Obel Cruz-Garcia, a 46-year-old Dominican man who did not speak English, sat in a Houston courtroom on a Friday in July 2013. He faced a jury that would decide whether to sentence him to death for the gruesome killing of 6-year-old Angelo Garcia — a crime he has maintained he did not commit. His life, quite literally, depended on the outcome of the case.
Like most people who end up on death row, Cruz-Garcia could not afford to hire a lawyer for the resource-intensive process of a capital trial, and Harris County, Texas, doesn’t offer public defenders in death penalty cases. Instead, he was appointed a private defense lawyer named R.P. “Skip” Cornelius, who made a living billing the county to represent more than 100 indigent clients a year. Cornelius was paid a flat fee to represent Cruz-Garcia, regardless of how much time he spent working on the case.
The state’s case against Cruz-Garcia had significant holes. It relied almost entirely on witnesses with changing stories, and on shaky DNA evidence that, at most, connected Cruz-Garcia to the scene of the crime but not the crime itself. Even if the state could convince jurors of Cruz-Garcia’s guilt, there was plenty of evidence that he was not the “worst-of-the-worst” criminal — the kind of person the death penalty is supposedly reserved for.
But Cornelius was unable to persuade jurors that Cruz-Garcia was innocent or even deserved not to be executed. The first time a member of his legal team visited Cruz-Garcia in jail was in May 2012, more than eight months after Cornelius was appointed to the case. Cornelius only visited his client in jail twice. He declined to hire a DNA expert to testify at trial, despite how pivotal that evidence was to the state’s case. He also missed key opportunities to discredit the state’s witnesses, according to lawyers now managing Cruz-Garcia’s appeal. After his client was convicted, Cornelius found just three witnesses who knew Cruz-Garcia to tell jurors why he deserved to live. A fourth defense witness, who knew Cruz-Garcia from jail, heard about the trial and showed up on his own to help his friend.
Throughout Cruz-Garcia’s seven-week trial, Cornelius billed Harris County more than $33,000 for work on other cases — nearly the base flat rate offered to defense lawyers for their work on an entire death penalty case at the time. Cornelius “failed to perform basic tasks necessary for a competent representation,” Cruz-Garcia’s current lawyers wrote last year in a 255-page petition for writ of habeas corpus, asking a federal court to vacate his death sentence.
The jury reached its verdict after one day of deliberations: Cruz-Garcia was sentenced to death.
Cornelius repeatedly blamed Cruz-Garcia for the outcome, claiming he did not do enough to assist in his own defense. “He refused to give us any understanding of the facts,” Cornelius wrote in an email to HuffPost. “In 50 years I have never had that happen before or after.”
Cornelius is proud of his record defending indigent clients, he said in an interview. He doesn’t know how many death penalty cases he has worked on, but in 38 years of death penalty litigation, he’s had 10 clients sent to death row, he said. He believes that his decades of experience, willingness to work long hours, and assistance from his wife, who is also a lawyer, have enabled him to manage his heavy caseload. He firmly rejected the idea that he was ever stretched too thin. Cornelius, who has been licensed to practice law in Texas since 1972, has no public disciplinary history.
Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone accused of a felony had a guaranteed right to a lawyer, even if they could not afford to hire one. But with public defense perpetually underfunded, there is no guarantee that your lawyer will have enough time to devote to your case. And in Harris County, which has executed more people than any other county in the U.S., the indigent defense system has made it exceedingly likely that poor people facing the death penalty will receive shoddy representation.
The relatively new Harris County Public Defender’s Office is not funded to handle death penalty cases. Instead, the judge in a given case will appoint defense counsel from a cadre of private lawyers.
Defense lawyers vying for indigent appointments often donate to trial judges’ election campaigns, creating a system that legal scholars have described as “judicial pay to play.” Those judges typically decide whether to grant lawyers’ requests to hire investigators and experts.
At the time of Cruz-Garcia’s arrest, appointed defense lawyers could opt to receive a flat fee for each death penalty case, rather than billing hourly. This incentivized a high caseload over effective representation — more cases, not more legal work per se, was how to maximize income. This setup also benefited judges, who often ran for reelection touting the number of cases they cleared during their previous term. And because it’s politically beneficial for judges to keep their dockets moving quickly, there was an unspoken understanding that lawyers who requested additional resources risked falling out of favor with judges and losing out on future appointments.
Today, lawyers on capital cases are paid hourly, although the elimination of the flat-fee option has not stopped some private lawyers from taking caseloads that exceed state and federal guidelines, according to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission’s caseload dashboard. Although there are private lawyers who provide excellent legal representation to their indigent clients, some use the indigent defense system as a cash cow, quickly churning through cases and dedicating minimal attention to each client.
A HuffPost investigation based on interviews with Cruz-Garcia, his current lawyers, Cornelius, Harris County public officials and multiple capital defense lawyers, as well as thousands of pages of court records and an analysis of campaign finance data and public caseload reports, suggests that once accused, Cruz-Garcia never had a fair chance of staying off of death row.
Since his 2013 conviction, Cruz-Garcia has been represented by several lawyers as he’s worked his way through the appeals process and habeas proceedings — the mechanism by which an individual can challenge the legality of their imprisonment. These lawyers have collected thousands of pages of expert reports, public records and affidavits from family members, friends and associates. Much of the information in these documents was available at trial. Together, they present a very different story than the one jurors heard. Although they do not definitively prove Cruz-Garcia’s innocence, they cast serious doubt on his guilt.
Cruz-Garcia’s case is not a horrific anomaly. Rather, it’s an example of how Harris County, the execution capital of the U.S., built a system to deny poor people facing the death penalty a fair shot at trial — and has steadfastly resisted reform.
Because Cruz-Garcia is still seeking review of his case in federal court, his lawyers, whom the Texas Department of Criminal Justice does not allow to attend media interviews, advised him not to answer any questions about the crime. I agreed to an interview under these conditions because this story is not an effort to prove his innocence. I was primarily interested in learning about his court fight and whether he felt Cornelius had done everything he could to save his life. Scheduling a visit was a challenge because the TDCJ only allows media interviews at the Polunsky Unit, where men on death row are imprisoned, on Wednesdays. The state’s last four executions of 2022 were on a Wednesday, and the TDCJ doesn’t allow both on the same day.
The men on death row spend most of their lives in solitary confinement, which is recognized by the United Nations as a form of torture, as they trudge through an appeals process designed to uphold death sentences in most circumstances. Cruz-Garcia is so isolated that despite being on Texas’ death row for nearly a decade, he has been unable to learn English, and so we communicated through an interpreter.
When I arrived at Polunsky in November, Cruz-Garcia sat in a small cage equipped with a phone he used to communicate through a thick pane of glass. Although the weather that day was pleasant, the temperature inside the prison was frigid. Cruz-Garcia wore a white turtleneck under his prison-issued smock with the letters “DR” stamped on his back. He keeps his clothes impeccably white by hand-washing them in his cell. Now 55 years old, he has a salt-and-pepper goatee that frames an easy smile.
For a man living under the slow, lingering threat of execution for a crime he says he didn’t commit, Cruz-Garcia appeared remarkably at peace with his circumstances. He spoke matter-of-factly about the experience of going through a death penalty trial with what he said was minimal legal assistance, but did not seem resentful toward Cornelius. He even has a nickname for his old lawyer: “Súper Abogado,” or super lawyer, a joking reference to the number of cases Cornelius juggled at a time.
Deeply religious, Cruz-Garcia speaks with the lightness of someone who has fully surrendered control of his fate.
Perhaps it is a coping mechanism, but he insists he isn’t lonely: “God’s with me.”
He doesn’t fear death: “I know, for myself, I’m going to go to God someday.”
But he hasn’t given up: “I still feel like it’s going to work out.”
‘I Just Kind Of Saw Him Pass By’
In the fall of 1992, Diana Garcia and her partner, Arturo Rodriguez, told police that two masked men had broken into their apartment, beaten Rodriguez, raped Garcia and kidnapped her 6-year-old son Angelo. Garcia (who is not related to Cruz-Garcia) eventually admitted to police that she and her partner sold drugs. They said Cruz-Garcia was their drug supplier but they did not identify him as one of the intruders.
Law enforcement processed a sexual assault evidence kit, a cutting from Garcia’s underwear and a cigar from the apartment. They stored the evidence at the Houston Police Department’s crime lab. A body found in a mud flat about a month later was identified through dental records as Angelo. But police could not identify the perpetrator or locate Cruz-Garcia and the case went cold.
