Prosecutors continue to present their case against defendant Miguel Arciba, who is on trial for capital murder in 40th District Court, Judge Gene Knize presiding.
If convicted, Arciba faces an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole relating to the death of Doris Phillips, 81, who disappeared from her Reagor Springs home July 25, 2006.
Arciba, 50, was initially arrested Sept. 3, 2006, on a burglary charge relating to the case and has remained in custody since on a $1 million bond. According to testimony Wednesday, several days after his arrest, investigators facilitated an emotional meeting between Arciba and his own elderly mother. After that meeting, Arciba led authorities to Phillips’ body in a abandoned house on a desolate stretch of Farm-to-Market 984 north of Bardwell.
“He said he was ready to take us to the location where Mrs. Phillips was stabbed,” sheriff’s investigator Johnny Cruz said.
Prosecutors have alleged in the indictment that Arciba, the son of a former farm worker for the Phillips family, killed Doris Phillips during the course of either kidnapping her, robbing her or burglarizing her property. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty in the case.
In defending Arciba, Waxahachie-based attorney Charles Slaton has continued to question the state’s witnesses along several lines: a) whether Arciba was coerced and threatened or had any of his other rights violated during either his voluntary interviews or later on after he was taken into custody; b) whether the chain of custody was broken relating to evidence developed in the case; and c) whether a second individual, a man Arciba told authorities was named Israel Valdez, was the actual perpetrator in the case.
Pre-trial motions relating to the defense’s positions on several of the issues were previously denied by Knize, with Slaton now raising his questions in front of the seven-male, five-female jury, which also has a male and a female alternate jurors.
Second person involved?
Much has been made of an “Israel Valdez” during the trial, with investigators saying they put in numerous manhours while conducting an extensive investigation into whether or not there was a Valdez character as described to them by Arciba.
Texas Ranger Mark Reinhardt testified Arciba told him that Valdez dropped (Arciba) off at a local bar while (Valdez) drove off with Phillips the night she disappeared. Arciba said Valdez returned later, alone, and the two men shared several drinks at the local bar before going to yet another bar out-of-town. Reinhardt said he checked into the story, but the local bar where Arciba said the two men were was closed the night in question – and the men couldn’t have been there.
Arciba also told investigators Valdez was a known criminal and drug dealer-type with the Ennis Police Department and another local agency. No criminal records for an “Israel Valdez” were found with those agencies, however, with investigators saying they went on to check every Israel Valdez in the Department of Public Safety’s database and couldn’t match any of them to the age and physical description given by Arciba – nor could authorities locate a vehicle to match the pickup Arciba said Valdez drove.
Arciba’s roommate didn’t match the name or description and no one besides Arciba was ever able to provide any information about an Israel Valdez, investigators said.
Investigators also testified Arciba told them he had purchased a shotgun identified as taken from Phillips’ residence from a Hispanic man. Arciba told investigators he bought the weapon from the man in an Exxon station’s parking lot one weekend in Ennis. Investigators said they reviewed hours of store videotapes from four different weekends to verify Arciba’s story, but never saw him there.
With no struggle noted at Phillips’ house and no evidence of any blood found at that location, prosecutors have theorized Phillips was killed instead at the abandoned house where her body was found. Details of that crime scene were introduced Wednesday, with prosecutors presenting numerous photos of the ramshackle house and its interior.
Hix, who took the photographs as the sheriff’s office’s crime scene investigator, said the house was in a state of disrepair, with the floor strewn almost solid with pieces of sheetrock that had been pulled from the walls.
It appeared someone had begun to remodel the house but had abandoned the effort, Hix said, testifying, “It was extremely dusty; there were some tools left behind. … It was very much in disarray.”
Phillips’ body was found in the back bedroom, with her head turned toward the right. Her T-shirt had been removed and was wadded up in a ball near her feet, Hix said, noting that her otherwise-clothed body was facedown.
“The body we recovered from the house appeared to have been there for quite some time,” Hix said. “It was in a state of decomposition.”
The sheriff’s office had the Department of Public Safety crime lab process the scene, with Hix reporting one subsequent finding was blood stains on Phillips’ T-shirt.
The crime lab also processed a search warrant that was obtained for Arciba’s car, from which preliminary testimony indicates a knife and other trace evidence were recovered.
Citing recent appellate court rulings, Knize denied prosecutors’ requests to admit photos of Phillips’ badly decomposed body into evidence for the jury to view.
“The prosecution wants the shock value of the photos,” Slaton had said, voicing his objection on the grounds they would be prejudicial to his client.
In making his ruling, Knize said the appellate court is allowing certain evidence such as graphic photos only if there is an issue in dispute, otherwise their prejudicial effect is deemed in excess of their probative value.
It used to be that if a witness could describe what was in a photo, it could be admitted, the judge said, noting the standard later became one of a balancing test in which the judge weighed prejudicial versus probative values.
The appellate court has raised the bar again, though, with a judge having to consider whether there is a dispute of fact that would allow admission of a piece of evidence in spite of its prejudicial effect on a jury.
Testimony from the investigators about the condition of the body as they saw it indicates it was almost mummified, with the remains weighing only 26 pounds when collected as a result of the loss in tissue.
During his opening argument, chief felony prosecutor Don Maxfield said medical examiners were able to identify a fracture in Phillips’ skull that by itself could have caused her death. The complete medical examiners’ report has yet to be introduced at trial.
Knize did admit into evidence, over defense objections, photos relating to how medical examiners identified Phillips through her dental work. The photos used were of her upper palate and lower jawbone only and showed how her partial dentures – which had been left in her house the night she disappeared – fit the remains that were found.
Testimony, which is expected to take about a week to complete, continues Thursday morning.
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