Inmate facing possible death sentence to learn fate next month

EDINBURG — A decade later, the punishment phase of a capital murder trial will start again for a death row inmate accused of killing a Donna man.

Douglas Armstrong, 47, appeared in the 370th district courtroom Wednesday before the same judge who sentenced him in 2007, after a jury decided on the death sentence upon convicting him of fatally slashing Rafael Castelan with a box cutter in 2006.

Armstrong won a new punishment trial this past November after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the defendant’s trial attorneys “failed to conduct a constitutionally adequate investigation of mitigating evidence that could have been introduced during the punishment phase of his trial.”

The state’s highest court said that a more thorough investigation of “the chaotic circumstances of [Armstrong’s] childhood, fueled by a family legacy of alcoholism” and his “mental deficiency” may have convinced at least one juror to choose a life sentence over death.

Armstrong allegedly ran out of money while drinking at a Donna bar before he robbed 60-year-old Castelan and slashed his neck. He subsequently returned to the bar to continue drinking, according to witnesses.

Armstrong, however, has maintained his innocence.

In 2013, he was indicted for the 2003 murder of an Alabama woman.

On Thursday, District Judge Noe Gonzalez told Armstrong that if the state decides not to seek the death penalty during the new punishment phase, Armstrong would automatically be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. If the state does seek the death penalty, a new trial will be set for the punishment phase.

Assistant District Attorney Joseph Orendain, who tried the case more than 10 years ago, will announce the state’s decision at a Feb. 12 hearing.