Douglas Tyrone Armstrong walked out of the Sunshine Bar in Donna at 9 p.m. on April 21, 2006.
Forty-five minutes later, police arrested him for the violent murder of Rafael Castelan.
Less than a year later, on Jan. 11, 2007, a jury took approximately three-and-a-half hours to convict Armstrong of slashing Castelan’s throat and stealing his Medicaid card.
A week later, on Jan. 17, 2007, Armstrong was sentenced to death.
He stayed on death row for more than a decade until the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Nov. 15, 2017, that his attorneys provided ineffective assistance during his sentencing.
On March 19, 2018, Armstrong was re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
That same year, the law firm Maslon LLP, which is working for free on the case, filed a federal writ of habeas corpus on Armstrong’s behalf.
They say he’s actually innocent of the crime and lawyers with Maslon LLP say their investigation uncovered evidence that Armstrong’s jury never heard.
CASE IN CHIEF
At around 9:30 p.m. on April 21, 2006, Laura Patricia Corona and Pilar Reyes were driving to H-E-B.
While en route, they testified that they saw a man attacking Castelan.
“Corona and Reyes were in a mini-van, and Reyes drove toward the attacker in an attempt to scare him away from Castelan. The attacker did not flee, but Castelan tried to escape by getting into the rear door of the mini-van,” the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling upholding Armstrong’s conviction stated. “The attacker grabbed Castelan by the head and threw him to the ground; Corona heard Castelan’s head hit the pavement. Corona then saw the attacker cut Castelan’s neck and go through his pockets before he ran north through an alley.”
As they drew closer, Corona called 9-1-1.
When police arrived, they found Castelan’s lifeless body. The rear pocket had been ripped from his shorts and his belongings were scattered on the ground. Detective Jose Elizondo found a bag of items from H-E-B, a cellphone and a wallet. The wallet’s contents were strewn around the area and there was blood inside the wallet, according to the state appeals court ruling.
“Corona and Reyes described Castelan’s attacker as a large black man, wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans. The couple told the officers the direction in which the attacker had run. As other officers secured the scene, (officer) Guerrero went to search for the attacker,” the ruling stated.
The backdoor to the Sunshine Bar was about three blocks from where Castelan had been attacked and was in the same alley that the attacker had fled through.
“Bartender Cinthia Berenice Alanis Olvera told police that Armstrong had been at the bar for quite some time that day, playing pool and purchasing drinks for waitresses and female patrons,” the state appeals court ruling stated. “Castelan arrived at the bar later in the day and spoke with Armstrong for about half an hour. Castelan told Olvera he was going to a nearby H.E.B. to get something for Armstrong. Olvera never saw Castelan again.”
According to that ruling, Armstrong told Olvera and another patron he ran out of cash. They say he left the bar and later returned through the back door. The ruling says he was “shaking, sweating, and acting nervous.”
Shortly thereafter, police arrived at the bar and found Armstrong and another man inside the restroom.
“Armstrong was sweating and putting on a dark colored T-shirt when the officers entered the restroom. Armstrong also matched the description of the attacker,” the state appeals court ruling stated.
Police say they saw a white T-shirt covered in blood on the floor near a urinal and blood on Armstrong’s jeans.
Corona and Reyes — the witnesses — came to the bar and identified Armstrong, who had been detained.
“Officer Salinas then checked Armstrong’s pockets for identification. He found a driver’s license, ‘paperwork and some money,'” the ruling stated. “Officer Salinas noted that the paperwork was folded, but he did not know what kind of paperwork it was.”
While in booking, jailer Joshua Edwards found Castelan’s Medicaid card and $41, which had blood stains.
“Edwards did not list the Medicaid form on the booking sheet because it would not be returned to Armstrong when he was released from jail,” the ruling stated.
Three days later, on April 24, 2006, authorities found a blue box-cutter knife in a grassy area near the rear entrance of the Sunshine bar.
“Armstrong’s girlfriend, Cynthia Losoya, told police that Armstrong ‘always’ carried a blue box-cutter knife,” according to the ruling.
