EDINBURG — After only about three hours of deliberations, jurors on Tuesday unanimously agreed to find Peter Uvalle guilty of murder in the shooting death of Jonathan Joseph Alcala.
How can a man who shot someone five times while he was running away claim self-defense?
That’s how the state, represented by Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorneys Vance W. Gonzales and Ben A. Abila, posed the question to jurors during their closing arguments.
Jurors then began deliberations at around 3:45 p.m., which started the clock on the end of a trial that has — at times — been painstakingly slow for all involved.
State District Judge Roberto “Bobby” Flores of the 139th has conveyed his displeasure with both the state and defense over evidence-related issues that slowed down the proceedings so much the court threatened to declare a mistrial several times.
After a few notes asking for evidence to be sent back to the jury room, jurors worked on coming to a consensus late Tuesday afternoon, coming back with a verdict surprisingly fast for what was a more than week-long trial.
At the heart of Abila and Vance Gonzales’ argument for jurors to convict Uvalle — who is accused of shooting and killing 20-year-old Jonathan Joseph Alcala, a known drug dealer, in front of his own residence in Pharr in the early morning hours of Dec. 15, 2017 — was that Uvalle targeted him, and that it was not a “drug-deal gone wrong.” Instead, Uvalle, who was known to rob drug dealers, targeted Alcala that night, the prosecution has argued.
But the defense, represented by Savannah Gonzalez and Lucia “Lucy” Regalado, claims through testimony entered by the state — specifically Uvalle’s own confession video, in which he states Alcala shot first and had no option but to return fire — that it was a necessary act to avoid being shot by Alcala.
Testimony by a medical examiner showed Alcala, who was shot in the hand and shoulder, also suffered wounds in his back as he attempted to run away from Alcala.
In his closing, Abila picked apart the lesser included charges jurors would be deciding, which includes manslaughter and aggravated assault charges.
Abila argued it cannot be the former nor the latter; manslaughter is off the table because it cannot be considered as Uvalle didn’t shoot indiscriminately, it was targeted. Additionally, the lesser included charge of aggravated assault is not warranted because Alcala died as a result of Uvalle’s actions, Abila argued.
“You’re going to make this right, ladies and gentlemen,” Abila told jurors.
To further bolster its point, the state underscored their star witness’ testimony — Santiago Aguirre, Alcala’s boyhood friend and neighbor who police spoke with almost immediately after the shooting.
He testified for several hours during the trial’s first week, mostly about the moments before and after Uvalle and his cousin, Omar Garcia, pulled up to Alcala’s residence and purchased pills from Alcala.
The defense argued during its closing that Aguirre’s testimony should not be considered because of the inconsistencies evident during the trial. To their point, Aguirre admitted on the stand that he had told different versions of the shooting to police who questioned him following the shooting, testifying in part, that he was scared.
The defense once again hammered home its argument that sloppy, incompetent work displayed by Pharr police, including not sealing off the crime scene, allowing Alcala’s family to congregate inside their home, and lack of pat downs performed after they were allowed to leave their residence.
Savannah Gonzalez also told jurors that Pharr police failed to preserve evidence, like the GMC truck used in the shooting, and the murder weapon, which contained blood, was not tested at a crime lab.
Savannah Gonzalez underscored through the testimony of a former Pharr police investigator, who took Uvalle’s confession roughly 12 hours after the shooting, and in the hours after Uvalle was treated for his gunshot wounds.
On Monday, jurors were shown video footage, roughly 35 minutes long, which depicted a recently injured Uvalle being interrogated by two Pharr police investigators, one of whom was an oft-maligned former police investigator named Enrique Ontiveros.
But mostly the footage likely bolstered the state’s case, as Uvalle on several occasions can be heard contradicting himself and lying about the events of the shooting that left Alcala dead.
The defense said jurors should not consider the statements Uvalle made because he was highly medicated, noting the three different opioids he was administered in the hours before the interrogation.
She made the point that, if jurors can’t trust the “message,” they shouldn’t trust the “messenger,” either, referring to Aguirre’s testimony, and that of Pharr police.
The defense hammered home this point, pointing to Ontiveros’ testimony, in which he admits he made mistakes in handling evidence, in not testing certain evidence, and how at least 15 police officers stood on the crime scene, potentially contaminating the scene.
Vance Gonzales, in an impassioned plea, vociferously proclaimed that the jurors should not be fooled by the defense’s strategy to misdirect their attention, again stating that Uvalle shot the victim five times.
“Peter is a coward,” Vance Gonzales proclaimed.
The state ended its closing by reiterating how Alcala and Uvalle, a half-hour before Alcala is shot, exchanged messages about a denial from Uvalle after Alcala asks him about ripping off other drug dealers.
“This case is simple,” Vance Gonzales exclaimed. “If (Uvalle’s) there to rob him, he fails self-defense.”
The court will ask jurors to return Wednesday for the punishment phase, where jurors will debate a range of punishment for Uvalle from five years to life in prison.