Shortly after Angelo disappeared, Cruz-Garcia returned to Puerto Rico, where he had lived before coming to Houston. He traveled back and forth between Puerto Rico and his home country, the Dominican Republic. In 2001, he was arrested for kidnapping two people in Puerto Rico and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
“My life was a disaster,” Cruz-Garcia told me.
During his incarceration in Puerto Rico, Cruz-Garcia had a spiritual experience. While in his cell, he heard the word of God. “It was transformative,” he said.
Back in Texas, the Houston Police Department created a cold case unit in 2004 to reexamine unsolved homicides. HPD Sgt. Eric Mehl combed through old cases, paying close attention to those that required DNA analysis to move forward.
By then, the DNA section of HPD’s crime lab had been shut down after a 2002 state audit revealed that DNA technicians misinterpreted data, were badly trained, kept poor records, and repeatedly used all of the DNA evidence, making it impossible for another expert to check their work. A subsequent report by an independent investigator found that evidence related to rape and homicide cases was water-damaged during a storm and employees had no sense of which cases were affected. Retesting of the lab’s DNA analysis has led to multiple exonerations.
DNA evidence from Angelo’s case was stored, handled and processed by the HPD crime lab technicians, but they were unable to connect the evidence to a suspect at the time of the crime. When Mehl came across the case, he sent the evidence to a third-party lab called Orchid Cellmark. Once law enforcement learned that Cruz-Garcia was incarcerated in Puerto Rico, FBI agents went to the prison to collect a DNA sample, which was also sent to Orchid Cellmark.
In 2008, Orchid Cellmark linked Cruz-Garcia’s DNA to the cigar, underwear cutting and vaginal swabs from the sexual assault kit. It didn’t prove he had killed Angelo, but it was enough for the state to move forward. That same year, 16 years after the crime, Cruz-Garcia was charged with murder and transferred to the Houston jail to await trial.
Cruz-Garcia’s family fundraised through their church to hire private lawyers who visited him regularly and kept him apprised of their strategy and developments in the case, he said. But when the state later decided to seek the death penalty, those lawyers withdrew. The money Cruz-Garcia’s family raised was not enough to hire a new lawyer who could take on a death penalty case. In August 2011, Cornelius was appointed as first chair, with another private lawyer named Mario Madrid, who spoke Spanish, serving as second chair. As first chair, Cornelius was responsible for directing the strategy of the case.
“It was a fascinating case,” Cornelius said in a phone interview. “I thought it was really a fun case.”
When Cornelius, 74, graduated from Baylor University’s law school, everyone told him the best way to get trial experience was to work in the district attorney’s office in a major city. He grew up in Houston, so he applied for the Harris County DA’s office, got hired, and was in the courtroom the following week.
In his 30s, Cornelius transitioned into criminal defense work, specializing in capital murder litigation. “I just loved being in trial,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words. I don’t know, I loved everything. I loved preparing for trial. I loved the legal issues. I loved the appellate process.”
He found he preferred defense work to being a prosecutor. “I really like helping people,” he said. “I found that if you really worked hard for your client, especially as I was getting the more serious cases — those people had been around the block and they knew what it was like to have a lawyer that actually worked for them.
“They frankly really appreciated it. And it made me appreciate them,” he said.
Over time, indigent cases became the bulk of Cornelius’ caseload. Wealthy clients, with their country club dues, multiple cars and college tuition, were often the slowest to pay, and he hated bugging people for money, he said. “I liked representing people that couldn’t pay me and saw how hard I worked for them. I got paid a reasonable fee. And that was a reward.”
“I got paid plenty of money being a court-appointed lawyer, to be honest.”
By the time Cornelius was appointed to represent Cruz-Garcia, his caseload had already attracted significant attention.
The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends a cap of 150 felony cases a year, a guideline the Harris County Public Defender’s Office continues to follow. A 2013 evaluation of the office by the Council of State Governments Justice Center compared similar cases and found that Harris County public defenders “outperformed appointed attorneys with every measure as they achieved a greater proportion of dismissals, deferred sentences, and acquittals, and a smaller proportion of clients found guilty.”
Although the Harris County office has never taken death penalty cases, another public defender’s office in Texas that specializes in capital cases was advised to cap caseloads at five active cases per lawyer — with no additional noncapital cases. A 2016 assessment of that office found that even increasing the cap from five to six capital cases “appears to be too high to comply with the [American Bar Association] Guidelines.”
Cornelius’ caseload often exceeded both the guidelines for capital and noncapital cases simultaneously. In 2009, he was one of the lawyers featured in a KHOU story about Harris County’s indigent defense system, described by one expert as “among the most flawed” in the country belonging to a major metropolitan area. According to KHOU, Cornelius made about $1.9 million in eight years — an average of $237,500 a year — representing people who were too poor to hire a lawyer.
“I’ve never seen an attorney capable of handling that entire workload and giving effective representation in every single case,” David Carroll, then the research director for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, told KHOU at the time.
Cornelius rejected the idea that his caseload compromised his ability to effectively represent his clients. “You can do all the statistics you want but it depends on how hard the lawyer’s willing to work,” he told KHOU. “You can check with the people that clean this building. I am the last one to leave every night.”
Cornelius told HuffPost that his decades of experience enabled him to effectively represent his clients without adhering to the guidelines. “Those guidelines? They’re probably very useful for somebody who’s a new lawyer,” Cornelius said. “If you’ve handled 100 or 1,000 less-than-a-gram cocaine cases, you really don’t need to spend 10 hours on the next one you get.”
He said in an email that lawyers who work on cases post-conviction “like to cut and paste graphs and charts of guidelines of how many hours a lawyer should spend” on each case and “take the total number of cases the attorney has handled for a year or month, or whatever looks better for the Writ and conclude that the lawyer did not have enough time to properly do their work.”
At the time Cornelius was appointed to Cruz-Garcia’s case, death penalty cases in Harris County carried a base flat fee of $35,000 for the first chair and $30,000 for the second chair. But Cornelius and Madrid secured $65,000 and $60,000, respectively, justifying the higher fee by pointing to the complexity of the case. Madrid, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, has no public disciplinary history.
In an email, Cornelius equated the flat fee structure to a salary. “Let me point out to you what should be obvious especially if you are paid a flat fee, like a salary. All of the Judges work for a flat fee, all of the DA’s work for a flat fee, all of the Public Defenders work for a flat fee, all of the court personnel work for a flat fee, all of the police officers work for a flat fee, for all I know the writ writers work for a flat fee; do you get my drift?” he wrote, referring to people whose yearly income does not change based on the number of cases they work.
Cruz-Garcia’s case centered on questionable DNA evidence and supposed eyewitness testimony from people whose stories changed over time. Many of Cruz-Garcia’s associates at the time of the crime sold drugs and had reason to fear getting involved. Most of his friends and family, who could speak to his character and difficult childhood — both of which would be key in determining his punishment if convicted — lived in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic and did not speak English. Both proving his innocence and, if that failed, proving that he didn’t deserve to die, would require dogged investigative work.
But Cornelius failed to investigate key elements of Cruz-Garcia’s case, according to Cruz-Garcia and his current lawyers.
“I didn’t even meet anyone [from the legal team] until eight months” after Cornelius was appointed, Cruz-Garcia said when I spoke with him. “Really, I just kind of saw him pass by. And now I know why,” he continued, referring to Cornelius’ caseload.
Cornelius said in an email that he likely would have spoken privately with Cruz-Garcia each time he appeared in court, which was “infinitely better than a jail visit.” He added that trial preparation may have been delayed by waiting for discovery, difficulty finding a mitigation expert, working on other trials and “defendant’s reluctance or refusal to participate in his own defense.”
Ahead of the trial, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office invited Cornelius to review its entire case file. The DA’s open-file policy is designed to insulate the office from accusations that it failed to disclose “Brady material,” or evidence that is exculpatory for the defense. Reviewing a prosecutor’s entire file instead of just the Brady material they voluntarily disclose can obviously be useful for the defense, but it’s also time-consuming and Cornelius indicated he did not intend to sift through thousands of pages of documents.
“I don’t have a responsibility to go through your file,” he told Assistant District Attorney Natalie Tise at trial.
