave jurors a limiting instruction that Bonilla’s testimony about Rivera’s statements were not offered for their truth but to illustrate Rivera’s state of mind.

Alan Lane testified that he sold drugs for Galarza and that around two weeks after the murders, Galarza offered him $10,000 to kill a man who was dating the mother of Galarza’s children. Lane said that after he refused, Galarza said he would do it himself, just as he had done to two men who had encroached on his territory. Lane said that Galarza asked whether Lane had read about the murders in the newspaper. He said that Galarza told him that he and another man caught Rivera and Velez in a van and “lit it up.”

Lane also testified that he hoped to get a reduction in his prison sentence in exchange for his cooperation and that he was mad at Galarza for not helping him post bail after an arrest.

Jose Alvarado had given a statement to the police, but he was an uncooperative witness on direct examination, and the state was allowed to read his statement to the jury. In that statement and later during cross-examination, after he was given immunity, Alvarado said that Galarza did not like Rivera and that he heard Galarza say he would pay Arciniega $10,000 to kill Rivera.

Roberto Hernandez sold drugs for both Galarza and Rivera and testified that the two men were rivals. In the fall of 1999, Hernandez said, Galarza held a gun to Hernandez’s face and told him he didn’t want Hernandez selling Rivera’s drugs in his territory.

After the murders, Hernandez said that Galarza told him that ‘‘Jose [Arciniega] didn’t hesitate to kill him … Jose took the drugs and gave him the guns … Jose didn’t hesitate to kill ‘em. He lit ‘em up … Jose lit up the van … Rivera’s little brother tried to run and got shot up.’’

Carlos Hernandez (no relation to Roberto) testified that before the murders, Galarza told him that Galarza and Rivera had a shootout over drug money. After the murders, Hernandez said, he asked Galarza if he had seen the newspapers. Hernandez testified that [Galarza] started laughing and he told me that he was the one that did it … And he just told me to keep my mouth shut. He was, like, don’t say nothing, and he winked at me.’’

Hernandez said that the murders were over money not a turf war and that Arciniega and Galarza were partners.

During his testimony, Carlos Hernandez revealed that he was a police informant and that he initially told the police that another person, not Galarza, was responsible for the murders. It was only after he was facing a lengthy prison sentence in federal court that he again made contact with the police and said that Galarza had confessed.

Detective Gregory Nilan, an officer with the police department in nearby Stratford, said he arrested Galarza on a drug-possession charge on November 5, 1999. Nilan testified that Galarza told him that “he had information that he knew there [were] two Hispanic males that had been shot in the north end of Bridgeport, and that he had heard that it was a hit out of New York because they owed money. And then he indicated to me he knew there was a [compartment for drugs] inside of the vehicle that the deceased were found in.’’

Jesus Lugo testified that he and Galarza were in prison together after Galarza’s drug arrest. Lugo said that Galarza told him about a robbery in New York and that he relayed that information to officials and received a reduction in his sentence.

Lugo said that Galarza also told him about the murders of Rivera and Velez. Lugo said that Galarza said: “There was two kids that were always selling on one of his streets. I guess he owned the street, whatever, he sold drugs on. And the two kids were selling on his street. And he warned them not to sell on the street … He basically told me he had them killed for selling on his street.”

Lugo testified that Galarza told him about the murders for “some time” before he passed the information on to authorities in January 2001. At the time, Lugo said, Roberto Hernandez was being blamed for the killings. Lugo said he hesitated about passing on the information because he had hoped to work with Galarza selling drugs. During cross-examination, Lugo denied that he had reached an agreement with the state about a future request for sentence modification.

Steven Necaise testified that he knew Galarza and had signed a statement that said Galarza had confessed to the murders.

Rafael Colon testified that several weeks before the murders he overheard Alvarado on the telephone talking about doing something bad. He did not hear the caller but assumed it was Galarza because of Galarza’s close relationship with Alvarado (They were cousins). After Alvarado hung up, Colon testified, Alvarado and Roberto Hernandez put on bulletproof vests and began to arm themselves. Colon testified that Alvarado said they were going to get Rivera.

Colon said he was friends with Rivera and warned him of the attack. The next day, Colon said, Rivera told him that he tried to shoot Alvarado but his gun jammed.

On cross-examination, Colon testified that he initially told police in November 1999 that he thought the other person on the call was Jose Valentine. Two years later, just before Galarza’s trial, Colon had given a second statement that did not identify the caller.

Galarza’s attorneys had hoped to present a robust defense that asserted the real killers were Roberto Hernandez and Alvarado. But a series of rulings before and during trial sharply limited that approach. Judge Owens said that the attorneys could not directly ask either man whether he was involved in the murders or present that claim to the jury.

The attorney asked: “What about on the issue of credibility? You mean I can’t even ask them about what Colon said was true?”

Judge Owens responded: “Yes. I’ll let you do that. What I’m saying is, you cannot put them on trial and accuse them of having committed the murders. That’s what I’m saying. That’s my ruling.’’

During cross-examination, both Alvarado and Roberto Hernandez testified that the police told them they would be charged with the murders unless they cooperated with the investigation. They also testified that they discussed Galarza’s case with Lugo and Necaise.

Galarza did not testify.

On June 20, 2003, the jury convicted Galarza of two counts of capital murder, and illegal use of a weapon. During the penalty phase of the trial, Galarza denied any involvement in the murders. He told the jury that he had been shot and had lost loved ones to violence, and that he had not retaliated then or now.

