State opts against death penalty in 2007 Donna murder case

EDINBURG — A man sentenced to death more than a decade ago was given a different type of death sentence Monday: life in prison without parole.

Douglas Armstrong was sentenced to life after prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty against him. The 48-year-old won a new punishment trial late last year on appeal.

A jury found Armstrong guilty of capital murder in 2007 for killing 60-year-old Rafael Castelan of Donna with a box cutter during an alleged robbery the year before. Armstrong was sentenced to death for this crime.

He has long maintained his innocence, however, and Maslon LLP — the Minnesota law firm representing him pro bono — has argued that someone else killed Castelan in a drug deal gone wrong.

According to a Nov. 28, 2017 press release the law firm issued after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Armstrong’s resentencing, Armstrong stumbled upon Castelan’s body on his way home from a Donna bar. He attempted to walk Castelan, who was critically injured, to a nearby hospital but panicked and fled after witnesses “misinterpreted the scene, called the police and drove their van at Armstrong.”

Armstrong was removed from death row after Maslon’s team successfully argued that his court-appointed trial attorneys provided ineffective assistance of counsel during the conviction and punishment phases of his trial.

“Armstrong’s court-appointed lawyers did nothing to prepare Armstrong’s defense,” the press release reads, charging the Hidalgo County defense attorneys with only speaking with two witnesses, failing to investigate Castelan’s history of drug dealing and failing to conduct forensic testing on the physical evidence related to the murder scene.

Although the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Maslon’s attempt to overturn Armstrong’s guilty verdict, the court ruled that his defense team “failed to conduct a constitutionally adequate investigation of mitigating evidence that could have been introduced during the punishment phase of his trial,” namely the physical abuse Armstrong suffered as a child, his history of substance abuse and his cognitive impairments.

Castelan’s son was present during Monday’s sentencing, having traveled to the Rio Grande Valley from Chicago, and he expressed anger at the state’s decision not to seek the death penalty.

“I was hoping to watch you die but obviously somebody felt sorry for you,” Castelan said to Armstrong during his crime victim statement. “And I don’t feel sorry for you … you took my father …”

Now off death row, Armstrong’s legal battle is not over. Maslon noted in its November 2017 press release that it “plans to continue its long-standing fight” toward exonerating Armstrong.