Monday, April 28, 2014

The Framing of Cesar Fierro

This is the third post in the series Framing the Guilty, Framing the Innocent. For ease of navigation among the posts, use the Table of Contents.

On 27 February 1979, border patrol agents discovered the body of taxi driver Nicholas Castanon in an El Paso park. He had been shot in the back of the head.

Not long after the shooting, eyewitnesses in Juarez, Mexico identified two men exiting what turned out to be Castanon's cab. Based in part on descriptions provided by the eyewitnesses, the El Paso police soon arrested two men, neither of whom were Cesar Fierro. The El Paso district attorney declined to prosecute, and the case went cold.

Late in July, under circumstances that remain murky to this day, 16-year-old Geraldo Olague fingered Cesar Fierro as the person who shot and killed Nicholas Castanon. Olague explained to the Juarez police that he and Fierro hailed a cab with the intention of robbing the driver. Fierro surprised Olague when he shot and killed Castanon. The Juarez police promptly turned Olague over to the El Paso police.

On 1 August, at 3 in the morning, eight heavily-armed Juarez police officers broke into the home of Cesar Fierro's parents. They took the parents to the Juarez jail. There they threatened Fierro's stepfather with an electric cattle prod placed close to his genitals. They beat Fierro's mother.

A bit later that morning, El Paso police detective Al Medrano received a phone call from Juarez police commander Jorge Palacios. Palacios invited Medrano to breakfast in Juarez. During their meeting, Palacios informed Medrano that the Juarez police had located Cesar Fierro. Fierro, he explained, was already in the custody of the El Paso police, being held for a parole violation in an unrelated case.

Medrano quickly retrieved Fierro and began interrogating him. Fierro acknowledged that he knew Olague and conceded that they had committed robberies together. Fierro, however, steadfastly denied that he was in any way involved with the murder of Nicholas Castanon.

Medrano called Palacios and gave the phone to Fierro. Palacios informed Fierro that his parents would be tortured if he did not confess. Fierro hung up the phone and confessed to the murder of Nicholas Castanon.

At his trial for capital murder, the case against Cesar Fierro consisted of his confession and the testimony of Geraldo Olague. Medrano testified that the confession was voluntary. Olague's testimony was a jumble. He testified that in the hours before the murder, he committed his first-ever burglary. The burglary consisted of breaking into a car and stealing a CB radio, which he later pawned. He identified one of the jurors as the pawnbroker to whom he had sold the radio.

Olague testified that Fierro had forced him to commit approximately 10 burglaries in the six months prior to the CB radio theft, despite his own testimony to the contrary. When asked how many burglaries he had committed, he estimated 40.

To explain away the obvious inconsistencies between his trial testimony and his police report, Olague explained that he had psychological problems and that he was impaired even while testifying.

The defense called Fierro's parents who testified to the brutal treatment they had suffered at the hands of the Juarez police. The defense called also Fierro's landlord who testified that Fierro was at home on the night of the murder. The defense witnesses were of no consequence, however, in the face of Fierro's confession.

On 12 February 1980, the jury found Cesar Fierro guilty of capital murder and sentenced him to death.

After Fierro had been on death row for 14 years, his appellate attorneys interviewed Al Medrano under conditions that turned out to be favorable to Fierro. Medrano was dying of cirrhosis of the liver, and he provided what was effectively a dying declaration. He signed an affidavit admitting that Fierro's confession had been coerced.

Fierro's attorney took the affidavit to the district attorney who had prosecuted Fierro. The DA signed an affidavit stating that he would not have prosecuted Fierro if he had known the confession had been coerced.

In addition to the two affidavits, the Juarez police officer who had led the pre-dawn raid on home of Fierro's parents agreed to testify.

That evidence in hand, Fierro's attorneys convinced a lower court to grant Fierro a new trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, however, overruled the lower court decision. Each of the nine TCCA judges agreed that the confessions had been coerced. Each of the nine agreed also that Detective Medrano had provided perjured testimony during Fierro's legal proceedings. Only four of the judges, however, voted to grant Fierro a new trial. The other five ruled the coerced confession to be nothing more than a "harmless error". They ruled that the jury would have convicted Fierro on Olague's testimony alone.

During his time on death row, Fierro has been scheduled for execution 14 different times. On 6 of those occasions he came within days of being executed. His mother died. His brother died. His wife divorced him. His daughter stopped visiting him.

On 15 May 1986, Fierro contacted the prison's psychiatric department for the first time. He explained that he was hearing voices and feared he might harm himself.

After March of 1999, Fierro's communications with his attorneys became increasingly irrational. He accused them of conspiring against him. He refused to meet with them. He returned their letters unopened. He refused to shower. He refused to leave his cell for any reason and had to be forcibly extracted. He spread feces on the wall.

Fierro now spends his days in the Beauford H. Jester IV Psychiatric Unit. It is unlikely he will ever be executed.

He will, however, always have been framed by the State and People of Texas.


Alan B said...

Cesar Fierro's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment last month:

Anonymous said...

Cesar Fierro was recently approved for parole!

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