The Case of Juan Garza - Trial

The Case of Juan Garza

The Trial

Guilt/Innocence Phase

The first phase of Juan Garza’s capital trial began on July 7, 1993.

Capital trials are different from murder trials in which the defendant is not eligible for the death penalty in several ways. First, jury selection in capital cases requires that prospective jurors be "death qualified," i.e., questioned about their ability to consider both aggravating and mitigating evidence and to render a death sentence in an appropriate case. In federal capital cases, the voir dire is conducted by the judge; the participation of the prosecuting and defense attorneys is limited.

After the jury is chosen, the government has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and offers evidence to convince the jury that the defendant committed the offense. In response, the defendant may offer evidence to rebut the prosecution’s evidence. Although the defendant has no burden of proof and is presumed innocent until proven otherwise, he or she may introduce evidence to weaken the prosecution’s case or to help establish innocence.

The Prosecution’s Case

Mark Patterson and Jose Angel Moreno, assistant United States Attorneys for the Southern District of Texas, led the case against Garza. The prosecution’s case included testimony from U.S. Customs agent Mark Reich, who stated that Garza’s trafficking enterprise smuggled more than 7,000 pounds of marijuana from southern Mexico into south Texas. Garza’s organization netted millions of dollars. The prosecution also brought in Emilio Garza, Juan Garza’s nephew, as a witness. Emilio testified that his uncle had murdered Thomas Rumbo, one of Garza’s three alleged victims, because he suspected him of stealing marijuana.

In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Moreno told jurors that Garza was a drug lord who "thought he was so far above the law that killing was just a matter of business" (James Pinkerton, The Houston Chronicle, July 29, 1993).

The Defense’s Case

A former federal prosecutor, Philip Hilder, represented Juan Garza during his trial. Hilder stated during closing arguments that while Garza "may be less than an angel,” he was not as powerful of a “drug lord” as the government made him out to be (ibid). In fact, Hilder stressed, Garza lived in a mobile home on a two-acre piece of land.

The Verdict

On July 29, 1993, the jury, of which 6 of the jurors were Hispanic, unanimously found Garza guilty on all counts.

The Trial: Penalty Phase

Juan Raul Garza’s sentencing hearing began on the same day that he was convicted in front of the same jury from the guilt phase of the trial. In federal cases, and in most states, at the penalty phase of the trial, the jury chooses between a sentence of death and life imprisonment. The jury must decide whether the case involves specified “aggravating circumstances” (facts that make the crime more heinous or make the defendant more deserving of death) and whether it involves any “mitigating circumstances” (facts that extenuate the crime or make the defendant less culpable), and, finally, whether the aggravating circumstances or the mitigating circumstances are weightier. There is no specific formula, and the jury may choose a life sentence despite the presence of numerous aggravating factors.

For a recommendation of death, according to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act under which Garza was tried, the jury must unanimously find beyond a reasonable doubt one aggravating factor from the following:

(1) The defendant –

(A) intentionally killed the victim;

(B) intentionally inflicted serious bodily injury which resulted in the death of the victim;

(C) intentionally engaged in conduct intending that the victim be killed or that lethal force be employed against the victim, which resulted in the death of the victim;

(D) intentionally engaged in conduct which –

(i) the defendant knew would create a grave risk of death to a person, other than one of the participants in the offense; and

(ii) resulted in the death of the victim

as well as one or more of the other aggravating factors listed (see “Federal Mitigating and Aggravating Factors”). If the jury does not find these aggravating factors, a sentence other than death must be imposed.

The Act also permits presentation by the defense of evidence of any of the mitigating factors. Mitigating factors can potentially alleviate the severity of the defendant's sentence. To find any mitigating factor in federal cases, only one juror needs to be convinced.

After they determine the presence of mitigating and aggravating factors, the jury then determines if the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors. They are not required to recommend a death sentence even if they find that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors.

