March 13, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Rolando Ruiz was not a nice guy. Now he’s dead. On March 7, the state of Texas put him to death by lethal injection.
Did I mention Ruiz wasn’t a nice guy? He claimed his mother abused him when he was growing up, and by the time he was 20, he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Ruiz was intermittently employed as a laborer in June 1992, when he dragged his girlfriend, Roxanne Conway, and a female friend out of their truck and kicked out Conway‘s teeth with his boots. One month later, he murdered Theresa Rodriguez for $2,000 in cash – half paid in advance, half to be delivered once the deed was done.
Ruiz was hired to perform the hit by Theresa’s husband Michael and brother-in-law Mark, who decided to dispose of her to collect on a $250,000 life insurance policy Michael had taken out in her name. In Ruiz’s confession to police, he told them the plan was a very simple one: Michael instructed Ruiz to follow him and his wife to a San Antonio restaurant, where Ruiz would murder her and take her purse to make it look like a robbery gone wrong.
On July 10, 1992, Ruiz pulled up outside the restaurant, but called off the hit when he spotted a security guard. Undeterred, Ruiz called Michael, who ordered him to come back the next day and shoot Theresa at a movie theater. Michael accordingly made plans to take Theresa out so Ruiz could do much the same thing, but for whatever reason, they never showed up at the cinema that night. (Michael at least had the decency to call Ruiz and tell him “something came up.”)
It wasn’t until next Tuesday, July 14, that Michael, Mark and Theresa made it to the movies. Acting on orders from Mark, Ruiz followed them home in his truck. As the Rodriguez couple pulled up in their driveway, Ruiz walked up to the passenger’s side window and shot Theresa once in the head with a .357 revolver as she was opening the door. He fled without remembering to take her purse, drove off in his truck, got rid of the vehicle and spent the rest of the evening playing basketball. Theresa was 29; Ruiz had just turned 20.
Nine days later, police arrested Ruiz at a San Antonio apartment. His interviewers were able to elicit not one, not two, but three written statements in which he admitted these facts, confirmed Mark had come through with the remaining $1,000 payment and explained he’d spent all the money on “clothes and partying.” His confession came complete with a fair amount of detail, including that Theresa had looked up at Ruiz and smiled at him as she tried to step out of the car.
Ruiz and the Rodriguez brothers were indicted on one count each of capital murder. Michael and Mark – who, it emerged, had taken out a second life insurance policy on Theresa right before they had her killed – pleaded guilty in exchange for life sentences. Ruiz proceeded to trial, where he admitted to shooting Theresa but claimed police had fabricated his confession. Ruiz’ argument was that he pulled the trigger unintentionally while under the influence of hard drugs.
He was prosecuted by Robert McClure, an experienced but highly unethical former Bexar County ADA with a tendency to make melodramatic pronouncements about the defendants in his death-penalty cases. Of Ramon Torres Hernandez, a multiple rapist and murderer whom Texas executed in 2010, McClure said: “He is a predator, your worst nightmare.“ Javier Cruz, another killer, was described as “a creature who walks the earth in human form.“
At trial, McClure made short work of Ruiz‘ defense, presenting ample evidence that the confession was voluntary and authentic and that the killing happened as Ruiz said. Later, at the sentencing stage, the prosecution hauled out numerous witnesses who attested to his violent character, including some of Ruiz‘ closest friends. While in jail awaiting trial, he was shown to have joined the Texas Syndicate gang. As McClure put it in his closing statement:
[There] is nothing about [Ruiz’s] background, his upbringing, his education, nothing about his personal moral culpability that diminishes in any way the fact that he deserves to pay [the death] penalty.
Now all sentenced to either fast or slow death, Ruiz and the Rodriguez brothers pursued different ways of regaining their freedom. Michael’s story is by far the best-known: he was one of the infamous “Texas 7” who escaped from the maximum-security John B. Connally prison in 2000, then went on a GTA-esque crime spree in South Texas until they were recaptured a month later.
On December 24, 2000, the Texas 7 murdered a police officer while they were holding up a sporting-goods store. After he was recaptured, Michael was fairly conclusively shown to have participated in the killing and resentenced to death. Apparently tired of life in this vale of tears, he voluntarily forewent any appeals and urged the state of Texas to get on with it already. He was executed in 2008.
His brother Mark was the lucky one: Mark Rodriguez was paroled in 2011, at the age of 37. But in November 2016, he was rearrested on a second-degree felony charge of stealing from the elderly. (Rehabilitation doesn’t always work out.)
Meanwhile, Ruiz steadily exhausted his appeals in state and federal court. By the time he reached the federal Western District of Texas, his primary argument was that his appointed trial counsel had been deficient in failing to present to the sentencing jury evidence of his miserable childhood. In this, he was hampered by the incompetence of his appointed state habeas counsel, who submitted “boilerplate, frivolous” arguments to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in a performance the district court described as “appallingly inept” and “egregiously deficient.”
Because his appointed counsel’s arguments omitted the ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim (!), the district court at first rejected it as procedurally defaulted. Ruiz was ultimately able to overcome that obstacle and present his IAC claim, but even that couldn’t save him: the district court actually agreed that trial counsel had been ineffective, but concluded that his incompetence didn’t materially affect the sentence Ruiz was given. The Fifth Circuit affirmed in 2013.
All out of luck barring a stay from SCOTUS, Ruiz was twice scheduled to be killed in 2016, but both executions were halted for unknown reasons. As with Theresa’s murder, the third time proved to be the charm, and on March 7, Ruiz was given a lethal dose of pentobarbital.
I want to close by briefly talking about his last words. By all accounts, Ruiz changed in prison, becoming a Christian and expressing remorse for his deed. He continued to claim he’d been under the influence of drugs at the time of the murder, though he now acknowledged he deliberately pulled the trigger. His contrition won him some international fans, and on the day he died, he made the following statement to Theresa’s family, who had spent years publicly urging the state of Texas to kill him already:
Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am and the hurt I have caused you and your family. May this bring you peace and forgiveness.
It’s well-known that people age out of crime; what’s more, 20-year-olds like Ruiz was suffer from impulsivity and judgment issues caused by their not yet fully developed brains. By itself, his crime is inexcusable, and it’s impossible to deny that Texas, for once, executed a guilty man. But as those remarkable last words of his prove, the 45-year-old Ruiz the state put to death last week was not quite the same person who murdered Theresa Rodriguez for drug money in 1992.
Jeff Gamso, the death penalty abolitionist and Fault Lines alumnus, has a way of putting things. He puts the common attitude towards executing the guilty as follows:
We are all to be measured by the worst thing we’ve done. There can be no redemption – at least not in this world.
Maybe so. Or maybe we can acknowledge that when a man goes to his death with his head held high, thinking of his victim’s family at that most personal and final of moments, it shows there’s a great deal more to us than the worst thing we’ve done.
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Your post is beautifully written. All the best.
You’re very kind, Judge.
It seems particularly cruel that the people sentenced to death seem to deserve it, while the people eventually killed, may not.
Well written, indeed, David.