LAREDO, Texas – The trial of a man accused of executing a teen who broke into his home with friends looking for snacks has many in this border city outraged. Not because of the crime, but because the man is facing a murder charge.
In a state where the right to use deadly force to protect one's life and property is sacrosanct and frontier justice is still sometimes the norm — particularly on the violence-plagued Texas-Mexico border — prosecutors have to explain the decision to try Jose Luis Gonzalez.
Even their future boss, the man who is running uncontested for Webb County district attorney in November, disagrees with the decision; he is Gonzalez's defense attorney.
Gonzalez, a wiry, graying 63-year-old, had endured several break-ins at his trailer in a hard-scrabble community east of town when four boys, ranging in age from 11 to 15, broke into his trailer to rummage for chips and soda in July 2007. Gonzalez was in a nearby building at the time.
Gonzalez went into the trailer and confronted the boys with a 16-gauge shotgun. The boys, who were unarmed, were forced to their knees, attorneys on both sides say.
The boys claim they were begging for forgiveness when Gonzalez hit them with the barrel of the shotgun and kicked them repeatedly.
Then, the medical examiner testified, 13-year-old Francisco Anguiano was shot in the back at point-blank range. Two mashed Twinkies and some cookies were stuffed in the pockets of his shorts.
Another boy, Jesus Soto Jr., now 16, testified that Gonzalez ordered them at gunpoint to take Francisco's body outside.
Texas law does allow homeowners to use deadly force to protect themselves and their property, and prosecutors and grand juries have generally applied that standard broadly. In June, a grand jury in Houston cleared a homeowner who shot and killed two burglars outside his neighbor's house despite the dispatcher's repeated request that he stay inside his own home.
"The homeowner's right to defend himself is not what's on trial in this case," said Assistant District Attorney Uriel Druker, speaking of the Gonzalez case. The shooting "was unnecessary and unreasonable, and Texas law doesn't protect that kind of behavior."
But folks in this border city scarred by drug violence across the Rio Grande defend Gonzalez's actions.
"It's a table topic at coffee shops, not only in Laredo but throughout the region," said Mayor Raul Salinas, who noted that folks tend to have strong opinions about the right to protect themselves here. "There's been some debate."
Reader responses to articles published on the Laredo Morning Times Web site called Gonzalez's prosecution unfair and blasted the teen, saying Francisco got what he deserved.
Food distributor Francisco Hernandez pointed out in an interview with The Associated Press that a homeowner wouldn't know whether the intruders were there "to steal potato chips or to stab you."
"He really shouldn't be on trial," Hernandez said.
Gonzalez could get up to life in prison if he's convicted of first-degree murder. His attorney, Isidro "Chilo" Alaniz, said his client was simply acting in self-defense when he found the boys in the trailer late at night.
"There is not a day that goes by that Mr. Gonzalez doesn't think about that little boy," Alaniz said. But Gonzalez "feared for his life."
It was four on one when Gonzalez entered the trailer, Alaniz said. He had the boys on the ground and recognized at least one of them, but Gonzalez thought 13-year-old boy was lunging at him when he fired the shotgun, Alaniz said.
The case will be Alaniz's last as a criminal defense attorney. The 40-year-old won the Democratic nomination in April and has no Republican opponent for district attorney in the November.
He said he became Gonzalez's attorney long before he decided to run for office and has stuck with the case because he believes in it. He was asked whether his client would be on trial for murder if he were already in office.
"That's a good question," Alaniz said. "This case has huge implications for homeowners, gun owners."
The trial is expected to wrap up Friday.