Years later, when Cruz-Garcia first raised ineffective assistance of counsel claims in state habeas proceedings, Cornelius wrote in a 2016 affidavit that he did see the state’s file “many times” when prosecutors brought it to court. However, it’s unclear from the affidavit if he is claiming to have reviewed the entire file, and whether he would have had time to review so much paperwork in court.
“In truth I took the position,” Cornelius wrote in an email to HuffPost, “which was the law, that the prosecution has to give the defense all the discovery they are entitled to and if this is not done the prosecutor is proceeding at their own risk.”
“You ask did I see the entire file,” he continued. “How would I ever know. I ultimately saw whatever they brought to court saying it was their entire file.”
Jury selection began on June 3, 2013, and lasted 11 days. Cornelius billed at least 2 1/2 hours to other cases on 10 of those days, sometimes as many as seven or eight hours a day, according to Cruz-Garcia’s habeas petition. During jury selection, he also claimed 19 fees for appearing in court for other cases, for which he was paid a total of $3,450.
‘DNA Evidence, It’s Not Very Complicated’
According to the state’s theory of the crime, Cruz-Garcia and two associates named Carmelo Rudy Martinez Santana and Roger Aviles-Barroso kidnapped Angelo from his mother’s apartment and drove him about 30 minutes east to Baytown. There, according to prosecutors, Cruz-Garcia directed Aviles-Barroso to stab Angelo to death. Next, prosecutors said, they put Angelo’s body back in the car, drove a short distance, and Cruz-Garcia instructed the other two men to dump the boy’s body into the water.
Aviles-Barroso, who also maintained his innocence, was convicted of capital murder, but prosecutors never sought the death penalty. Santana, who testified against both Cruz-Garcia and Aviles-Barroso, was never charged with a crime in connection with the kidnapping and murder.
Angelo’s mother, Diana Garcia, and her partner, Arturo Rodriguez, both testified at Cruz-Garcia’s trial about the assault and kidnapping but said that they could not identify the masked perpetrators.
The state’s case against Cruz-Garcia hinged on DNA evidence, which was the only forensic evidence tying him to the crime. “On the DNA alone, you could convict the defendant,” Tise told jurors at trial.
Steven Shellist, the defense lawyer Cruz-Garcia initially hired, recognized that DNA analysis would be a crucial part of the case. Before withdrawing, Shellist contacted a forensic scientist and DNA analyst, with the intention of having her review the DNA testing that had already been done and potentially have the DNA retested, Shellist wrote in a 2015 affidavit.
When Shellist stepped back from the case, he offered to share thoughts about Cruz-Garcia’s defense but Cornelius declined, Shellist wrote.
The state relied on Orchid Cellmark’s supervisor of forensics to help convince jurors that DNA found on the cigar, Diana Garcia’s underwear and a vaginal swab from the rape kit implicated Cruz-Garcia in the killing. There was no expert challenge to that narrative because Cornelius chose not to hire a DNA specialist, preferring instead to challenge the evidence on his own.
Asked how he decides when to hire outside experts, Cornelius said in an interview, “On DNA, I’m probably not in need of a DNA expert.”
“DNA evidence, it’s not very complicated,” he continued. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been baffled about DNA evidence. They either get it or they don’t.”
“A lot of these people that are the experts, I know them, I know they’re not liars. I know they wouldn’t make up a result on the DNA test.”
Even if Cornelius did know a lot about DNA, he admitted that he had no intention of reviewing all of the evidence. “I’m not going to go through 20 boxes of DNA records,” he told Tise at trial during a disagreement related to Cornelius’ preparedness to cross-examine one of the state’s witnesses.
Cornelius tried to get some of the DNA evidence suppressed, citing the well-documented problems with the HPD crime lab. But he was unable to “prove this specific evidence was contaminated,” he said during pretrial proceedings.
Cornelius later wrote in the 2016 affidavit that he was unsuccessful in suppressing the DNA evidence because the state “clearly showed that, even though the crime lab had been in shambles, this evidence, which was tested and re-tested, had been sufficiently preserved.”
In a recent email, Cornelius clarified that he did not agree with the judge’s ruling on the admissibility of the DNA evidence. But once she made her decision, he wrote, he tried to downplay the DNA evidence because it “does not time stamp or disprove a consensual relationship.”
But there actually was evidence that the DNA was questionable. Daniel Hellwig, a DNA expert hired by Cruz-Garcia’s post-conviction lawyers, identified in August 2015 “significant concerns regarding the reliability of the evidence tested and some of the conclusions drawn regarding this evidence.”
Much of the evidence was unsealed when Orchid Cellmark received it from the HPD crime lab 15 years after the crime, raising concerns about its integrity, Hellwig wrote. He also found that Orchid Cellmark’s statistical conclusions about the DNA sample on the vaginal swabs were “problematic and against best scientific practices.” Orchid Cellmark did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked about Hellwig’s findings, Cornelius wrote in an email, “I never heard the expert you spoke of testify, if he did, and you have not told me that Obel was eliminated as a suspect.”
In November 2015, less than a week after Cruz-Garcia lost his direct appeal, the state issued an amended lab report to reflect an FBI update to data used in DNA calculations. The amended report “recanted much of the DNA evidence it relied on to tie him to the offense,” Cruz-Garcia’s current lawyers wrote in the habeas petition. According to the state’s amended report, a mixture of DNA from at least three individuals was found on the vaginal swab, but analysts were unable to draw conclusions about the identity of those individuals. The amended report linked Cruz-Garcia and at least one other unidentifiable person to the DNA mixture found on the underwear.
“Everybody wins — except for the clients.”
“As corrected, the DNA evidence therefore does not conclusively establish Mr. Cruz-Garcia’s identity as the assailant … and leaves open the possibility of an unknown assailant,” Cruz-Garcia’s current lawyers wrote.
Cornelius wrote in email, “I am not seeing this as much of an impact and of course I would have had to have a clairvoyant expert to even use this at the trial I tried.”
Friends of Cruz-Garcia and Diana Garcia would later tell Cruz-Garcia’s state habeas team that the two had a consensual sexual relationship, which could explain why his DNA was on her underwear. Cruz-Garcia said in an interview that he told his trial lawyers to speak with one of those friends, a man named Cesar Rios, because Rios “was with us all the time” and “saw whatever was going on.”
Rios was also listed as a known associate of Garcia’s on the 1992 police report documenting the crime. But the jury never heard from Rios about the consensual relationship because Cornelius never brought him in to testify. Cornelius disputed in an email that Cruz-Garcia told him or a member of his team to speak to Rios.
“Obel Cruz-Garcia did not tell me jack shit about the facts of this case or give me any witnesses to contact. In 50 years I have never seen or heard of a client giving less effort,” Cornelius wrote in an email. “You can take the word of a life long criminal or my word and that of the entire defense team.”
J.J. Gradoni, the lead investigator on Cornelius’ team, said in a 2016 affidavit that he tried to get in touch with Rios after seeing his name on the police report but was unable to make contact. In his own affidavit, Cornelius said he tried to raise the prospect of a consensual sexual relationship with Cruz-Garcia but could not offer proof of it.
“We wanted him to admit that he had a relationship with this woman,” Cornelius told HuffPost. “If he had explained that away with a consensual relationship — he’s a nice-looking guy, actually. Not that nice-looking guys can have sex with whoever they want to. But a jury wouldn’t be repulsed by the way he looked and say no other Hispanic person would ever want to have sex with him in their lives. Or any other kind of person.”
“But he would not discuss it,” Cornelius continued. “What are you gonna do?”
Garcia was not asked at trial about the existence of a consensual sexual relationship. Neither she nor Rodriguez could be reached for comment.
Earning a client’s trust and convincing them to assist in their own representation is a key part of a defense lawyer’s job. The Texas State Bar’s guidelines for lawyers working on capital cases requires them to “make every appropriate effort to establish a relationship of trust with the client” and “maintain close contact with the client.”
The guidelines “do not contemplate a one-way street where counsel parachutes in for a couple of visits with their client before trial and the client immediately provides counsel everything needed to win the case,” Cruz-Garcia’s current lawyers wrote in the habeas petition.
In the 1980s, Cruz-Garcia started dating Angelita Rodriguez, whom he met in Puerto Rico. They soon married and followed Rodriguez’s cousin, Carmelo Rudy Martinez Santana, to Houston, where Santana and Cruz-Garcia sold drugs for a living. There, they became friendly with Diana Garcia and Arturo Rodriguez (no relation to Angelita Rodriguez).
