14-Year Delay of Capital Murder Trial Prompts Judge to Dismiss Indictment

HOUSTON (CN) — A Houston man accused of beating two immigrants to death with cohorts in his human-smuggling ring had his indictment thrown out Thursday by a federal judge who blasted prosecutors for delaying his trial for 14 years.

Prosecutors in the Southern District of Texas had taken the rare step of seeking the death penalty for Wilmar Rene Gomez-Duran, a 47-year-old from El Salvador, if a jury convicted him of any crimes in a seven-count indictment charging him with torturing and beating two men to death because they were trying to escape the building where he was holding them for ransom.

Prosecutors now must take their case against Gomez-Duran back to a grand jury after U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt dismissed his second superseding indictment Thursday.

“The court does reach its conclusion lightly,” Hoyt wrote. But Hoyt found the government had violated Gomez’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial by waiting four years to indict him after his 2006 arrest and withholding discovery from his court-appointed attorneys until 2017.

The bodies of two Latino men were found in a pickup truck in November 2006 in a rural area outside Houston. FBI agents arrested Gomez six days later and raided a southwest Houston warehouse he had leased.

He was charged with obstruction of justice because of instructions he gave his mother, his ex-girlfriend and his sister in phone calls from jail.

He had them remove from his home a bank bag with $36,000 in it, a computer and “pollo” lists — ledgers with the names of 1,700 immigrants — and take them to a storage unit before the FBI searched the home, according to court records. Pollos, or chickens, is slang for people who are brought into the country by smugglers, or coyotes.

According to Judge Hoyt, the government’s delays started with Gomez’s obstruction case because although he pleaded guilty to the charge in 2007 he was not sentenced until January 2011.

And, Hoyt found, prosecutors delayed seeking an indictment against Gomez for the immigrants’ murders until 2010, though he has been cooperating with the investigation since his arrest.

Prosecutors say Gomez started a trucking company in 2003, through which he and others smuggled aliens to Houston after coyotes brought them across the Southwest border and guided them on foot around Border Patrol checkpoints in South Texas.

After Gomez’s arrest, two Salvadoran men told Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents they had been held for ransom in Gomez’s warehouse with the men who were beaten to death, according to a presentence investigation report in Hoyt’s order.

The Salvadorans said a Honduran captive named Hector had told them in the warehouse one night in November 2006 that he was hungry and desperate to leave and was thinking about starting a fire to escape.

They told him not to do it, but the next morning they were awakened by shouts of “Fire!”

The men told ICE investigators that Gomez and one of his associates who went by El Chino, suspecting Hector had started the fire, beat Hector with a broomstick until it broke.

Gomez and El Chino then made all seven immigrants held at the warehouse strip naked and lie face-down on the floor. Gomez started beating Hector again, the men said, and yelling at him to tell the truth.

After Hector admitted starting the fire, Gomez sodomized him with a broomstick and forced him to lick fecal matter off it, the two Salvadorans told ICE agents.

The same day, one of Gomez’s associates said Hector’s family had paid his ransom but he was being held as punishment.

A few days later, El Chino badly burned Hector’s back by spraying perfume on it and lighting it, the men said.

With Hector’s face swollen with bruises and blood dripping from the back of his head where El Chino had pistol-whipped him, the Salvadorans said, Hector and another Honduran captive, Abelardo Sagastume, started talking about trying to escape.

The Salvadoran men, who said they were also beaten and whipped with an extension cord by Gomez, said another captive informed El Chino about the escape plan because Hector and Sagastume had threatened to beat him to death with a metal pipe if he did not help them escape.

That night, the Salvadorans said, they listened from the next room to Hector and Sagastume groaning as they were beaten with a stick, after which they never saw them again.

Prosecutors say Gomez has a history of violence: An ex-girlfriend said he had frequently beaten her, raped her and locked her in a bedroom for hours; a former employee said he had held a loaded pistol to her head; and his half-sister said she saw him grab his mother by the hair and drag her across the floor of their apartment, according the amended notice of intent to seek the death penalty filed on Feb. 13.

In response to Duran’s motion to dismiss, prosecutors claimed the delays bringing his case to trial were due to his numerous motions to push it back.

But Hoyt lay the blame on the government in his 39-page order.

“The effect of the Government’s conduct has been to punish Duran-Gomez. … It has offered no explanation why it took four years to indict Duran-Gomez or the additional seven years to provide him with discovery that has been in the Government’s hands since 2006-07,” wrote Hoyt, a Ronald Reagan appointee.

Prosecutors have six months to seek a new indictment from a grand jury. If they appeal Hoyt’s order, they must secure an indictment within 60 days of a final judgment in the appeal.

Duran’s attorney Wendell Odom of Houston said he’s grateful for Hoyt’s order, given that his client has been facing the possibility of the death penalty for years.

“The government is at fault for this delay and the consequences that stem from such a legal decision on their part. The 14-year wait has made a fair trial difficult if not impossible because of a number of factors. His fate is still undetermined, but the law correctly requires that a trial be done with due process,” Odom said in an email.

Asked to comment on the order, the Justice Department said, “We are considering the matter and will file all appropriate actions as necessary with the court.”

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