HUNTSVILLE, Texas – Police who stopped at a convenience store more than 20 years ago in South Texas determined two men at the business were drunk and told them to find a friend to drive them home.
Ruben Ramirez Cardenas and buddy Jose Antonio Lopez Castillo instead dropped off their designated driver after a short distance and Cardenas drove the rest of the way to his home in Edinburg — to get a bottle of brandy. Then they hit the road again and headed to an apartment where Cardenas' 16-year-old cousin, Mayra Laguna, lived about 10 miles (16 kilometers) away in McAllen.
Laguna was later found fatally beaten, her body rolled down a bank and into a canal near a lake in the Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Cardenas, 47, a Mexican citizen who grew up in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, is set to be executed Wednesday for Laguna's February 1997 abduction and slaying. He would be the seventh inmate executed this year in Texas, which carries out the death penalty more than any other state.
Attorneys for Cardenas say they plan to file multiple federal court appeals hoping to delay his punishment. They already appealed to state courts, arguing that evidence in his case should undergo new DNA testing because previous testing that pointed to him might not be reliable. Those courts rejected their arguments.
Prosecutors have called the DNA testing request a delay tactic. It's not clear if the lawyers will present the DNA argument at the federal level.
Attorney Maurie Levin, an attorney for Cardenas, said Tuesday the trial court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, used "legal technicalities" to block new DNA testing "that could prove his innocence."
Levin also argued the eyewitness testimony against Cardenas was shaky, contended that little physical evidence tied him to the killing and said a confession from him was obtained only after 22 hours of isolation and intense police questioning.
"All hallmarks of wrongful convictions," Levin said. "To permit his execution to proceed when there is potentially exculpatory DNA testing available violates the most basic notions of fairness and justice."
She added that the Mexican-born Cardenas wasn't told he could get legal help from the Mexican consulate.
The victim's younger sister, Roxanna Laguna, told authorities she awoke in pre-dawn darkness to see an intruder in their bedroom. She said Mayra's mouth was taped and her hands were bound, and that the man went out a window with her.
A woman at the Hidalgo County public housing complex where the Lagunas lived called police after seeing a man walking with a girl who was barefoot and only wearing a shirt and underwear.
Cardenas initially was questioned about the teen's disappearance because he was a close family member who had socialized with the girl. He was released, then questioned again and arrested after authorities said information he provided conflicted with details from Castillo.
In his statement to police, Cardenas said he was high on cocaine when he and Castillo drove around with Laguna in his mother's car and eventually had sex with her. He said when he untied her to let her go "she then came at me," scratching him and kneeing him.
"I then lost it and started punching her on the face," he told detectives. He said after he hit her in the neck, she began coughing up blood and having breathing difficulties. After trying unsuccessfully to revive her, he said he tied her up "and rolled her down a canal bank."
Hidalgo County prosecutors argued the DNA request was intended to delay the punishment and "muddy the waters." Prosecutors also pointed out in court filings that Cardenas led them to the scene of the killing, providing information not publicly disclosed.
Being born in Mexico made Cardenas eligible for legal help from the Mexican consulate when he was arrested, according to provisions of the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations, which is a 1963 international agreement. The courts have allowed executions to move forward in several previous Texas death row cases in which the agreement was said to have been violated.
Cardenas' friend, Castillo, was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and is serving a 25-year prison term.