For nearly 20 years after Angelo’s death, Santana insisted he didn’t know anything about the kidnapping or circumstances of the boy’s killing. He said as much to law enforcement during two separate interviews in 1992 and again in 2009 after the case was reopened.
But in 2011, Santana changed his story.
By then, he was in prison for an unrelated conviction. In the lead-up to that conviction, Santana’s lawyer had indicated that he might not be mentally competent to stand trial, but he ended up accepting a guilty plea. Then, in April 2011, Santana informed the court that he planned to file a motion to have his guilty plea set aside, based on “a plethora of medical records that illustrate my undeniable incompetence to accept a guilty plea.”
The next month, Santana met with FBI agent William Ebersole. At first, Santana told Ebersole he didn’t know if he was with Cruz-Garcia on the night of the crime, but soon after, he claimed they were together for part of the day.
Ebersole told Santana that Cruz-Garcia had already been charged with the murder, according to the FBI agent’s contemporaneous notes documenting the interview. Cruz-Garcia would “go to trial for the murder of ANGELO with or without the assistance of [Santana],” Ebersole said — but that “his assistance would make for a better case against [Cruz-Garcia], who is not a good person.” He also told Santana that “any cooperation he gave would be made known to the prosecutor and the presiding judge.”
Ebersole then claimed “there was scientific evidence” proving that Cruz-Garcia had broken into Diana Garcia’s home and raped her but said he needed Santana “to complete the picture of what happened to the little boy ANGELO.”
Santana told the FBI agent that he had “lost his whole life,” including his sons, his mother and his marriage. He blamed Cruz-Garcia for that loss, according to Ebersole’s notes.
He agreed to talk.
He said that on the night of Angelo’s death, he waited in the car while Cruz-Garcia and another man named “Rogelio” went inside Diana Garcia’s apartment, Ebersole wrote. According to Santana, when the two men emerged, Cruz-Garcia was carrying Angelo, saying “the little boy saw me” and “I fucked Diana.”
Cruz-Garcia then drove the group to an area where they had sold drugs, pulled over, and told Rogelio in Spanish, “You know what you have to do,” Santana said. After Rogelio fatally stabbed Angelo, Santana claimed, the group drove to a body of water, where Cruz-Garcia instructed Santana and Rogelio to dump Angelo’s body.
Santana, who could not be reached for comment, became the state’s star witness and was never charged with a crime in connection with the kidnapping or killing of Angelo. His graphic testimony of the boy’s death could not be substantiated by the autopsy, as the body had deteriorated in the water. All the jury had to go on was his word — and jurors never learned that Santana changed his story to corroborate the state’s theory just weeks after indicating his plea deal should be tossed because he was too mentally ill to have entered into the agreement.
Cornelius said in an email he didn’t remember any questions about Santana’s competency or thinking he seemed incompetent. “This is really weak,” he wrote.
“Had trial counsel performed an adequate investigation, they could have seriously undermined the credibility of the State’s star witness.”
Jurors also never learned that around the time of Angelo’s death, Santana was convicted of assaulting a young girl, according to the habeas petition. Under Texas law, crimes against women and girls are considered crimes of “moral turpitude.” This is significant because in Texas, crimes of moral turpitude can generally be used to impeach a witness, or attack the credibility of their testimony at trial.
Billing records show that Cornelius’ investigator tried to “Obtain Offense Report Regarding State Witness Prior Conviction” on June 20, 2013 — while the trial was already underway. On July 11, Cornelius indicated in court that he wasn’t sure whether Santana’s prior convictions were grounds for impeachment. “I’ve got some conflicting information from my own investigators and so, I’m going to accept pretty much whatever the State tells me or what [Santana] tells me,” Cornelius told the judge.
Cornelius proceeded to question Santana about his past convictions without the jury present in order to determine what he could bring up in front of jurors. Santana told Cornelius that he pleaded guilty to assaulting a boy, but that he was innocent. Cornelius tried to get permission to bring up that conviction in front of jurors, but the judge denied the request.
“Had trial counsel performed an adequate investigation, they could have seriously undermined the credibility of the State’s star witness,” Cruz-Garcia’s current lawyers wrote in his habeas petition.
“Given how crucial Mr. Santana’s testimony was to establishing Mr. Cruz-Garcia’s guilt, there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have voted not to convict Mr. Cruz-Garcia had trial counsel not performed deficiently,” the lawyers continued.
Cornelius said in an email that he did not remember these details but that “it sounds so trivial in comparison to the facts of this case.”
The state’s other key witness was Angelita Rodriguez, Cruz-Garcia’s wife at the time of the crime. Like her cousin Santana, Rodriguez initially told law enforcement that she didn’t know anything about Angelo’s disappearance or death. In 2008, 16 years later, Rodriguez told Mehl, the HPD sergeant, a slightly different story. She said that after learning about Angelo’s disappearance, she asked Cruz-Garcia if he had kidnapped the boy, according to notes Mehl took documenting the conversation.
“She said Obel would not answer the question,” Mehl wrote. “She said he just looked at her and remained silent.”
Rodriguez told the police sergeant that Cruz-Garcia left abruptly for Puerto Rico after Angelo’s disappearance and then went to the Dominican Republic. She said that she didn’t see Cruz-Garcia again until she went to meet him in the Dominican Republic to ask for a divorce. He responded, she said, by threatening to kill her.
Then at trial, Rodriguez offered shocking testimony. She repeated her claim that she did not see Cruz-Garcia until she went to ask him for a divorce at the end of 1992, about two months after Angelo was killed. She said that he refused and threatened to harm her family, but she did not testify that he threatened to kill her, as she had previously told law enforcement.
She said that when she told Cruz-Garcia she wanted a divorce, she asked again about Angelo. Cruz-Garcia told her “that he had killed him,” Rodriguez testified. When the assistant district attorney asked Rodriguez what else Cruz-Garcia had said about the alleged crime, she said she couldn’t remember.
Rodriguez testified that her story had changed because she was previously afraid to tell the truth. But there are signs that her testimony may not have been accurate. Contrary to Rodriguez’s claims about not seeing Cruz-Garcia after Angelo’s disappearance until she asked for a divorce at the end of 1992, Cruz-Garcia told a psychologist in 2019 that the couple moved back to the Dominican Republic together sometime in 1992 and lived with her family.
A February 1993 FBI memo appears to partially corroborate Cruz-Garcia’s recollection, although with what appears to be a confusing typo. “RODRIGUEZ is the common law wife of GARCIA and is currently residing with RODRIGUEZ in the Dominican Republic at her mother’s house,” the memo reads. It is unlikely that the author of the memo intended to write that Rodriguez lived with herself at her mother’s house.
Asked if he was aware of the memo and ever sought clarification, Cornelius said he did not remember. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.
Several years after the trial, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office provided Rodriguez’s lawyer with a letter in support of her immigration case, stating that she had “served as a very important witness in the 2013 trial of a capital murder case” despite “credible threats to her safety.” Rodriguez could not be reached for comment.
Josh Reiss, the chief of the post-conviction writ division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, told HuffPost that Rodriguez was not offered immigration assistance in exchange for her testimony. “Skip Cornelius is an outstanding lawyer who has the admiration and respect of the entire Harris County criminal bar — prosecution and defense,” the prosecutor added.
The state’s case against Cruz-Garcia was filled with contradictions and unanswered questions. But during the stage of trial to determine whether his client was guilty, Cornelius did not call a single witness to offer jurors an alternative theory of events. And on each day jurors heard evidence, Cornelius billed at least four hours for work on other cases, according to the habeas petition.
Monday, July 8: four hours.
Tuesday, July 9: 5.5 hours and two court appearance fees.
Wednesday, July 10: four hours and three court appearance fees.
Thursday, July 11: four hours and another court appearance fee.
When it came time to decide whether the state had proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Cruz-Garcia was responsible for Angelo Garcia’s death, the jury reached its guilty verdict in a few hours. It would be up to jurors to decide next whether he would be punished with life imprisonment or the death penalty.
An Anti-Public Defender Culture
Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, 68, still remembers riding the city bus home from school in middle school, wearing his student council badge, when some kids started trashing the bus. The driver pulled over and called the police from a phone booth. When they arrived, the bus driver, who was white, accused Ellis and other Black boys of destroying the bus.
“If you did this, we’re gonna get you one of those jackleg lawyers the judge appoints for you,” Ellis’ father told him when he got home from the police station. “But if you’re innocent, we’ll hock this house and get you a real lawyer.”