Reasons for Sentencing Garza to Death

In the penalty phase of Garza’s trial, the prosecution introduced evidence obtained from Mexican law enforcement officials about four unsolved homicides in Mexico:

  • Oscar Cantu, 54, was found dead in Reynosa in April 1991
  • Fernando Escobar Garcia’s body was discovered by Mexican officials in May of 1991
  • Lauro Antonio Nieto, 32, was found dead in Mexico in May 1991
  • Garza’s son-in-law, Bernabe Sosa, 21, a member of the Garza organization, was found dead near the Rio Grande in Mexico on Jan. 22, 1992 (James Pinkerton, The Houston Chronicle, January 7, 1993).

One U.S. Customs agent and four prior members of Garza’s organization, including co-defendants Israel and Jesus Flores, testified about Garza’s links to these murders committed on foreign soil.

When the prosecution in a case introduces a crime allegedly perpetrated by the defendant, a crime for which the defendant has never been charged, tried, or convicted, it is termed an “unadjudicated” crime. Garza was never formally charged, tried, or convicted in the U.S. or in Mexico for the four Mexican murders. Nevertheless, the federal government introduced evidence that Garza probably committed these murders, in addition to those adjudicated in the guilt phase, as an indication of Garza’s dangerousness and as aggravating factors.

Israel Flores’ Testimony

A former top associate of Garza, Israel Flores, testified in the sentencing phase for the prosecution in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. According to Flores, Garza frequently used violence as a way to control his employees. In May of 1991, Garza flew to Veracruz to execute Fernando Escobar-Garcia, one of Garza’s dealers. Flores testified that Garza “said he was going to get rid of Fernando because he didn't have no use for him. He just turned around and shot Fernando a couple of times."

Around the same time, Israel Flores and Antonio Nieto, another worker for Garza, lost $20,000 of Garza’s money on a trip to purchase marijuana in Veracruz, Mexico. Garza allegedly then ordered Flores to kill Nieto a week after the murder of Escobar-Garcia. "He said he was getting tired of Tonio,” Flores stated. “He said if I didn't get rid of Tonio, he would get rid of me and Tonio." Flores shot Nieto twice in the stomach and twice in the head (James Pinkerton, The Houston Chronicle, July 29, 1993).

Jesus Flores’ Testimony

Israel Flores' cousin, Jesus Flores, likewise testified during the penalty phase of Garza’s trial. He testified that in January of 1992, Garza ordered the murder of his own son-in-law, Bernabe Sosa, in Mexico. According to Flores, Garza held Sosa accountable for the seizure of a shipment of marijuana in Houston. Two other associates of Garza killed Sosa outside of Rio Bravo, Mexico.

Flores also testified that Garza helped to murder his own sister-in-law, Diana Flores Villarreal, in July of 1991. As with Sosa, Garza did not trust Villarreal, and he suspected that she had given information to the police that led to the confiscation of drug money. Flores stated, "He [Garza] said he thought she was laughing at him because of the money getting seized and he wasn't able to do nothing. He said nobody was going to laugh at him." Garza allegedly ordered Flores to buy syringes with which to inject Villarreal’s body with cocaine in an attempt to make her death look like an overdose. Another of Garza’s underlings, Emilio "Biggie" Gonzalez punched and choked Villarreal while Flores injected her with cocaine. Garza told Gonzalez and Flores to tie a rope around her neck to be sure she was dead. Emilio Gonzalez testified early in the trial in return for a lesser sentence (James Pinkerton, The Houston Chronicle, July 29, 1993).

Greg Srader’s Testimony

Greg Srader, Garza’s nephew, also testified as a former member of the drug trafficking organization. Srader testified that Garza ordered the murder of his pilot, Oscar Cantu, because he had lost tens of thousands of dollars of Garza’s money. Cantu had allegedly told Garza that the Mexican federal police had stolen the money and tortured him by electro-shocking his genitals. Despite showing Garza the scars from his torture, Garza ordered the murder of Cantu in April of 1991.

