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'Lovers' lane killer' to be executed for 2003 Texas murder

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© Mike Graczyk, Associated Press This May 9, 2018 photo shows Juan Edward Castillo at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Polunsky Unit near Livingston, Texas. Castillo who is convicted of killing Tommy Garcia Jr. is set for execution Wednesday, May 16, 2018, for the slaying more than 14 years ago. He'd be the sixth inmate put to death this year in Texas, more than any other state. (AP Photo/Mike…

By Keri Blakinger, Houston Chronicle, Houston Chronicle

First it was a filing error. Then a hurricane. Then a recantation. Now, Juan Castillo may be running out ways to avoid the grim fate the state of Texas has in store for him.

After three canceled death dates in one year, the condemned lovers' lane killer from San Antonio is again slated for execution Wednesday night. If everything goes to plan, he'll become the sixth man this year to meet his end in the Huntsville death chamber.

"I know when my son is gone he's going to be in the arms of my Lord," his mother June Castillo said. "I'd rather him be in my arms - but if the Lord wants him, I thank the Lord for not letting the devil have him."

The now-37-year-old was sent to death row in 2005 for the slaying of Tommy Garcia, Jr, an aspiring local rapper gunned down in a robbery that turned fatal.

It all happened in early December 2003, when Castillo and his girlfriend teamed up with another couple to target the 19-year-old musician, prosecutors said. With the promise of sex and drugs, Debra Espinosa - Castillo's then-girlfriend and Garcia's past lover - lured the unwitting victim to a secluded make-out spot.

There, two men in ski masks - later identified as Castillo and his friend Francisco Gonzales - attacked the couple as they sat in the car. They tore Garcia from the Camaro and shot him seven times, according to court records.

Espinosa and Gonzales both testified that it was Castillo who fired the fatal shots - but Castillo has long maintained that he didn't do it. In fact, he said, he wasn't even there.

There was never any physical evidence placing him at the scene, but prosecutors used a slew of sources to tie him to the crime. Aside from the eyewitness testimony, three others said they'd heard Castillo confess, and a fourth person said she'd seen him wearing the victim's distinctive jewelry in the days after the slaying.

But in the 13 years since his conviction, some pieces of the case have become less certain. Five years ago, one of the key witnesses against him – an informant who met Castillo in Bexar County jail – recanted his testimony.

"I described what Juan Castillo supposedly told me about the capital murder," ex-inmate Gerardo Gutierrez wrote in 2013. "Juan Castillo never told me this information about this capital murder case. This testimony was untrue about Juan Castillo. I made up this testimony to try to help myself."

That recantation eventually won Castillo a stay of execution. But when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sent the case back to a lower court, the judge deemed that change of heart unreliable and rejected the legal claim within a day - before the defense had a chance to weigh in.

"It's really unusual and strange," said Amanda Marzullo, executive director of Texas Defender Services, said at the time. "It's a clear due process violation."

But Bexar County prosecutor Matthew Howard said the federal courts had already reviewed that claim and rejected it, well before it ever went back into state courts.

"That affidavit had already floated through the justice system for a while," he said. "So it wasn't exactly new evidence by the time it was presented to the CCA."

Then last week, defense attorneys entered a filing poking holes in two other state witnesses and accusing prosecutors of withholding evidence.

But on Monday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals turned down that claim, hours after the Supreme Court rejected an appeal centered on the recanted testimony.

"There are serious issues with his case, which no court has given meaningful review," Marzullo said.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted to reject a clemency recommendation, despite a 173-page petition detailing Castillo's rough childhood and raising questions about his case.

Wednesday's execution date is Castillo's fourth in a year. Last May's date was rescheduled after prosecutors failed to give 90-day notice to the defense. Then, a September execution was pushed back in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and a December death date was called off in light of the recanted testimony.

But by late Monday, it appeared Castillo had seemingly run out of appeals options. His last hope lay in a letter to the governor begging for a 30-day stay.

For the victim's family, Howard said, the upcoming deadline brings a promise of closure.

"This has been a long process for them," he said. "It's been more than 15 years now and they are certainly ready for this chapter to come to a close."

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U.S. - U.S. Daily News: 'Lovers' lane killer' to be executed for 2003 Texas murder
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