It was an early lesson on Harris County’s indigent defense system for Harris, who would go on to lead the fight for reform.
Texas has always had “this sort of anti-public defender culture,” Jim Marcus, a clinical professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said in an interview. When Marcus graduated from law school in Houston in 1993, he knew he wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer but he didn’t know where to start.
He asked around and was told, “Well, you go down to the courthouse and you make a few contributions to the judges’ campaigns and they start giving you cases,” Marcus said. “People told me that with a straight face — that’s just the way it was done.”
Judges typically like the system of appointing private defense lawyers to indigent cases because it gives them more control over how the case unfolds, Marcus said. When defense lawyers are dependent on judges for income from appointments, there is an incentive to forgo costly and time-consuming investigative work and instead keep cases moving along quickly, he continued. Judges, in turn, boast about how efficiently they send dangerous criminals to prison when it’s time to run for reelection. This system works well for members of the defense bar, who can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by taking on soaring caseloads. And prosecutors, of course, like facing less opposition in the courtroom.
“Everybody wins — except for the clients,” said Marcus, who went on to help start the nonprofit Texas Defender Service.
Cornelius said in an interview that he never felt pressure from judges to rush cases or forgo resources for experts or travel. The reason some judges preferred flat fees, he said, was to eliminate the paperwork associated with hourly billing, which was done by hand at the time.
The ability of the attorney appointment system to provide fair representation has long been the subject of withering criticism. In a seven-month period in 1996, defense lawyer Gerard Guerinot saw four of his appointed clients go to death row — while handling 174 other felony cases that year and working part time as a prosecutor in a different jurisdiction, according to a court filing from one of the clients on death row. Guerinot, who did not respond to a request for comment, said in a 2002 affidavit that his caseload “did not hinder our preparation or investigation at all.”
In 1984, Calvin Burdine was sentenced to death after his court-appointed lawyer, Joe Frank Cannon, slept through several parts of the trial. In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of judges for the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Burdine’s verdict and sentence, arguing that “it is impossible to determine — only speculate — that counsel’s sleeping” hurt Burdine’s case. The full court later reversed the panel’s ruling and Burdine was granted a new trial. Burdine pleaded guilty in exchange for three life sentences.
Ellis was elected to the Texas Senate in 1990, representing parts of Harris County. In 1999, he managed to pass an indigent defense bill out of the legislature — only to have it vetoed by then-Gov. George W. Bush.
That year, Ellis became president pro tempore of the Texas Senate, putting him second in line for the governorship after then-Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. That also meant he would serve as acting governor when both Bush and Perry traveled out of state.
On one of Ellis’ first days in the acting role, a man named Tyrone Fuller was scheduled to be executed. Suddenly, it was up to Ellis — who had spent the previous decade educating his colleagues about how people end up on death row simply because they can’t afford a good lawyer — to decide whether to let the state kill one of those people. He couldn’t halt the execution altogether, but he could grant a temporary delay.
Ellis declined and allowed Fuller to be executed on schedule.
“I made it clear that if I took an oath to obey the Constitution and the laws of the state of Texas, it wouldn’t just be the ones that I agree with,” Ellis said in an interview.
In the following months, he allowed two more executions to proceed. Their faces haunted him “like a nightmare,” he said.
The fourth execution scheduled on his watch gave him pause. It was for a man named Ricky McGinn, who was convicted of raping and killing his 12-year-old stepdaughter but who maintained his innocence. Ellis told Bush he felt “a real unease” executing McGinn without conducting DNA testing first.
“Have you told the press?” Bush asked.
“No, sir, I have not,” Ellis said.
“OK, keep your powder dry,” Bush said.
By then, Bush had overseen 131 executions and had never granted a reprieve. But he was months away from the November 2000 election and his unwavering defense of Texas’ outlier use of capital punishment was threatening to become a campaign issue.
On Thursday, June 1, 2000, the day McGinn was scheduled to be killed, Bush made a surprising announcement while campaigning in Sacramento. “I have recommended and Sen. Ellis has accepted my recommendation to grant a 30-day reprieve in the case of Ricky McGinn,” Bush told reporters. It was a decision, Time magazine wrote at the time, that “highlights the first part of compassionate conservative,” referencing a key Bush campaign slogan.
McGinn was eventually executed four months later. The office of George W. Bush did not respond to a request for comment.
When Ellis eventually became the head of the Senate Finance Committee, he managed to push through the Fair Defense Act, a stronger version of the bill that Bush had vetoed. For the first time, Texas would provide counties with state funding to improve their indigent defense systems.
At the time, just seven of Texas’ 254 counties utilized public defender offices. “Part of the problem is that Texas, as a state, is trying to move from last place in indigent-defense quality of representation to the middle of the pack,” Bill Beardall, a legal activist who helped write the Fair Defense Act, told the Houston Chronicle in 2001.
Unlike private defense lawyers, public defenders are paid a set yearly salary rather than hourly or per case — a structure that better aligns their incentives with their clients’. Throughout the country, public defender offices are short-staffed and overburdened, with lawyers juggling caseloads that far exceed recommended guidelines. But they tend to attract lawyers driven by “an intense outrage toward the injustices of the criminal legal system and fervent dedication to fighting for the people they represent,” Slate wrote earlier this year. “In the several decades following Gideon v. Wainwright — the 1963 Supreme Court decision establishing that any criminal defendant who could not afford an attorney had a right to have one appointed — the culture in public defenders’ offices broadly prized tireless, almost martyr-like dedication to the work.”
Progress was slow in Texas’ most populous county. In order to avoid a veto from Perry, who had succeeded Bush as governor, Ellis agreed to include a compromise provision requiring counties to get approval from their judges before changing their indigent defense system. And many Harris County judges insisted that things were just fine the way they were.
In 2008, the American Bar Association recognized Ellis for his work on indigent defense at a conference in Los Angeles. Ellis wondered if he deserved the praise.
“I passed that bill in 2001 and Harris County hasn’t done a damn thing!” he told a friend at the time.
By the time he returned to Houston, he was intent on getting a public defender’s office in Harris County, at the time the largest jurisdiction in the country that didn’t have one. He and Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, published an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle invoking the Constitution, Martin Luther King Jr. and Atticus Finch in calling for a public defender. Ellis helped line up state funding for the office and recruited a Baptist minister, an archbishop and a rabbi to spread the word to their communities.
But the judges pushed back. In a 2009 poll of the county’s 22 criminal district judges, just five expressed interest in using public defenders for trials — and those five envisioned using public defenders only for low-level offenses.
“I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job than I am with my four contract attorneys,” Judge Michael McSpadden, who opposed the creation of a public defender’s office, told the Houston Chronicle in 2009. (McSpadden, who died in 2021, was formally reprimanded in 2019 for claiming that young Black men do not get good advice from their parents and instead learn from Black Lives Matter to have contempt for the justice system.)
Some members of the defense bar who made their living from indigent appointments were even more vocal in their opposition: “I would hate for there to be a Public Defender’s Office because it could potentially cut into my business,” defense lawyer Murray Newman wrote on his blog in 2009.
“The indigent defendant who gets an attorney appointed to him like, say, Skip Cornelius or Tyrone [Moncriffe], just hit the freaking mother lode when it comes to quality representation,” Newman wrote. “Skip and Tyrone won’t be headed to work for a government agency any time soon.”
It was clear that the only way Harris County would get a public defender’s office would be to start with something narrow in scope, Jim Bethke, the head of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission at the time, said in an interview. “As soon as death penalty cases would get thrown into the equation, it sucked the air out of the room,” Bethke recalled. “Because then you’re talking serious, serious money.”
In June 2010, Ellis, jet-lagged after a long flight, was asked by a reporter why it was so difficult to get the county’s judges on board with a public defender’s office. Too exhausted to be diplomatic, he answered honestly.
“The status quo is an inherent conflict of interest,” Ellis told the reporter. “It is sleazy. It is old school.”
After Ellis’ off-the-cuff comments landed in the Houston Chronicle, he got a call from a number he didn’t recognize. The caller introduced himself as Mike Anderson and said he objected to being called sleazy, Ellis recalled.
Ellis didn’t know who Anderson was and he was still tired. “I didn’t say you were sleazy,” he told Anderson, who died in 2013. “I said the system is — now if the shoe fits, I’m sorry.”
Then he called one of his colleagues. “Who in the hell is Mike Anderson?” he asked.
