X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:Maria Jovita Valles was last seen alive in the early morning hours of June 16, 2000. Valles joined her estranged husband, Luciano Torres, at a bar in El Paso late on the 15th, had a few drinks with him and left in Torres’ truck. Witnesses said the couple appeared affectionate toward one another; Torres said they were arguing over Valles’ apparent jealousy of a woman who worked at the bar. Less than two weeks later, Valles’ body was pulled from the El Paso side of the Rio Grande River. She was dressed in the same clothes she had been wearing when she was last seen, and the state of her body indicated she had been dead for nearly two days. A medical examiner concluded that she had died from a trauma to the left side of skull, and that the trauma was probably “homicidal” in nature. Police found Torres’ truck in Juarez, Mexico. They recovered a pair of blue jeans, a pair of socks, and a 10-inch-wide rock with a sharp/broken end. All items tested positive for Valles’ blood, and the rock also contained traces of hair and dirt. The back window of the truck was broken out. The keys were later found in a vehicle owned by a friend and employee of Torres’ nicknamed “Homie.” Torres was eventually charged with Valles’ murder. At his trial, his ex-wife testified that Torres called her on June 16 and asked her to take care of the couple’s children. He said things were not going well for him. Torres’ probation officer said that when she spoke with Torres by phone on the 19th, he said he did not know where Valles was, but spoke of her in the past tense. Torres testified in his defense. He said that he and Valles left the bar in his truck, and that Homie was in the back. As they drove toward Torres’ office in Chapparal, N.M. the couple argued. According to Torres, Valles hit him in the head as he was driving, which forced Torres to jerk the steering wheel. Valles fell out of the truck as he did this. Torres did not brake, but coasted to a stop, then he and Homie ran to where Valles fell out. They said she had hit her head and was bleeding heavily. He thought they should get Valles into the truck, but found that it was locked (he said either he or Homie must have accidentally locked the door as they climbed out). Torres said he grabbed a bloody rock near Valles and threw it through the window to climb in the truck and unlock the doors. He placed Valles in the bed of the truck and drove off. Torres then said he told Homie to take Valles to the hospital because Torres didn’t want to get caught for violating his probation (by driving drunk). Torres walked home and said he waited for a call from Homie that never came. Torres said he was scared and confused, so he and Homie went to Mexico. Nearly six weeks later, feeling bad for what he thought Homie had done to Valles, Torres returned to El Paso and turned himself in. A jury convicted Torres and sentenced him to 99 years in prison. On appeal, Torres challenges the trial court’s territorial jurisdiction over the case. He claims the evidence was too weak to show that Valles was killed in Texas, not in Mexico. He also challenges the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence, as well as the effectiveness of his trial counsel. HOLDING:Affirmed. The court first conducts a review of the proper standard of proof for establishing territorial jurisdiction. The court notes that Vaughn v. State, 607 S.W.2d 914 (Tex.Crim.App. [Panel Op.] 1980), could be read to equate territorial jurisdiction with a challenge to venue, which requires only a preponderance of the evidence standard. On the other hand, most every state that has considered what standard to apply to territorial jurisdiction challenges have applied a reasonable-doubt standard. The court expresses its preference for the reasonable-doubt standard because of sound policy justifications — minimizing the risk of the defendant being tried for a crime he actually committed elsewhere, increasing the likelihood of another state granting full faith and credit to the conviction and possible juror confusion if multiple standards of proof are used — but in light of Vaughn, the court says it cannot say for sure what the standard of proof is in Texas. The court also concludes that territorial jurisdiction was established using either standard. Valles was last seen alive in Texas and her body was pulled from the river in Texas. She did not die from drowning, and the state of her body and the clothes she was wearing indicate she was killed very soon after she was last seen. The jury could conclude that without a reasonable doubt Valles was killed in Texas. The court says the fact that the murder weapon and other evidence was found in Mexico does not bear on where the murder occurred, as the defendant could have simply disposed of the items somewhere other than the site of the murder. Nor does it matter that Torres and Valles were in New Mexico the last time Torres claims he saw Valles conscious. Thought this is some evidence that Valles suffered the fatal blow in New Mexico, it does not establish that she died in New Mexico. Furthermore, the court notes that under Penal Code �1.04(b), if the body of a murder victim is found in this state, it is presumed that the death occurred in this state. Contrary to Torres’ suggestion, there was no evidence that the body had ever been on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande. Plus, the commentary to �1.04 says that the prosecuting state should have a substantial interest in connection with the crime, which Texas does because Valles was a living in Texas and was last seen alive in Texas. Another policy is that jurisdictional gaps should be plugged, and to make territorial jurisdiction decisions based upon the positioning of the body and the “vagaries of the Rio Grande River” would effectively turn the river into a jurisdictional gap itself. The court next rejects Torres’ claim that his trial counsel was defective for not challenging the state’s proof on venue in his motion for directed verdict. The court notes that it is difficult to assess Torres’ claim since he did not include ineffective assistance of counsel in his motion for new trial, nor does he include reasons trial counsel gave for his inaction. The court points out that Torres’ attorney did attack venue in his closing argument, and without anything to explain why the attorney chose this approach, the strong presumption of counsel’s effectiveness cannot be overcome. Recounting the facts of the case, including numerous additional details, the court determines that the evidence was factually and legally sufficient to support the conviction. In its review of the legal sufficiency, the court notes that the jury could reasonably infer from Torres’ actions after Valles’ disappearance — not telling anyone what he knew happened to Valles, and fleeing to Mexico for nearly six weeks — that he was hiding something or had a consciousness of guilt. OPINION:Chew, J.; Larsen, McClure and Chew, JJ.

Want to continue reading?
Become a Free ALM Digital Reader.

Benefits of a Digital Membership:

  • Free access to 3 articles* every 30 days
  • Access to the entire ALM network of websites
  • Unlimited access to the ALM suite of newsletters
  • Build custom alerts on any search topic of your choosing
  • Search by a wide range of topics

*May exclude premium content
Already have an account?

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.