HUNTSVILLE, TX (Texas Tribune) - Joseph Garcia was four years into a 50-year sentence for a 1996 Bexar County murder when he joined six other inmates who escaped prison, went on the run and killed Irving Police officer Aubrey Hawkins in a Christmas Eve robbery.
Texas executed the 47-year-old Garcia on Tuesday, almost 18 years after he and the other inmates known as the “Texas Seven” construed a detailed plan to break out of the Connally Unit in Karnes County. On the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2000, the seven men overpowered prison workers, took their uniforms, stole 14 handguns, a shotgun, an AR-15 rifle and more than 100 rounds of ammunition before fleeing north in a prison truck.
The escaped prisoners managed to avoid law enforcement until Christmas Eve, when a botched robbery at a sporting goods store in Irving resulted in a shootout between the escaped convicts and Hawkins.
During the robbery, a witness called 911 and Hawkins arrived at the scene shortly thereafter. According to court records, Hawkins was killed within minutes of arriving on the scene. Five of the escaped inmates simultaneously opened fire against the officer, who was shot nearly a dozen times.
Garcia’s attorneys long claimed that their client was not one of the five who fired at 29-year-old Hawkins, and that he was not in the vicinity during the shootout.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen,” Garcia said in a recent Houston Chronicle interview. “I wish I could take everything back.”
The “Texas Seven” quickly fled the scene and drove to Colorado, where they hid out in an RV park until January. By then, their story had made national headlines and group member Larry Harper had killed himself.
The remaining men were brought to trial in Dallas, and because of Texas’ law of parties — which holds all individuals responsible for a crime, regardless of their role — the six were convicted of capital murder. Garcia was sentenced to death in February 2003.
Garcia was the fourth “Texas Seven” member executed. Michael Rodriguez, George Rivas and Donald Newbury were executed between 2008 and 2015. Patrick Murphy and Randy Halprin are awaiting execution dates.
In repeatedly rejected appeals filed to both state and federal courts since his sentencing, Garcia’s lawyers argued that the Dallas County prosecutor, Toby Shook, portrayed Garcia as a “callous and cold-hearted killer” based off “false” testimony from his original Bexar County District Court trial, when Garcia was sentenced in November 1996 for the fatal stabbing of Miguel Luna in San Antonio.
But Shook said his job was to prove that Garcia posed a future danger to the public, and the 1996 sentencing lent easy evidence to the 2003 murder trial.
“I don’t think that anything could be more relevant than an offense of murder,” Shook said in an interview with The Texas Tribune this week. “I think we accurately depicted Joseph Garcia as a very violent individual.”
J. Stephen Cooper, one of Garcia’s attorneys, wrote in a Nov. 14 plea to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Garcia’s original counsel in the Bexar County murder trial — local attorney Robert Norvell Graham, Jr. — didn’t mention that Garcia’s tumultuous upbringing was marked by sexual abuse, destitute poverty, his mother’s heroin addiction, a sister’s death, his father’s abandonment and stints in group homes.
The court denied the appeal on Friday, but in a 17-page dissent, Judge Elsa Alcala revitalized the ongoing argument over the constitutionality of the law of parties and Garcia’s death sentence from the “Texas Seven” shootout.
“Even though [Garcia] was a major participant in the offense and he had reckless indifference to human life, he did not have the intent to kill Hawkins or act in a premeditated or deliberate manner in causing Hawkins’s death, given the evidence that he was armed with a firearm and declined to shoot at Hawkins,” Alcala wrote in the opinion.
Garcia’s attorneys filed several appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the lower court’s decision and to grant a stay of execution.
Garcia’s lawyers also filed a stay of execution with the Supreme Court against the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, arguing that the board has too many members with a law enforcement background and is disproportionately male, therefore violating the clemency process because the board does not fulfill a requirement to be “representative of the general public.”
Garcia’s attorneys also raised legal concerns over prisoners in recent executions reportedly experiencing a burning sensation after they were administered the lethal injection following a Buzzfeed News report last week that identified the state’s lethal drug supplier as the Houston-based Greenpark Compounding Pharmacy. Greenpark has allegedly supplied compounded pentobarbital to the state for the last three and a half years and the pharmacy’s license was on probation as recently as November due to dangerous practices that include administering the wrong medication to a child who had to be hospitalized.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued it was speculative to say the execution would subject Garcia to “cruel and unusual punishment.” The state said such an argument “boils down to speculation—that the pentobarbital to be used was compounded incorrectly and will possibly lead to unconstitutional pain” and that “Garcia does not prove that this temporary discomfort is constitutionally intolerable.”
“The courts need to take a serious look at the constitutional issues concerning Texas’s lethal-injection drugs and unfair clemency process,” Garcia’s additional lawyer, Mridula Raman, said in an emailed statement to the Tribune.
The Supreme Court denied Garcia’s multiple pleas for a stay of execution, handing down its decision shortly before the execution. Garcia delivered his final words before he was pronounced dead at 6:43 p.m.
“Yes Sir. Dear Heavenly Father please forgive them for they know not what they do,” he said.
Garcia was the 12th Texas inmate executed this year — with another scheduled for next week — and the nation’s 22nd inmate executed in 2018.