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Quintin Alonzo

Other Dallas County Exonerations involving official misconduct
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On Friday, June 8, 2001, Israel and Cynthia Martinez threw a party for their son, 18-year-old Santos Gauna, at their house on the west side of Dallas, Texas. Santos had just graduated from high school, and he was to enlist in the Marines on Monday.

As many as 100 people—both invited and uninvited—attended. Just before 1 a.m., a fight broke out among some of the guests. Israel Martinez began trying to escort people off his property, and someone threw a beer bottle back inside the yard. Martinez would later say he shoved a person and told him to leave. The man fell, then got up and began firing a gun. Martinez was hit in the hip and elbow. His wife, Cynthia, was hit in the chest. They both survived. Gauna was struck in the arm and body, and died shortly after being brought to Parkland Hospital.

Police responded quickly and began interviewing people at the party while their memories were fresh. One name kept coming up – Licho Escamilla. But Escamilla had fled to Mexico and would never be interviewed. Later, police recovered a .38-caliber shell casing from a Cadillac owned by Escamilla’s brother. The Martinezes and their son had been shot with a .38 as well, and the bullets and casing were sent to the Southwestern Institute for Forensic Sciences for analysis.

On the morning of June 11, the Dallas police received an anonymous phone tip. The caller said she had heard that a teenager named Frank Hernandez had been bragging about the murder, and that he had gotten the gun from 21-year-old Quintin Alonzo. The caller said that both were in the Vagos gang. Based on that call, police created a photo lineup that included Alonzo and brought it to the hospital where the Martinezes were still being treated.

Cynthia Martinez was unable to identify the shooter. But Israel Martinez looked at the six-pack of photos and said Alonzo was the man who shot him. Hernandez was not in the array. In the affidavit for the arrest warrant written the next day, police made a mistake in how they described the anonymous caller’s information. In the affidavit, it wasn’t Hernandez alone bragging about a murder. Instead, Hernandez and Alonzo were both bragging about it.

On June 27, Detective Rick Berry interviewed Priscilla Rodriguez, who lived next door to the Martinezes. She was at the party and said she saw Escamilla shoot Gauna.

Separately, about six weeks after the shooting, a woman named Rosi Sanchez came forward and identified Alonzo as the man she saw shooting at the party. Alonzo was indicted on July 16, 2001 and arrested on August 5. He was charged with one count of murder and two counts of aggravated assault.

From Mexico, Escamilla learned of Alonzo’s arrest. He returned to Dallas and ran into Michael Torres, a cousin of Gauna’s, on November 8, 2001. Words were exchanged, and Torres was shot to death. An arrest warrant was issued for Escamilla, but he escaped capture until he got into a brawl at a Dallas nightclub on Nov. 25. Officer Christopher James, working off-duty, tried to break up the fight and was shot to death. Escamilla, then 19 years old, was arrested and charged with capital murder.

Escamilla was convicted in Dallas County on 28, 2002. During the sentencing phase of his trial, jurors heard from Corporal Ron Miles of the Dallas Police Department. When asked about Escamilla’s record, he told jurors that Escamilla “may very well be responsible for the murder of a Marine out in west Dallas.” Escamilla was sentenced to death on October 31, 2002.

Alonzo’s own trial in Criminal District Court in Dallas County began on February 3, 2003. While it was not in dispute that Alonzo was at the party, no physical or forensic evidence tied him to the shootings. Instead, the state relied on the testimony of Israel Martinez and Rosi Sanchez. Sanchez did not say she saw Alonzo shoot anyone, just that he was firing a gun.

Berry testified about several key aspects of the investigation. First, he said that no witnesses had identified Escamilla as the shooter, contrary to what Rodriguez had told him during her interview. He also said no witnesses had excluded Alonzo as the shooter, even though Rodriguez had identified Escamilla. In addition, he continued to inaccurately describe the contents of the anonymous tip, again repeating that the caller had said Hernandez and Alonzo had both been bragging about the murder.

But Berry also testified that Escamilla had been a prime suspect and that he was surprised when Israel Martinez identified Alonzo as the shooter. In fact, three months after the shooting, after Alonzo was already arrested, Escamilla was charged with firing a gun at the party.

Bullets recovered from the three victims had all been found to have been fired from the same weapon. Ballistics experts also compared the shell casing found in the Cadillac with the bullets. Their findings were seen as a critical part of the defense’s case, as Alonzo’s attorney, Carl Hayes, was trying to tie Escamilla to the crimes by connecting the casing from the Cadillac with the bullets.

Although the ballistics report was written by Susan Allen, an analyst at SWIFS, Berry testified about its contents. Berry misstated the report’s conclusions when he was asked how the casing compared with the recovered bullets. “It wasn’t a match,” he said, confirming that statement twice more during questioning by the prosecutor. But Allen’s report didn’t say there was an absence of a match. It said she was unable to show a connection between the casing and the bullets because the bullets lacked sufficient marking features.

Alonzo’s witnesses testified that he was at the party as an invited guest, but that he was not involved in the shooting. Alonzo’s mother, Julie Vasquez, testified that she had called Berry and tried to give him names of people who could vouch for her son’s innocence, but that a person from the police department told her “he didn’t want to hear it.”

The defense’s final witness was a young woman named Jessica Garcia, who was Escamilla’s girlfriend. With the jury excused, she said that Escamilla had intimated to her that he had killed Michael Torres because Torres suspected correctly that Escamilla was involved in Gauna’s murder. But the jury would not hear that testimony, although they did hear her say that Escamilla and Alonzo were similar in appearance and skin color.

