Closing arguments were slated for Thursday afternoon in the trial of three men charged with capital murder relating to the April 18, 2010, death of Ennis businessman Mohammad Hashemi.
If convicted, Ruben Hernandez, 19, Fernando Juarez, 18, and Eric Lee Maldonado, 22, would receive an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole.
A fourth co-defendant, 16-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez, has previously agreed to concurrent sentences of 45, 45 and 20 years on charges of murder, aggravated robbery and arson, respectively, in return for his testimony.
The trial is being heard in 40th District Court, Judge Bob Carroll presiding.
It was at about 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 18, that Hashemi left his business, the Exxon station located at Interstate 45 at Farm-to-Market 879 in Garrett, to make a night deposit at a Palmer bank.
His burned minivan was located that same night on a rural road south of Ennis; his body was recovered from a wooded area off of Old Highway 75 in Ennis two days later, with an autopsy showing the family man and father of seven had died from a single gunshot wound to the chest.
The state and defense attorneys for Juarez and Maldonado rested their cases as of Tuesday. Wednesday morning, a hearing was held outside of the jury’s presence relating to several issues relating to an affirmative defense Hernandez’s attorney, Vance Hinds, was seeking to advance: that his client had acted under duress because of threats against himself and his then-expectant wife. Hinds also was seeking to question witnesses, including Gonzalez, about alleged gang activity.
As testified to earlier in the trial, Hernandez had given the sheriff’s office a voluntary statement once in custody in which he said he was threatened by Juarez. Sheriff’s investigator Rick White testified he looked into that allegation but could not find any evidence to support Hernandez’s assertion.
Under the state Penal Code, “It is an affirmative defense to prosecution that the actor engaged in the proscribed conduct because he was compelled to do so by threat of imminent death or serious bodily injury to himself or another.”
In arguments during the hearing, chief felony prosecutor Don Maxfield said a defendant asserting an affirmative defense of duress must admit to the crime, with Hinds saying Hernandez had given a statement to authorities.
That statement admitted only to the offense of robbery and wasn’t an admission to the offense of capital murder, assistant district attorney Lindy Tober said, with Maxfield noting, “(Hernandez) can’t rely on the state’s burden of proof. … If he wants to avail himself of the duress defense, he has to put on an affirmative defense.”
In seeking a ruling in his favor, Hinds recalled several witnesses during the hearing, including Gonzalez, as well as other witnesses, to question them about whether they had knowledge of any alleged gang activity under the name of “17th Street” and if the defendants were members.
At the end of the hearing, Carroll ruled Hinds would not be able to question any witnesses in front of the jury about any alleged gang activity.
“I find that the testimony and evidence (received during the hearing outside of the jury’s presence) is not legally relevant to whether or not Fernando Juarez, Eric Lee Maldonado or Ruben Hernandez committed capital murder,” Carroll said, ruling also, “I do not find that the gang-relevant testimony and evidence is legally relevant to the defense.”
Among the witnesses Hinds did call in front of the jury were Hernandez’s wife and sister.
Under questioning from Maxfield, Hernandez’s wife said her husband, who was a clerk at Hashemi’s store, acted normal the day of the incident and didn’t show any signs of being scared or anxious. They were together during the day and when he went to work that afternoon, she went to visit her mother, she said.
She was home when he got off work, she testified, saying she said she fed him cake and chocolate milk and they watched some television before going to bed.
“He had no trouble falling asleep?” Maxfield asked. “He slept fine that night?”
“Yes,” the wife testified, saying she was not aware of any threats having been made toward her husband and or herself prior to the incident.
There were two girls at school who had made remarks to her afterwards, she said, testifying she reported those to the sheriff’s office.
The sister testified Hernandez had talked to her in the several weeks leading up to the incident, however.
“He was scared, worried, he didn’t want to go to work or go out of the house unless he was with Mom or Dad,” she testified, saying he also tried to keep his wife from leaving the home.
Both women said Hashemi had been a good boss to Hernandez, including loaning him money when he needed it. The sister said Hashemi, whom she described as “a very religious man,” had suspended her brother at times for being late to work but had always reinstated him.
The relationship between Hashemi and her brother was like family, she testified, saying Hashemi had planned to buy her brother and his expectant wife a crib.
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