THE POLICE INTERVIEW
Armstrong maintained his innocence from the moment police interrogated him at 1 a.m. on April 22, 2006, according to the writ.
When they searched him outside the Sunshine Bar, the officer said he never saw the bloody Medicaid card that was later found inside his left rear pants pockets during booking.
Police booked Armstrong at 9:45 p.m. on April 21, 2006, 45 minutes after his federal appellate attorneys say he was walking home from the bar.
Armstrong told investigators he was trying to help Castelan to the police station, but became scared when the van approached because he has a criminal history.
“I was walking home and I seen a guy, I seen a guy over there. I seen the guy over there, there’s stuff right there. You know, he scared me, I’m telling you the guy scared me because he was bleeding,” the writ stated, quoting Armstrong’s interrogation.
Armstrong tells police he ran back to the bar.
“I’m talking, you know, I was helping him. I was walking with him and then I got scared and I let him go and I ran back to the bar,” Armstrong says, according to the writ. “I seen the guy over there. And I was trying to help the guy, but then I got scared because I was drunk.”
The detectives don’t believe him and ask why he went back to the bar and changed out of the bloody clothing.
“I’ve been in trouble before. I’ve been in trouble with the law before. If I’m trying to help somebody right there, the first thing they’re going to tell me, they’re going to say it was me, man. They’re going to say it was me, man,” Armstrong is quoted as saying in the writ.
THE BOX-CUTTER KNIFE
The investigation began that evening on April 21, 2006, with police searching the crime scene and the alley Armstrong ran through.
But police didn’t find the murder weapon that night.
Even with the help of the fire department, which provided lights and ladders for searching the rooftops of buildings in the area, investigators did not find the weapon.
The next morning, at around 10 a.m., police resumed the search.
“Though they searched for some time, they again did not find the murder weapon behind the Sunshine Bar,” the federal writ stated.
On Monday, April 24, 2006, another search was organized and this time a man named Raul Luna, an employee of the Donna school district, joined the search party between 9:30 and 10 a.m., according to the appellate attorneys.
“They then walked the three blocks up the alley from the crime scene on Silver Avenue to the Sunshine Bar, looking in dumpsters,” the writ stated. “According to Mr. Luna, he found the weapon in a grassy area of the Sunshine Bar parking lot, a few feet from the back entrance to the bar. Mr. Luna ‘easily’ spotted a knife — a brightly colored knife — from approximately six to ten feet away.”
Police say that after finding the knife they interviewed the manager of AmEx Distributing where Armstrong worked to see if the knife was work-issued.
The appellate attorneys, years later, also interviewed the manager.
“According to Joseph Martinez, the manager of AmEx Distributing, police interviewed him before 10:00 a.m. — that is, before Mr. Luna had found the knife at the back entrance of the Sunshine bar,” the writ states.
In preparation for Armstrong’s trial, his attorneys never conducted a forensic investigation. In the appeals process, Malson LLP did conduct one.
The appellate attorneys retested the knife.
“Finally, though the (Texas Department of Public Safety) detected a latent fingerprint on the knife, it determined that this print was insufficient to identify the depositor,” the writ stated. “The TDPS reports do not indicate that the fingerprint was ever compared to that of Mr. Armstrong to determine where he could be eliminated as the person who left it.”
It’s also of note, according to the appellate attorneys, that none of the witnesses ever said they saw Armstrong with a knife.
Years later, after Armstrong’s arrest and conviction, testing eliminated him as the source of blood and cellular debris on the knife, the writ stated.
In other words, Maslon LLP says there is no evidence Armstrong ever touched or handled the knife — a point his jury never heard because his attorneys never conducted a forensic investigation, according to the writ.
THE MEDICAID CARD
The appellate attorneys also say in the writ that the responding officer who searched Armstrong never found Castelan’s Medicaid card.
According to the writ, it wasn’t until after Armstrong’s interrogation that authorities discovered a bloodied Medicaid card that police say was in Armstrong’s possession.
