Death row inmate Ruben Gutierrez said DNA testing of fingernail scrapings from victim Escolastica Harrison will prove his innocence. File Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
March 31 (UPI) -- A federal judge has ruled in favor of a Texas death row inmate seeking new DNA testing to prove his innocence.
U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle for the Southern District of Texas said Ruben Gutierrez, 43, is entitled to have fingernail scrapings from the victim tested. She said the Texas statute that guarantees the DNA testing of materials was unconstitutionally applied in the case.
The state appealed the ruling.
Gutierrez's attorney welcomed the judge's decision, which he said will determine the person who killed trailer park owner Escolastica Harrison in 1998.
"Louis Saenz, the district attorney in Brownsville, has repeatedly refused our requests for access to this material without explanation," lawyer Shawn Nolan said in a statement Wednesday. "If he is so sure that Mr. Gutierrez's conviction and death sentence are sound and that Mr. Gutierrez deserves to die, there can be no reason to continue to refuse our reasonable requests for this testing, which would be done automatically by law if this case happened today."
Authorities said Gutierrez knew Harrison through her nephew and worked together with accomplices Pedro Garcia and Rene Garcia to rob her of about $600,000 in cash she had stashed in her home. An autopsy showed Harrison had been beaten and stabbed 13 times with two screwdrivers.
Gutierrez said he helped organize the robbery, but didn't take part in the murder and DNA testing would absolve him.
The Supreme Court granted a last-minute stay of execution to Gutierrez in June in response to his challenge of Texas' policy preventing clergy from entering the death chamber.