During closing arguments, the prosecution repeated Berry’s false testimony to jurors, stating that no witnesses had identified Escamilla as the shooter.

Alonzo was convicted on February 7, 2003 of all three counts. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder conviction, and two 15-year sentences, to run concurrently, for the assault convictions.

Alonzo’s appeals wound their way through the Texas and federal courts during the next 10 years as he sought a new trial. His main claims were ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct, focusing on whether the state failed to disclose Priscilla Rodriguez’s statements to Berry. At an evidentiary hearing, Hayes said he hadn’t seen Berry’s report on Rodriguez. But he acknowledged receiving Berry’s notebook on the case, which likely contained references to the interview. And he also said he probably wouldn’t have called Rodriguez as a witness, because parts of her statement didn’t match up with other accounts of the party at the time the shooting started.

On March 14, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Irma Ramirez of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas recommended granting Alonzo’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. She found that the state had committed prosecutorial misconduct, when it “emphasized and promoted the false or misleading testimony in his closing argument,” regarding Berry’s testimony that nobody identified Escamilla as the shooter. Ramirez rejected Alonzo’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Five months later, Judge Reed O’Connor rejected the magistrate’s findings and dismissed Alonzo’s petition. O’Connor did not directly address whether prosecutors had committed misconduct. Instead, he said that Hayes, with reasonable diligence, should have been able to discover Rodriguez’s statement and directly address the misstatements of Berry and the prosecutor during trial.

On October 13, 2015, while on death row, Escamilla met with attorneys and investigators with the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. He said, “Somebody’s in prison for something he hasn’t done.”

Escamilla said that when he got to the party, his brother Juan was having an argument with some of Alonzo’s friends. Bottles were flying. At some point, Israel Martinez shoved Juan and he fell to the ground. Juan got up, and then Escamilla fired his gun at Martinez. Then, Escamilla saw Gauna, and shot him too. Escamilla never said he shot Cynthia Martinez, although the ballistics report said that the same weapon was used.

After the shooting, Escamilla said he cut up the gun with a welding torch and threw the pieces in the Trinity River. He said that he didn’t know Alonzo, but that he needed to clear this up before he died.

“It was a part of my life because I did what I needed to do to make things right. Now I can continue the righteous path. It was like a secret that I always had on my heart. I confessed it to God but as long as this dude, this guy is held down, is in prison, I still felt like it was something that I needed to do to make my relationship with God – I guess to strengthen it.”

The next day, Escamilla was executed by lethal injection at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville.

Later, his other brother, Jose Escamilla, was given immunity for his testimony. He would say in an affidavit that he was also at the party. He said he didn’t see his brother Licho Escamilla shoot Gauna. However, he said that Licho had told him that the shooting was to protect Juan, and that he only returned to the United States after Alonzo’s arrest because he thought he was in the clear.

After Licho Escamilla confessed to officials with the Dallas County CIU, his appellate counsel contacted the office and said that Escamilla had signed a statement waiving attorney-client privilege. That allowed the release of trial notes from 2002 that seemed to acknowledge Escamilla’s role in Gauna’s death.

The attorney's notes said in part:

Girls said – hey your brother in trouble in front

Israel – Father of Santos – in front of little brother – pushing

Licho pulled brother apart

Stood up to Israel

Pulled gun out – 38 revolver

In February 2017, Sanchez recanted her testimony. She said that she didn’t remember seeing Alonzo at the party. Her identification of Alonzo was six weeks after the shooting, but the circumstances of how her identification was made and the tactics of the police to secure her statement and testimony are not public. Her affidavit is under seal.

On May 30, 2018, Julie Lesser of the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Dallas County Criminal District Court. On the same day, the Dallas County CIU filed a response in support of the petition. The CIU’s motion said that Alonzo was innocent, and that his conviction arose from a flawed investigation and false testimony. It noted that prosecutors never corrected Berry’s false testimony; rather, it was emphasized during closing arguments.

That same day, Judge Carter Thompson issued findings of fact that recommended granting Alonzo’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Thompson said that Alonzo had met his burden of proof to show his actual innocence, and that Berry had given false or misleading testimony when he testified about the lack of any witnesses implicating Escamilla and about the ballistics report on the casing and the bullets.

In court, Thompson said: “But for a violation of his constitutional rights, he would not have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s the court's hope that you can move past the injustice done to you.”

Alonzo was released from prison that day on a writ bond. He said little in court, but was anxious to see his daughter graduate from high school.

Thompson’s ruling was a recommendation, and it needed to be approved by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Lesser filed an amended writ with that court in November 2018 that included a report from Dr. Roy Malpass, an expert on eyewitness identification. Malpass pointed out several flaws in the photo lineup presented to Israel Martinez, noting that Alonzo was the only person in the lineup with a widow’s peak in his hairline. There was also a question about cross-racial misidentification. While Alonzo is Hispanic, an initial police report said he was black. In the photo lineup, there were only two dark-skinned individuals, an arrangement that Malpass said increased the likelihood of misidentification.

The Court of Criminal Appeals set aside the convictions on October 2, 2019, issuing a mandate on October 31, 2019 and returning the case to Dallas County Criminal District Court. Judge Carter Thompson granted the district attorney’s motion to dismiss the charges on November 1, 2019.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 11/11/2019
Last Updated: 11/11/2019
State:Texas
County:Dallas
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault
Reported Crime Date:2001
Convicted:2003
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No