Both sides rest in Starr Co. murder case

EDINBURG — The state and the defense rested their cases Wednesday in the trial for Jesus Angel Rebollar, a man facing capital murder charges in the deaths of a Starr County man and his 3-year-old son in November 2016.

Hector Garcia Jr., 41, and Julian Garcia, 3, were gunned down on the corner of La Sagunada and Woods Brothers Road in Rio Grande City on the evening of Nov. 6, 2018.

An eyewitness testified last week that the shooters were in a blue, Ford pickup that carried about five passengers, though, he said he only got a clear view of one of them.

He later identified that individual as Rebollar to the Texas Rangers — one of the agencies handling the investigation. However, how the identification process was handled was heavily scrutinized by Rebollar’s defense attorney, O. Rene Flores.

On Wednesday, Flores called an expert witness who testified about the psychology of eyewitness testimony.

An associate professor of psychology at Auburn University, Rolando Carol specialized in legal psychology and eyewitness memory.

Carol testified that he significant doubted the reliability of the eyewitness testimony based on how the eyewitness was asked to identify the possible shooter and how the Texas Rangers conducted their interviews.

The Rangers conducted two interviews with the eyewitness — the first of which occurred the night of the shooting while the second was done two days later on Nov. 8.

During the first interview, the eyewitness said he got a view of a young, light-skinned man with a long nose, small amount of facial hair, and a short hair style.

Two days later, the Rangers presented the eyewitness three photos for identification purposes — a group photo that included Rebollar, a photo of Rebollar’s Facebook profile, and a photo of a different individual holding a firearm.

The witness dismissed the third photo and identified Rebollar in the first two photos as one of the shooters.

However, Carol said official recommendations of how photo lineups and interviews should be conducted were not followed in this case, saying that the investigators asked a lot of suggestive questions and leading questions.

He also testified about the “weapon-focused effect” which Carol explained is caused when a weapon is present during a crime.

“The presence of a weapon tends to decrease the accuracy of an eyewitnesses testimony,” Carol said, noting the more time a witness spends looking at the weapon, the less time they have to look at the suspect. “When a weapon is present at a crime, witnesses tend to pay attention to the weapon.”

The state prosecutor, 229th Assistant District Attorney Gilberto Hernandez-Solano, noted the eyewitness’ familiarity with guns — which was demonstrated by the details of the guns he provided in the first interview — and suggested that might reduce the “weapon-focused effect.”

“Yes,” Carol said. “More familiar you are with weapons, you’ll probably have a better for them looking at them for less time.”

Specifically regarding the photo lineup, which Carol said really wasn’t a lineup at all, said the four recommendations published by social psychologists weren’t followed.

The first recommendations are that the person administering the lineup should be “blind,” or shouldn’t know who the suspect in the lineup is.

“And it’s my understanding that the two officers presenting this group photo to the witness both knew who they thought the suspect was,” Carol said.

The second recommendation is to instruct the witness that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup to let them know that not singling out a suspect is an option.

The third is that the suspect should not stand out from the lineup. In this case, the defense has argued that Rebollar was the only one in the group photo that matched the physical description the witness had previously provided.

The fourth recommendation is that once the eyewitness makes a decision, they should be asked of their confidence immediately after. The investigators in this case did ask the eyewitness about his level of confidence, but Carol said that it was tainted because when the witness said he was 85% certain, the investigator asked if he had said 95%. Instead of correcting the investigator, the eyewitness simply agreed.

“None of the recommendations were followed in this administration and there’s social factors and cognitive factors that would make me doubt trusting this particular identification,” Carol said.

Aside from Carol, the jury heard from four other witnesses for the defense — friends and a relative of Rebollar who testified to being with him the day of the shooting.

They all testified that that evening, just before 7 p.m., they went to the home of a friend — a barber — to get haircuts.

That friend, Jose Mata, was among those who testified Wednesday and clarified he ran an unofficial business — Mata’s Barbershop — out of a shed behind his house.

This type of “get-together,” Mata said, is something they would do about three to four times a week.

On Nov. 6, 2016, surveillance footage taken from Mata’s security cameras showed the group of friends arriving at his home around 6:58 p.m.

The shooting, according to the eyewitness, occurred at approximately 6 p.m.

When the defense rested their case, the state prosecutors presented one piece of rebuttal evidence — audio recording a jailhouse call between Rebollar and another of his friends, Luis Basaldua.

Basaldua previously testified about going to Mata’s house the evening of the incident, but also that Rebollar had gone to retrieve food earlier that day from another friend’s house for a barbecue.

However, in the audio recording, Rebollar didn’t seem to recall that.

“That day first we went to get something to eat where Juan used to live,” Basaldua is heard saying.

“I don’t remember,” Rebollar is heard saying in response.

Both sides immediately rested and visiting state Judge Jose Longoria dismissed the jury for the day as the court would work on preparing the jury charge, or instructions the jury is given.

The charge will be presented to the jury Thursday morning after which they are expected to begin their deliberations.