Court affirms life sentence, man loses appeal of his conviction for beheading

The 13th Court of Appeals on Thursday denied an appeal filed by a man convicted along with his brother, a former Border Patrol agent, in the shooting death of a Honduran national found naked and headless floating in the Laguna Madre during Spring Break in 2015.

Eduardo Luna Rodriguez, 28, appealed his life without parole plus 50-year sentence for capital murder by committing murder in the course of retaliation and a count of engaging in organized criminal activity by possessing with intent to distribute a controlled substance in an amount greater than 400 grams.

During his trial in 2017, a jury found Luna Rodriguez guilty of capital murder, murder and two counts of engaging in criminal activity.

Eduardo, along with his older brother, former Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna, 33, his eldest brother, Fernando Luna Rodriguez, 38, Aaron Rodriguez Medellin, 26, and Nestor Manuel Leal, 22, shot and killed Jose Francisco Palacios-Paz, 33, on March 10, 2015, because the group believed Palacios-Paz was going to inform law enforcement about their drug smuggling and selling activities.

The case captured national attention because of the gristly nature in which Palacios-Paz was killed, shot at a tire shop in Edinburg and then decapitated and dumped off the waters of South Padre Island as thousands of tourists around the country partied during Spring Break. Not only that, Joel’s status as a Border Patrol agent captured intrigue as well.

Authorities arrested Joel, who worked as an agent for six to seven years, at the Hebbronville Border Patrol station after investigators found his Border Patrol badge mixed with contraband inside a safe that included a little more than two pounds of cocaine, 17 grams of methamphetamine, an antique 1911-style pistol with Saint Jude engraved on the side, a .22 caliber pistol and 26 bundles of cash totaling nearly $90,000.

In Eduardo’s appeal, he alleged there was insufficient testimony to corroborate witness testimony; that the trial court abused its discretion by overruling objections allowing the state to call a previously undisclosed expert and a lay witness; that the trial court abused its discretion by denying a motion for continuance to allow the defense to investigate whether it needed experts to refute the undisclosed expert and witness; and that a cumulative set of mistakes necessitated a reversal of the conviction and sentence.

In its 16-page ruling, the appeals court recounted how the previously undisclosed expert, Jennifer Smith, a senior forensic analyst with Lab Corps, testified that two blood samples from Eduardo’s tire shop matched Palacios-Paz’s DNA. That document also details how text messages and cellphone tower pings showed Eduardo traveling from Edinburg toward the Laguna Madre on March 10, 2015, which corroborated Fernando’s testimony.

Fernando reached a plea deal with prosecutors and received a 10-year probated sentence in exchange for his testimony against his brothers and accomplices. He was ordered to be deported after the proceedings, according to the court record.

The ruling states that there was sufficient testimony to corroborate witness testimony, that the trial court did not abuse its discretion and that there was no cumulative set of mistakes.

District Attorney Luis V. Saenz said the conviction stood because of the hard work of the late Gustavo Ch. Garza, the assistant district attorney who spent more than a year working with various local and federal agencies to put the pieces together and convict those responsible for Palacios-Paz’s death.

“Through blood, sweat and tears, Gus painstakingly painted the story that was the tragedy of the murder of Palacios-Paz. Not only did he find justice for the death of an innocent man, but he helped root out corruption within the ranks of United States Border Patrol,” Saenz said in a statement. “His work is going to have lasting effects not only on our community, but our State, and Nation. Thank you Gus, your tenacity and dedication won the day, may you rest in peace knowing that you saw that justice was done.”

Garza passed away in December.

As for the other defendants, a jury sentenced Joel to 20 years in prison for engaging in criminal activity and found him not guilty of capital murder and of murder. His projected release date is in late 2035.

Medellin reached a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to murder. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and his projected release date is in mid-2030. Leal also reached a deal with prosecutors and earned a 15-year sentence for murder and, like Medellin, is projected for release in mid-2030.