EDINBURG — In what felt like an instant, the court all at once granted a mistrial, and then withheld the decision during a tense morning hearing outside the presence of the jury.
Before jurors took their seats Thursday morning in the murder trial of Peter Uvalle, state District Judge Roberto “Bobby” Flores ruled for a mistrial, saying rules of evidence were clearly not followed. Then, moments later, the judge reversed that decision, opting to withhold the ruling until the end of the day’s testimony.
The prospect of a mistrial was sparked by the previous day’s events, when by happenstance, Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorney Vance W. Gonzales learned of a supplemental document related to evidence gathered by Pharr police investigators on the day of Jonathan Joseph Alcala’s shooting death.
During the second half of the day’s testimony — specifically during a break in the trial — the state’s witness, Pharr Police crime scene investigator Jose A. Villarreal handed Gonzales a document that he did not have, and neither did the defense.
Realizing this, and the issues the discovery of unknown and unreviewed evidence, Gonzales advised the defense, and then they advised the court.
The court asked both sides at the time if they wanted to request a mistrial. The state said it did not, and the defense, not sure of the contents of the document, and how it would impact their case, asked for a break to review the document.
The court granted the recess, and asked for the two sides to convene Thursday morning to resolve the issue.
The hearing only lasted a few minutes, but in that span, the court in one breath ruled for a mistrial then allowed Orlando Javier “O.J.” Esquivel, the felony division chief with the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office, to make one last argument on the record against the ruling.
Esquivel asked what level of harm the document in question would have on Uvalle’s rights — apparently this was enough, and the court ruled he would withhold his decision until the end of the day.
Visibly startled, defense attorneys Savannah Gonzalez and Lucia “Lucy” Regalado immediately requested a continuance in the trial in order to gather and further review the newly discovered documents that initiated the possibility of a mistrial in the first place.
But the court, already having conveyed its lack of patience with the lack of preparedness on the part of both sides, and a reluctance to impose undue inconvenience on jurors, denied the request and testimony began promptly with Santiago Alonso Aguirre, the neighbor and friend of the victim in the case.
The state argues that Uvalle, after buying drugs from Alcala, came back to Alcala’s residence and claimed Alcala shorted him drugs.
Statements taken by police from nearby neighbors and others claim an argument ensued, gunfire erupted, and Alcala was shot five times. Uvalle, who was a passenger in his cousin Omar Garcia’s GMC truck, fled the scene with Garcia, according to the statements.
Aguirre, jurors learned, was one of the first people police officers took a statement from in the moments following the shooting that left Alcala dead.
Before Aguirre’s testimony Thursday, the state had relied heavily on police officers’ testimony related to the shooting.
The 23-year-old boyhood friend of Alcala, and arguably the state’s most important witness since the beginning of the trial, testified for roughly four hours between the morning and afternoon sessions.
Aguirre’s testimony was painful to watch at times as the jittery Pharr resident’s nervously covered his mouth during testimony, which resulted in muffled responses that led to repeated reprimands from both the attorneys and the court, and only slowed the flow of the proceedings.
Aguirre faces charges of his own related to the case: one count of tampering with evidence for allegedly hiding the shotgun he used to return fire on Uvalle and his cousin, two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for the aforementioned offense, and one count of possession of a controlled substance.
His case is pending in the 92nd state District Court and will likely not conclude until the Uvalle trial ends.
On day one, jurors heard an audio recording of Aguirre’s 911 call after Alcala was shot. The recording was of Aguirre moments after that shooting.
In the recording, Aguirre can be heard telling the dispatcher that Alcala was not breathing.
On Thursday, the state asked Aguirre questions related to the night and early morning of Dec. 14 and 15, 2017.
The state has attempted to show jurors through its witnesses that Uvalle shot Alcala over drugs and not self-defense, as the defense has argued.
But during cross examination of Aguirre, the defense was able to get Aguirre to testify about how he did not immediately tell police that he shot Uvalle and Omar Garcia when he made statements to police.
Aguirre testified that prior to the shooting, Uvalle had come and purchased 30 Xanax pills for $35, and less than five minutes later, returned to Alcala’s residence.
Uvalle, according to Aguirre’s testimony, began arguing with Alcala about being shorted pills. A shotgun that Alcala owned was a few feet away near Alcala’s pickup truck.
Aguirre testified that he subsequently heard shots ring out and watched as Alcala attempted to run away from Uvalle.
The defense, during cross examination of Aguirre, attempted to push back on the state’s portrayal of Aguirre, who testified he was not a gang member or dealt drugs like his friend Alcala did.
They asked him if he did not deal drugs, why did he know the price and amounts Alcala sold to Uvalle that night. Aguirre testified he had been around him enough to know the prices.
The defense, as much as they tried, failed to get concrete answers during cross examination from Aguirre, who would often state he did not know, or did not understand the questions. Aguirre, who understands English, was using a Spanish translator during testimony, and would answer in English, and Spanish at times.
The defense has made arguments implying there would have been enough time for Aguirre, who admitted to hiding the shotgun and to initially omitting that fact to police when they took his statement. There was a question as to the potential hiding of spent shotgun shells at the scene.
The state contends there was no time for Aguirre to call police and hide the shotgun shells, and that Alcala’s friend was scared which is why he initially lied to police.
Also called to the stand Thursday was a woman who was working at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance as a forensic nurse the night of Dec. 15, 2017.
She executed forensic assessments on Uvalle and his cousin Garcia hours after the shooting at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg.
The day ended with a medical examiner from Corpus Christi who performed the autopsy on Alcala, and another expert in the field of gun forensics.
The court, despite stating it would take up the mistrial issue at the end of the day, did not readdress it.
Day four of testimony in the trial is scheduled to begin Friday morning.