“You just went off on the chief criminal judge in the damn county,” the colleague responded. “I suggest you don’t get pulled over anytime soon.”
But Ellis had made his point. By the end of that year, Harris County hired its very first public defender.
The Harris County Public Defender’s Office has not come close to replacing the previous system. During its first decade, the percentage of misdemeanor, felony and juvenile cases appointed to the office remained in the single digits. Even today, it handles only about 20% — and no death penalty cases.
Instead, death penalty cases — those with the highest stakes — continue to operate under the appointment system, where the judge on the case personally selects the defense lawyer.
A public database created by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission shows that in 2014, the first year the database was in operation, Cornelius had six capital cases in addition to 141 felony cases. He was paid $393,708, making him the second-highest-paid lawyer listed in the database. The highest-paid lawyer had 428 felony cases and was paid $397,013.
“Cornelius, as far as I’m concerned, is a good man and an excellent lawyer,” Robert Pelton, a Houston-based criminal defense lawyer, said in an interview. “But I personally would not take on that many cases. With that many cases, it’s hard to go to the jail, see your client, research the law.”
Even with this information publicly available, judges have continued assigning huge caseloads to the same handful of defense lawyers — even after some of those lawyers have repeatedly failed clients.
In 2009, the Houston Chronicle reported that two of defense lawyer Jerome Godinich’s clients on death row lost their federal appeals because Godinich missed filing deadlines. The lawyer blamed a broken filing machine in each of the cases, prompting criticism from the 5th Circuit. That hasn’t stopped Harris County judges from sending a steady stream of work Godinich’s way. Godinich, who has been licensed to practice law in Texas since 1987, has no public disciplinary history.
A 2020 study published in the Duke Law Journal offered a possible explanation. The study, by Georgetown Law professor Neel Sukhatme and Texas Center for Justice and Equity attorney Jay Jenkins, found that defense lawyers routinely pay “entry fees” to trial judges in Harris County in the form of campaign donations. Those judges appoint more than twice as many cases to lawyers who donate as to those who don’t.
There is no evidence that donor lawyers receive more cases because they are better at their jobs, according to the study. “We find that, if anything, defense attorneys who donate to judges are less successful than those who do not in terms of attaining charge reductions, dismissals, and acquittals, or avoiding prison sentences for their clients,” Sukhatme and Jenkins wrote.
Between 2004 and 2018, Godinich was appointed 1,974 cases, including five capital cases, from a trial judge named Jim Wallace, the study found. During that period of time, Godinich donated at least $9,000 to Wallace’s electoral campaigns. It appears to have been a good investment: Between 2014 and 2018, Godinich made at least $872,642.50 from cases before Wallace, according to the study.
Godinich did not respond to a request for comment.
Cornelius donated to judges, too. “I give money to people running for judge out of friendship and because I believe they are a good Judge, or will be, and for no other reason,” Cornelius wrote in an email.
According to campaign finance records, he contributed more than $17,000 to various judges’ election campaigns between 2004 and 2021 — including $300 to state District Judge Renee Magee, who presided over Cruz-Garcia’s case.
“It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck,” said Marcus, the UT law professor, referring to Harris County’s indigent defense system. “You see these repeat offenders who have more cases than could be competently handled by a 10-lawyer public defender office on their own and nobody’s doing anything about it.”
‘He Is An Evil Person’
In death penalty cases, a defense lawyer’s job can be twofold. Their first task is to convince the jury of their client’s innocence. But if that fails, their job is to keep their client off of death row.
In Texas, jurors are asked to consider mitigating circumstances and future dangerousness in deciding whether to sentence someone to death. During the punishment phase of trial, defense lawyers can present mitigation evidence: information that could reduce their client’s culpability. This can include evidence of an abusive childhood, addiction, untreated mental illness or positive steps their client took to get their life on track since the crime.
Mitigation investigation is typically time-consuming work. It requires developing enough trust with the client that they will feel comfortable divulging deeply personal and traumatic information. It demands an understanding of intergenerational trauma and finding family members who are willing to disclose information that may be unflattering to them, like a history of abuse or addiction. Mitigation specialists can spend years tracking down decades-old medical, academic and legal records. Guidelines from the State Bar of Texas and the American Bar Association both specifically call for mitigation work in capital cases.
Cornelius did not hire a mitigation expert in Cruz-Garcia’s case. “However, we had my experience, which predates mitigation experts, at least in Harris County,” he wrote in the 2016 affidavit, adding that he consulted a psychologist and hired a private investigator to help develop mitigation evidence.
Cornelius wrote in the affidavit that he couldn’t find a mitigation expert who would accept the county’s $75 hourly rate, so he hired a psychologist instead because the county was willing to pay a higher hourly rate for that role.
When Cornelius requested his $65,000 flat fee — $30,000 higher than the standard fee — he said the case would involve “a multitude of expert witnesses on many different elements of the various cases.” But the only expert he requested funding for was the psychologist, Susana Rosin. Rosin estimated she would need to do 60-70 hours of work on the case, and the court approved the necessary funding. But Cornelius did not have her work on the case for almost a year, until just before the trial began, according to a review of Cornelius’ billing records by Cruz-Garcia’s current lawyers. Ultimately, Rosin completed only seven hours of work and did not testify at trial.
Cornelius wrote in an email that he “made a calculated decision not to call her as a witness.”
“Rosin would have been a disaster if she got on the witness stand — I mean a disaster for us,” Cornelius said in an interview. “She would have been forced to answer questions that would have labeled [Cruz-Garcia] as a sociopath, psychopath or antisocial personality, or all three. And that’s a recipe for the death penalty.”
Asked if Rosin had identified anything about Cruz-Garcia that would have prompted that kind of testimony, Cornelius said that she had.
“I don’t remember exactly what she said,” Cornelius said. “And I told her, ‘Don’t write it down.’”
Rosin did not respond to a request for comment.
When Cornelius sought funding for an investigator, he indicated the need to go to Puerto Rico “to properly investigate this case.” Cornelius was right: Cruz-Garcia spent much of his life in Puerto Rico, including a stint in prison, and has several family members who live there. But billing records from the trial make no mention of any member of the defense team traveling to Puerto Rico or requesting records from Puerto Rico. Cruz-Garcia’s younger brother, Joel Cruz Garcia, wrote in a 2019 affidavit that “as far as I know, nobody from the defense team came to Puerto Rico.”
Cornelius said in an email that the defense team did go to Puerto Rico and that he remembered seeing pictures, although he did not remember if they brought back records.
During the punishment phase of trial, Diana Garcia testified about the enduring pain of losing Angelo. “He was my whole world. I love him. I loved him a lot. I still do. I still miss him. I still dream of missing him. It’s as if he is still alive. I can still feel him.”
She told jurors she regretted meeting Cruz-Garcia. “I didn’t think he would ever, ever do something like that. We trusted him,” she said. “He raped me. He took my son away from me. He hurt me very much. And I didn’t hurt him. I didn’t do anything to him.”
Prosecutors convincingly portrayed Cruz-Garcia as an inherently violent drug dealer, a man at ease with using violence in response to even the slightest provocation. “Obel Cruz-Garcia is a monster. He is an evil person who likes to torture and taunt his victims,” Tise, the assistant district attorney, said during closing arguments.
Cruz-Garcia’s defense team offered jurors little to counter that narrative. During their closing arguments, the defense assured jurors that if they declined to sentence Cruz-Garcia to death, he would still spend the rest of his life in a “hell hole” where prisoners can be caged for 23 hours a day and risk being shot if they try to escape. They appeared to make only a vague effort to humanize their client.
“He was a family man,” said Madrid, the second-chair defense counsel. “You heard his brother. You know he has a family. You know he raised his boys as best he could. Obviously, he went to prison, so he can’t continue to do that. But he has kept in contact with them. He helped to build a church.”
Madrid turned it over to Cornelius, who repeatedly reminded jurors they didn’t have to sentence his client to death — but provided few reasons why they should let him live. “If you go back in the jury room and everybody is crying and everybody is so sad because of little Angelo’s death — and I know everybody is sad about it — at some point, though, when you start looking at the evidence in the case and making decisions, if you will just say to yourself, ‘Let’s take the emotion part of it away and decide what the facts are,’ everybody will do better if you do that,” Cornelius said. “Everyone will do better.”
