Attorneys argue over statements made by co-defendant in 2017 Starr murder case

Arguments over the admissibility of a statement to law enforcement made by Sebastian Torres, a defendant in the murder case of Rio Grande City teenager Chayse Olivarez, were presented Friday during a pre-trial hearing.

Though visiting state District Judge Rogelio Valdez said he would make a decision on the statement at a later date, he determined that the parties would need more time in the lead up to the trial and therefore pushed the beginning of trial from Dec. 3 to March 23, 2020.

Torres, 18, is charged with capital murder and tampering with physical evidence in Olivarez’s death in 2017.

The lead defendant in the case, Jose Luis Garcia Jr., was acquitted on a count of murder and a count of tampering with physical evidence, a human corpse, at the conclusion of his trial earlier this month. He was, however, convicted on one count of tampering with physical evidence for which he was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Torres, who was 16 at the time of Olivarez’s death, was picked up at his home by law enforcement on Aug. 11, 2017, and taken to the Starr County Sheriff’s Office.

During Friday’s hearing, former Precinct 1 Starr County Justice Jesus Barrera Jr. testified that he was called to magistrate Torres as he was still a minor.

He ended up magistrating Torres twice within a few hours, Barrera said, because Torres initially declined to make a statement but then agreed to do so.

As part of that process, Barrera read Torres his rights, and then Torres signed a document stating he would make a statement.

In a video recording of the magistration, Barrera is heard saying that he would request that law enforcement bring Torres to him after questioning so that Barrera could determine whether the statements were made voluntarily. However, Barrera didn’t meet with Torres afterward.

He testified that video of the interrogation was supposed to be made available to him but it never was.

In his arguments before the judge, Torres’ attorney, Abner Burnett with the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Public Defender’s Office, asserted that Barrera was required to determine the voluntariness of Torres’ statement and not doing so was a violation of the Texas Family Code.

“This situation was a failure of the state, through the justice of the peace, to follow a mandatory statutory requirement,” Burnett said. “It wasn’t done and for that reason, it is crystal clear that the statement is inadmissible.”

The attorney for the state, 229th Assistant District Attorney Gilberto Hernandez-Solano, argued that a violation of the Family Code didn’t automatically make evidence inadmissible and that the Family Code only required that written statements be reviewed to determine whether they were voluntary.

Burnett, however, argued that the Family Code does, in fact, require it in this case, citing Section 51.095(f) of the law.

An investigator with the Starr County Sheriff’s Office, Dario Marquez, was also called to testify and said Torres’ parents were not contacted as they were in Mexico at the time and Torres’ older sibling was not at the residence when he was picked up.

Valdez, the judge, said he would take their arguments under advisement but would need more time to review material. He also instructed the parties to submit memorandums of their arguments.

One thing the parties seemed to reach an agreement on was a gag order that would prevent the attorneys from speaking to the media regarding the case. The judge asked the attorneys for the defense and the state to submit an agreed-upon motion requesting the gag-order, which Valdez said he would sign.

Additionally, the judge agreed to push back the trial date due to delays in the translation and transcription of statements.

Because the 398th court, where the case is being heard, will be host to trials in January and February, Torres’ trial will have to wait until March.