SAN ANTONIO (CN) — A Texas jury on Wednesday began deliberating the fate of Juan David Ortiz, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent who state prosecutors said executed four women, all sex workers, in a 2018 vigilante-inspired killing spree because he “wanted to clean up the streets.”
“Mr. Ortiz was a serial killer then and he is a serial killer now,” Webb County District Attorney Isidro R. "Chilo" Alaniz said during closing arguments while pointing directly at Ortiz. “Nobody is above the law.”
Jurors began deliberations around 2:30 Wednesday afternoon just after state prosecutors and defense attorneys delivered their closing statements in the capital murder trial that began Nov. 28.
At trial, prosecutors revealed a disturbing portrait of an unhinged border patrol agent and Navy veteran who, during a two-week period in Laredo, killed four women and attacked a fifth, all of whom he paid for sex. That woman, Ericka Pena, told jurors during her testimony that she sprung into “survival mode” and escaped Ortiz’s pickup truck after he pointed a gun at her.
She testified during the first day of trial that she found a Texas state trooper while shirtless and in hysterics at a nearby convenience store after losing her shirt by wiggling her way out of Ortiz’s grip.
But Pena, who Alaniz said “was the key to breaking open this case” was also the lucky one, the prosecutor said. Ortiz, then 35, “knowingly and intentionally” shot and killed four women execution-style between Sept. 3 and Sept. 15, 2018, using the same .40 caliber H&K pistol, he said. The victims are: Melissa Ramirez, 29; Claudine Anne Luera, 42; Guiselda Alicia Cantu, 35; and 28-year-old Humberto Ortiz, a transgender woman also known as Janelle Ortiz.
Webb County Assistant District Attorney Karina Rios told jurors that since the start of trial, prosecutors have put together the puzzle pieces connecting Ortiz to the murders, adding that the state has “surpassed the presumption of evidence” and "are standing on top of a Mount Everest of evidence.”
“He tells us the entire story,” Rios said, referring to Ortiz's video-recorded confession. “And he will tell you in there why he did this at least four times, he’s going to say it, ‘I was cleaning up the streets. I was cleaning up the streets. I was cleaning up the streets. I was cleaning up the streets.’”
Rios asked the 12-member jury to use their common sense and rely on their life experiences in the deliberation process. She reminded them that they are the ultimate trier of facts and have the ability to decide whether the confession was voluntarily or coerced as defense attorneys have insisted.
Ortiz’s defense rested their case Wednesday afternoon without calling any witnesses, and the 39-year-old defendant did not testify on his own behalf. In the four years since the crimes, Ortiz, who pleaded not guilty and has denied involvement for the murders, claimed at trial that investigators pressured his confession while disregarding his constitutional rights during his nearly nine-hour interrogation, and that the state simply did not provide enough evidence to convict him.
“This man is not a serial killer in the sense of the law,” attorney Joel Perez said. “Regardless of what you think of Ortiz, you should disregard the [confession] because it violated his rights by not accepting the ‘no,’ that should be it as clear as day.”
Ortiz was “broken,” Perez said, and suffering from emotional and mental health issues at the time.
“This guy is medicated, he’s been drinking heavily, and they know his mental health and condition is not the best. But they don’t stop, they keep going,” he said in asking the jury to disregard the confession.
Jurors heard from at least a dozen prosecution witnesses during seven full days of trial testimony, listened to Ortiz’s confession to investigators and saw graphic autopsy photos that shook family members and caused a juror to pass out.
The trial was moved to San Antonio, about 150 miles north of Laredo, because of the intensive media attention the case attracted in the border community where the crimes occurred.
If convicted, Ortiz faces an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole after prosecutors, with support from the victims’ families, removed the death penalty from the table.
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