After losing his direct appeal and bid for state habeas relief, Cruz-Garcia was appointed a team of lawyers from the Dallas federal public defender’s office who specialize in death penalty litigation. In May of last year, they summarized their years of investigative work in a 255-page habeas petition in which they asked a federal judge to vacate Cruz-Garcia’s murder conviction and death sentence.
“Somebody from the team comes every month,” Cruz-Garcia said, his eyes filling with tears. “They already know everything about the case, but they still come and visit me. Just to talk with me.”
“They are like my family.”
Much of the information they uncovered was available at the time of Cruz-Garcia’s trial. It tells the story of a complicated man who cared deeply about his family and fell into the violent world of drug dealing after being unable to escape poverty through licit work. It describes a man who, after being arrested, became a model prisoner who devoted his life to religious study. It’s a version of Cruz-Garcia’s story that jurors never heard — one that might have made at least one juror pause before sending him to death row.
Cruz-Garcia was born in Santo Domingo and grew up in extreme poverty. He spent much of his childhood working and caring for his siblings after his father was severely injured in an accident. His father drank heavily and gave him alcohol at a young age, a forensic psychologist who interviewed Cruz-Garica four times for a combined 23 hours wrote in a 2019 declaration.
“He grew up too fast,” Joel Cruz Garcia, his brother, wrote in a 2019 affidavit requested by Cruz-Garcia’s current legal team. “I think that Obel felt abandoned, but he kept all of the sadness inside him. He focused in working hard to provide for the family.”
After marrying young, he moved to Puerto Rico by himself in search of better work. Unable to afford a flight, he made the dangerous journey by sea in a boat he helped build. There, he worked seven days a week on a coffee plantation, earning about $60 a week and living in a warehouse with 15 other workers. He sent his father money to give to his wife, Mireya Perez, she wrote in a 2018 affidavit.
At some point, Cruz-Garcia’s father told him that his wife was seeing another man. Devastated, he started drinking heavily, mimicking the coping mechanism he had learned from his father. He felt “everything a body can feel,” he later told the forensic psychologist.
Perez believes Cruz-Garcia’s father lied about her in hopes of keeping more of his son’s money, she wrote in her affidavit. Even after they stopped speaking, Cruz-Garcia continued sending money for their child, she wrote.
Cruz-Garcia left the coffee plantation and got a job at a restaurant, where he met Angelita Rodriguez, who introduced him to Santana, according to the habeas petition. They eventually made their way to Houston, where they sold drugs.
“Even though I don’t know exactly why Obel got involved with drugs, I believe that he thought that was the only way that a young guy from a small fishing town in the Dominican Republic could be successful in this world,” his brother wrote in his affidavit.
“I would have liked to have the opportunity to explain more about this to the jury, with the hope that they would have understood that Obel is a good person who found himself trapped in a dangerous trade. The drugs were everywhere in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic around the 80’s and 90’s.”
Around the time that Cruz-Garcia moved to Houston, a man named Saul Flores was killed. His murder was unsolved but during the punishment phase of the trial, Tise claimed that Cruz-Garcia killed him “for nothing more than he hit on his girlfriend,” a woman named Elizabeth Ramos.
Cruz-Garcia wasn’t on trial for killing Flores and prosecutors didn’t have to prove his guilt. But they used the portrayal of Cruz-Garcia as a man who was willing to kill over the slightest provocation as proof that he posed a future danger. The Flores murder appears to be part of why prosecutors chose to pursue the death penalty, according to a 2011 email from Tise.
By his own admission, Cornelius made little effort to challenge prosecutors’ claim that Cruz-Garcia posed a future danger. “I did not feel we had much of a chance on the issue of future dangerousness in this trial,” he wrote in his post-trial affidavit. “The State does not seek the death penalty on cases where the crime is an aberration or where the defendant does not have a history.”
Cruz-Garcia’s current lawyers tracked down Ramos, who wrote in a 2018 affidavit that she did not recognize the name “Saul Flores” and had no recollection of a man showing up at her apartment seeking a romantic relationship, as Santana had described at trial. She would have been willing to testify at trial, she wrote.
Asked about Ramos and whether he thought it was a mistake not to investigate this example of future dangerousness, Cornelius said he did not remember this part of the case.
While selling drugs, Santana became addicted to cocaine, he testified at trial. In a 2018 affidavit, Santana’s ex-wife, Margarita Martinez Zorrilla, wrote that Santana was physically abusive and that she sometimes sought help from Cruz-Garcia.
“Obel was the only person who was able to calm him down,” she wrote. Cruz-Garcia brought her and her child food and diapers when Santana was unable to provide for his family, she continued. “Obel was very good to me, not like [Santana].”
If Cornelius had asked, Zorrilla would have testified at Cruz-Garcia’s trial, she wrote.
“I would have liked to have the opportunity to explain more about this to the jury, with the hope that they would have understood that Obel is a good person who found himself trapped in a dangerous trade.”
After Angelo’s death, Cruz-Garcia left Houston, reconnected with Perez, and the two had a second child. He was an affectionate and loving father, who, unlike most men she knew, did laundry, cooked, cleaned and changed diapers, Perez wrote in her 2018 affidavit.
Cruz-Garcia’s current lawyers also collected an affidavit from another woman, who dated Cruz-Garcia and had a child with him while he was with Perez. She described how Cruz-Garcia convinced her to seek medical attention for severe abdominal pain, paid for her surgery and took care of her while she recovered.
In 2001, Cruz-Garcia was arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison in Puerto Rico after pleading guilty to kidnapping a man and a teenage boy from a food truck there and attempting to get drugs and cash in exchange for their return. He remained incarcerated in Puerto Rico until he was charged with Angelo’s murder in 2008 and transferred to Texas.
During this time, he developed a reputation as a model prisoner, guided by his religious conviction. He served as the assistant to the chaplain of a prison in Bayamón, a role that allowed him to walk unsupervised throughout the facility and keep a copy of the keys to the chaplain’s office.
Cruz-Garcia was “a good listener” and “dedicated and loving,” the chaplain wrote in a 2015 affidavit. “At times, he also helped me think through my own faith and belief in God.” Had he been contacted by Cornelius’ team, “I would have done anything I could to help Obel.”
The only information jurors received about Cruz-Garcia’s imprisonment in Puerto Rico came from a corrections officer called by prosecutors. That officer testified that, early during his incarceration, a map and rope made from bedsheets were found in Cruz-Garcia’s cell, which he shared with another prisoner, suggesting a possible escape plan. He also testified that a cell phone was found on Cruz-Garcia during a strip search. Cruz-Garcia was never charged with attempting to escape and he did not receive any disciplinary infractions after that incident, according to the habeas petition.
Throughout the punishment stage of the trial, prosecutors called 15 witnesses, whose testimony lasted two days. Cornelius called four witnesses, only two of whom testified in person. Collectively, their testimony lasted less than a day.
Perez, Cruz-Garcia’s wife, went first. She testified from the Dominican Republic, and a poor video connection combined with interpretation problems made her testimony difficult to follow.
Cruz-Garcia’s brother Joel Cruz Garcia went next.
As the trial approached, Joel Cruz Garcia felt Cornelius’ work was rushed, he wrote in the 2019 affidavit. The flight to Houston they had booked for him to testify was at a time he had already told them conflicted with his schedule, so he ended up buying a separate ticket. When he spoke with the legal team’s investigator over the phone, she asked only about his relationship with his brother as an adult.
“Because trial counsel were unprepared and had not adequately investigated Mr. Cruz-Garcia’s life history, they failed to elicit helpful testimony” from Joel Cruz Garcia, Cruz-Garcia’s current lawyers wrote. “Instead, Joel provided only the briefest chronology of Mr. Cruz-Garcia’s childhood and inadvertently made it appear that he had experienced a pleasant childhood.”
“Not only was the testimony not particularly mitigating,” they continued, “the false impression it gave was actually aggravating.”
Abel, Cruz-Garcia’s younger son, also testified, but because he was just 5 years old when Cruz-Garcia went to prison in Puerto Rico, he didn’t have much information to offer.
The most effective witness ended up being an 18-year-old boy named Angel Meza, who came to the courtroom on his own after hearing about the trial. Meza met Cruz-Garcia in the Houston jail, where the two had regular “spiritual” discussions, Meza testified. He told the jury that he was a “hard-headed” teen facing a burglary charge and that Cruz-Garcia helped him make better choices. The two stayed in touch through letters, even after Meza went home.