Co-Defendant Testimony and Sentencing

All three of Garza’s co-defendants - Manuel Flores, Israel Flores, and Jesus Flores - received lesser sentences than Garza, the latter two in return for their testimony against Garza. Despite his active involvement in the murders of Matos, De la Fuente, Nieto, and Garcia, Israel Flores received a prison sentence of only 10 years, and Jesus Flores received a 10-year sentence for his participation in the murders of De la Fuente, Rumbo, and Sosa (see table below).

Reasons for Sparing Garza’s Life

Garza’s attorneys presented the jury with evidence to support nine mitigating factors. They highlighted the fact that in two of the murders, Garza was not even the perpetrator of the homicide. Likewise, Garza’s co-defendants received reduced sentences in return for their testimony against Garza, calling into question the reliability of the testimony itself as well as the proportionality of sentencing. Manuel Flores committed similar crimes to Garza, yet he only received life in prison.


The defense also noted that Garza was a migrant worker until the age of 12. The final question they posed to the jury was, "By your decision, you already have given Juan Raul Garza the death penalty. The question is when will Juan Garza die. Will he die naturally or will he die prematurely?” (James Pinkerton, The Houston Chronicle, July 29, 1993).

Jury’s Penalty Verdict

The final arguments in the penalty phase for Juan Garza ended on July 31, 1993, and the jury subsequently began deliberations.

On August 2, the jury completed their deliberations on the aggravating and mitigating factors. The jury found beyond a reasonable doubt the following non-statutory (not stated in the law) aggravating factors:

1. JUAN RAUL GARZA intentionally engaged in conduct intending that OSCAR CANTU be killed and/or that lethal force be employed against OSCAR CANTU, which resulted in his death.

3. JUAN RAUL GARZA committed the killing of OSCAR CANTU after substantial planning and premeditation.

4. JUAN RAUL GARZA intentionally engaged in conduct intending that ANTONIO NIETO be killed and/or that lethal force be employed against ANTONIO NIETO, which resulted in his death.

5. JUAN RAUL GARZA committed the killing of ANTONIO NIETO after substantial planning and premeditation.

6. JUAN RAUL GARZA intentionally engaged in conduct intending that BERNABE SOSA be killed and/or that lethal force be employed against BERNABE SOSA, which resulted in his death.

7. JUAN RAUL GARZA procured the killing of BERNABE SOSA by payment and/or promise of payment of something of pecuniary value.

8. JUAN RAUL GARZA committed the killing of BERNABE SOSA after substantial planning and premeditation.

9. JUAN RAUL GARZA intentionally killed DIANA FLORES VILLARREAL, in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise.

10. JUAN RAUL GARZA intentionally engaged in conduct intending that DIANA FLORES VILLARREAL be killed and/or that lethal force be employed against DIANA FLORES VILLARREAL, which resulted in her death.

11. JUAN RAUL GARZA intentionally killed FERNANDO ESCOBAR-GARCIA in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise.

12. JUAN RAUL GARZA committed the killing of FERNANDO ESCOBAR-GARCIA after substantial planning and premeditation.

The jury failed to find only one non-statutory aggravating factor. They did not find that Juan Raul Garza ordered the murder of Oscar Cantu by promise of payment. While finding the above aggravating factors made the death penalty a sentencing option for Garza, the jury was not obligated to recommend death.

The jury also found four of the nine specified mitigating factors:

2. JUAN RAUL GARZA was under unusual and substantial duress, regardless of whether the duress was of such a degree as to constitute a defense to the charge.

5. JUAN RAUL GARZA was youthful, although not under the age of 18.

8. Another defendant or defendants, equally culpable in the crime, will not be punished by death.

9. The victim consented to the criminal conduct that resulted in the victim's death.

Based upon the weight of the aggravating factors and the mitigating factors, the jury recommended the death penalty. The judge in federal capital cases is bound by the jury’s recommendation whether it be the death penalty or not. Upon hearing the jury’s decision, U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela, also an Hispanic-American, told Garza, "The only thing that I can ask you to consider is to start making your peace to your God” (The Houston Chronicle, August 3, 1993).


Juan Garza was sentenced to death by Judge Vela on August 10, 1993.