“[Rivera], I know him because people know each other, what you drive, what you have,” Galarza said. “From where we come from, from the ghetto, that’s where we come, from where we come from, we know them like that. The kid had his drug spots. I was selling my drugs. I never had problems with him. His family should know. When you have problems with somebody, the first thing you do is run to the family and let them know, ‘Look, I’m having problem[s] with so and so.’ I know in my heart they never heard my name. I never had problems, especially with the drugs. I wouldn’t kill over drugs, anybody in the world … You are the jurors. You decide. I know in my heart I didn’t do it.”

On June 27, 2003, the jury recommended Galarza be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Galarza appealed his conviction in December 2003. He asserted that Judge Owens had erred in allowing Bonilla to testify about what Rivera said on the night of the murders and in restricting Galarza’s defense strategy of implicating Roberto Hernandez and Alvarado in the crime. The appeal also said that the prosecutor had committed misconduct in his closing statement by violating Judge Owens’s ruling on how to describe Rivera’s purported statement to Bonilla.

On September 12, 2006, the Appellate Court of Connecticut affirmed the conviction. It said that Bonilla’s testimony about Rivera’s statements was harmless in light of the other evidence. The court also said that Judge Owens ruled properly in limiting Galarza’s efforts to pin the murders on Alvarado and Roberto Hernandez, “because there was no direct evidence of third-party culpability.” The court also said the prosecutor acted properly during his closing argument.

While his appeal was pending, in January 2005, Galarza filed a motion for a new trial, based on new evidence that included an affidavit that Robert Hernandez signed on August 28, 2003. In the affidavit, Hernandez recanted some of his trial testimony and said that he, not Galarza, had given Lugo information about the murders.

After several years of delay caused by amendments to the motion, Judge Kari Dooley held an evidentiary hearing on June 5, 2011. By then, Hernandez had died, eliminating any opportunity for Galarza’s attorneys to question him.

Other witnesses at the evidentiary hearing included Jeremiah Perez, who invoked his Fifth Amendment rights, and Valeria Della-Vega, who testified that in late 1999 Alvarado told her “that he took care of them and got them.”

Judge Dooley denied the petition on October 5, 2011. She said the affidavit and other testimony was cumulative and would not have made a difference at trial.

Galarza then filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. His claim said that his trial attorneys had been ineffective for failing to present alibi evidence and that the state had failed to disclose deals it made with Lane, Colon, Lugo, Necaise, and Carlos Hernandez, and then failed to correct their false testimony that these arrangements didn’t exist.

Judge Samuel Sferrazza denied the petition on December 22, 2015. He wrote that there was no evidence of any arrangement between the state and these witnesses. He also said that Galarza’s attorneys had acted tactically in not presenting a possible alibi witness because the witness’s extensive criminal record and other issues undermined his credibility.

Galarza, now pro se, filed a second petition for a writ of habeas corpus on August 14, 2017. Later, attorneys Michael Brown and Adele Patterson, with the law firm of Koch, Garg & Brown, began representing Galarza, and they filed an amended petition on January 31, 2023. Although the amended petition re-asserted several of Galarza’s earlier claims regarding the state’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, the filing included substantial proof to support these claims, particularly with regards to Lane and Carlos Hernandez.

Specifically, the motion said that prosecutors failed to disclose that they had agreed to grant Lane a sentence-modification hearing in the Stamford Judicial District in exchange for his testimony against Galarza. In Hernandez’s case, federal prosecutors had agreed to delay sentencing until after the conclusion of the Galarza trial.

In addition, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut had been told in August 2002 that Carlos Hernandez would be a witness in the Galarza case. A memo from a federal prosecutor said she had told Satti that Hernandez had credibility issues based on perjured testimony he gave to a federal grand jury.

In December 2023, after a five-day habeas hearing and prior to any ruling, the state agreed to vacate Galarza’s conviction. He was released from prison on December 15, 2023.

The state sought to retry the case. Galarza’s attorneys moved to dismiss, arguing that Satti’s misconduct precluded a retrial, because he had suppressed impeachment evidence that would have likely led to an acquittal. The motion to dismiss also noted that Connecticut now required judges to give jurors special credibility instruction when a jailhouse informant testifies, further weakening the state’s case.

The state opposed the motion and the need for a hearing on the matter, arguing that there was no proof that Satti knew about the sentence-modification agreement and that the issues raised about Carlos Hernandez’s credibility wouldn’t have been admissible.

In their response, filed on March 7, 2024, Galarza’s attorneys said there was strong evidence developed at the habeas hearing that Satti knew about the arrangement with Lane. This included testimony from the prosecutor in the Stamford Judicial District that he would not have promised Lane anything without first discussing the situation with his counterparts in Bridgeport.

“The State’s case, as submitted to the jury, depended on the credibility of each of its witnesses both for what that witness said and as legitimate corroboration of its other witnesses,” the response said. “It was not a strong case and if defense counsel had been able to show the jury that Alan Lane had been promised the chance to have his sentence reduced in exchange for his testimony, that and the suppressed Carlos Hernandez [evidence], and other, information could have placed the case in a different light before the jury.”

On April 18, 2024, prosecutors told Judge Tracy Dayton that they didn’t want to proceed with retrying Galarza, and the case was dismissed.

In a statement, Brown and Patterson praised prosecutors for correcting the injustice. “There are many troubling things that transpired in order for Mr. Galarza to spend 24 years wrongly incarcerated after the State tried to kill him for a crime he did not commit,” they said. “That story will all be told and hopefully there will be accountability for all of it sooner than later. For now, Mr. Galarza is incredibly grateful to finally be free.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 5/14/2024
Last Updated: 5/14/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1999
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No