“In my opinion, he’s a man of God,” Meza testified. “Always tried to help me in every possible way he could.”
On each day that the jury heard evidence during the punishment phase, Cornelius billed at least three hours to other cases, according to the habeas petition.
Tuesday, July 16: 6.25 hours and one court appearance fee.
Wednesday, July 17: 3.25 hours and two court appearance fees.
Thursday, July 18: 5.5 hours and another court appearance fee.
In Texas, jurors aren’t explicitly asked whether to sentence someone to death. Instead they are instructed to answer a series of yes-or-no questions, the answers to which determine the defendant’s fate. Is the defendant likely to pose a future danger to society? Did the defendant cause the victim’s death or intend to? If the answer to both of those questions is “yes,” jurors face a third question: Are there sufficient mitigating circumstances to warrant life imprisonment instead of a death sentence?
By law, jurors are instructed that they cannot answer any question in favor of death unless they agree unanimously, and they may not answer any question in favor of life unless 10 or more of the 12 jurors agree.
But what happens if 11 jurors want to answer the questions in favor of the death penalty and there’s one holdout?
By law, that would result in a life sentence. But the law explicitly forbids jurors from being told that at trial: The judge, defense lawyer and prosecutors “may not inform a juror or a prospective juror of the effect of a failure of a jury to agree on issues,” the law reads. Unless jurors come in with a detailed understanding of the complicated law, they will be unaware that they, on their own, have the ability to block a death sentence.
This appears to have happened in Cruz-Garcia’s case.
On the afternoon of July 18, 2013, the day the jury’s punishment deliberations began, juror Angela Bowman received a voicemail from her 10-year-old daughter’s camp counselor. Bowman’s daughter had a 101.8-degree fever and she was about to be sequestered away from her sick child, indefinitely.
Bowman asked Magee to replace her with an alternate juror, but the judge told her that was not possible. When a bailiff allowed her to call home that night, she learned her daughter’s symptoms had worsened. She worried it was pneumonia.
By the next morning, jurors were still split over whether to sentence Cruz-Garcia to death. The jury foreman pulled out a Bible and read passages from Genesis 9 and Deuteronomy — books that include calls for the death penalty. The Bible reading appeared to move some of the jurors more in favor of a death sentence, Bowman wrote in an affidavit the next month. “I felt a great deal of pressure from the other jurors because it appeared that I was the last holdout for a life sentence,” she wrote.
Bowman asked to speak with Magee.
“I am the only juror that’s completely — I can’t agree,” Bowman said. “I can’t answer the same questions with everyone else and I feel pressured. And I don’t want to hold them up.”
She asked again to be replaced with an alternate juror. Magee repeated that that was not an option and instructed her to continue deliberating.
“Here’s my thing,” Bowman responded. “I don’t think I’ll ever come to an agreement.”
Still, Magee told Bowman to go back and continue to deliberate.
“Judge, I don’t want to have to stay another night. I really don’t know,” Bowman said.
“That’s completely in the hands of the entire jury,” Magee said.
At the end of the day, the other 11 jurors told Bowman that they weren’t changing their minds and that she was holding things up, Bowman wrote in her affidavit. “I changed my verdict so I could go home and take care of my child.”
The jury returned a unanimous death sentence for Cruz-Garcia. Bowman left the courthouse and took her daughter straight to the emergency room, she wrote.
By then, Cornelius had billed Harris County more than $33,000 for work on other cases over the course of Cruz-Garcia’s seven-week trial.
“In other words,” Cruz-Garcia’s current lawyers wrote in his habeas petition, “during Mr. Cruz-Garcia’s trial, Mr. Cornelius worked the equivalent of an entire other death penalty case.”
‘I’ll Say A Prayer For You, Buddy’
After losing his direct appeal, Cruz-Garcia filed a state habeas petition, his first opportunity to make a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. In Texas, state habeas proceedings occur in the same court as the conviction, often with the same judge. Cruz-Garcia filed a motion to recuse Magee from his case; he alleged that she had improperly met with Bowman, the holdout juror, and convinced her to vote for the death penalty.
Magee declined to recuse herself and referred the matter to the regional presiding judge. That judge also declined to recuse Magee from the case without ever holding a hearing. As a result, Cruz-Garcia had to present allegations of Magee’s misconduct to Magee to adjudicate.
During Cruz-Garcia’s state habeas proceedings, Magee was running for reelection. Her campaign website boasted that she “significantly reduced her pending caseload … in an effort to provide a fair and speedy resolution of cases.” It featured a news article about Cruz-Garcia’s trial — the only case she presided over as a judge mentioned on the site.
Magee lost her reelection campaign in November 2016. Cruz-Garcia had not yet had the opportunity to submit evidence in support of his claims, but Magee and prosecutors worked to wrap up the case during Magee’s final weeks on the bench.
On Nov. 30, she granted prosecutors’ request to set a Dec. 22 deadline for each party to submit their “findings of fact and conclusions of law.” That decision wasn’t received by Cruz-Garcia’s lawyer until Dec. 6, giving her just 16 days to file her findings — during which time she had a weeklong hearing in a separate case and an out-of-town funeral for a family member.
Magee signed the state’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, verbatim, on Dec. 29, a week after receiving it and just two days before leaving office.
When Magee ran for another judgeship in 2018, her website, again, promoted her work on Cruz-Garcia’s case. She died last year.
Judges’ rubber-stamping of prosecutors’ findings is not uncommon. A 2018 report published in the Houston Law Review found that judges adopted all of the prosecutors’ findings verbatim in 96% of the 191 cases the authors analyzed.
“Because even rubber-stamped findings receive deference in federal court, the inadequate state court resolutions frustrate the enforcement of constitutional norms in federal court as well,” wrote the authors, one of whom is Marcus.
Whenever someone is executed, prosecutors and the media hype the years of review that preceded their killing, the authors noted: “When those layers of review afforded no meaningful consideration of the inmate’s constitutional claims, they make the general public more comfortable with the execution than is justified by the underlying reality.”
There is a common misconception that if someone is unfairly sentenced to death, the lengthy appeals process offers plenty of opportunities for redress. In reality, once someone is condemned to die, it is incredibly difficult to vacate that sentence, no matter how much evidence there is that the person didn’t get a fair trial — or is even innocent.
Last year, the Supreme Court’s conservative justices blocked two people sentenced to death from presenting evidence in federal court that they had ineffective lawyers at trial because they had failed to present the evidence in state court. This ruling means that if someone has a bad lawyer at trial and gets another bad lawyer in state post-conviction proceedings, they may be left with no way of ever raising the issue in federal court — the part of the judicial system that’s supposed to function as a safeguard against unfair outcomes in state court.
“The Court’s decision will leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent. “This decision is perverse. It is illogical.”
Cruz-Garcia’s case is now pending in federal court. Despite having a devoted team of lawyers who specialize in death penalty litigation, it could be too late to save his life. During the Clinton administration, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was designed to speed up the time from conviction to execution and imposed strict limits on what prisoners can bring up in federal habeas proceedings, and when. In November, the state argued that several of Cruz-Garcia’s ineffective assistance of counsel claims “are procedurally barred and defaulted” and “all are without merit.”
The Harris County district attorney is unlikely to request an execution date for Cruz-Garcia until after the 5th Circuit rules on the case, which is the next step if he loses in federal district court.
Texas has already executed five people this year, bringing the total to 583 people since the Supreme Court reinstated the punishment in 1976. Harris County accounts for more than one-fifth of the killings.
Robert Hurst, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice communications officer, has witnessed several of these executions. When people ask how it affects him, he asks if they’ve ever had to put a dog down. It’s the same thing, he said. “They just go to sleep.”
Hurst primarily deals with the media, so he doesn’t know most of the people on death row very well, he said. But he was on a first-name basis with one man who did several media interviews before he was executed in October. Asked if that death was more painful to witness, Hurst said it was not.
As the time of death was called out, Hurst thought, “I’ll say a prayer for you, buddy.”
When Cruz-Garcia first got to Polunsky, another Spanish speaker incarcerated on death row warned him not to get close to anyone — to avoid feeling affection. “You don’t want to feel bad when they kill them,” the man warned.
But it still hurts. From his cell, Cruz-Garcia can see when guards escort people out of the prison to be executed at another facility about 40 miles away.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “You can’t do anything.”
Interpretation provided by Suzette Ermler. Mari Hayman and Roque Planas contributed reporting.