“This was despite the fact that when Mr. Armstrong was brought to the police station, his pockets were emptied and all that was found — ‘currency, scratch off lottery tickets, an AmEx pay check stub and other papers’ — was placed into an evidence bag prior to the interrogation,” the writ stated. “But this Medicaid identification card cemented the police’s theory that Mr. Armstrong had robbed Mr. Castelan; Mr. Armstrong was charged with capital murder.”
The officer who initially searched Armstrong at the Sunshine Bar also does not remember seeing a bloody Medicaid card in Armstrong’s pockets.
“Officer Salinas testified that he does not recall having seen the bloody Medicaid identification card on Mr. Armstrong when he emptied each of his pockets or when the Medicaid card was supposedly put in Mr. Armstrong’s left rear pocket prior to transporting him to jail,” the writ stated.
There’s another problem with the bloodied Medicaid card, which had a shoe print on it, according to the appellate attorneys.
Those forensic experts the appellate attorneys hired years after the murder confirmed that Armstrong was not the source of any blood or cellular debris found on the Medicaid document.
“Moreover, while blood was deposited on the document when it was in its original folded condition, the blood on the Medicaid card was not smeared, indicating that the blood was completely dry before it was allegedly put in Mr. Armstrong’s pocket,” according to Maslon LLP. ” Further still, (an expert’s) report unequivocally eliminates Mr. Castelan’s and Mr. Armstrong’s shoes as the source of the shoe print on the Medicaid document. Either that print was left at the crime scene by the police … or by the real murderer.”
There were also 17 fingerprints on that card. Only seven were good enough for analysis by the appellate attorneys’ experts.
“In sum, SERI’s and FSA’s forensic analysis provides no indication that Mr. Armstrong ever handled the Medicaid card, but it does confirm that somebody other than Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Castelan in fact did so — all of which casts further doubt on the already questionable story that the card was found on Mr. Armstrong’s person at the time of his booking,” the writ stated.
The state’s primary witnesses — Corona and Reyes — cemented the case. Coupled with the knife and the Medicaid card, the jury weighed Armstrong’s interview with police where he denied the crime with the murder weapon and the stolen Medicaid card and Corona and Reyes’ testimony.
But the jury never heard about the forensic evidence. The jurors also never heard from Max Guerra and Faustino Barrera.
At around 9:30 p.m., 15 minutes before Armstrong was arrested by Donna police for capital murder, Armstrong ran into Guerra while walking away from the Sunshine Bar.
“According to Mr. Guerra, Mr. Armstrong was walking at a normal pace, did nothing to suggest he was angry or upset, and there was no blood on Mr. Armstrong’s clothes or any signs that he had been in a fight,” the writ stated. “Mr. Armstrong continued south on 8th Street. Mr. Guerra heard sirens and saw several police cars no more than three minutes later.”
Armstrong continued walking and says he found a man lying near the sidewalk outside the Donna Public Housing Authority apartment on the northeast corner of Seventh Street and Silver Avenue.
“When Mr. Armstrong walked over to the man, he recognized him — it was someone he had seen at the Sunshine Bar. The man, Mr. Castelan, was trying to say something to Mr. Armstrong, but could only make gurgling, incomprehensible sounds because his throat had been slashed,” the writ stated. “Mr Armstrong tried to help Mr. Castelan. He stood him up, supporting Mr. Castelan under the arm, began trying to walk him to the police station four blocks away.”
That’s when the van came and Armstrong ran.
“In the van’s headlights, Mr. Armstrong feared he, an African-American male with a police record, might be wrongly blamed for attacking Mr. Castelan. In those headlights, he panicked,” the writ stated. “He turned and fled.”
As the investigation unfolded, no one ever talked to Barrera — Castelan’s neighbor, according to the appellate attorneys.
The jury also never heard that Castelan’s apartment had been broken into days before his murder.
“Neighbors of Mr. Castelan confirmed that people came and went from Mr. Castelan’s apartment — often staying for only a few minutes at a time — and that a black man (not Mr. Armstrong) nick-named ‘El Charro’ was seen to frequent the place,” the writ stated.
According to the appellate attorneys, two neighbors saw Castelan get into a green car driven by an unidentified woman. And Barrera, a neighbor, apparently heard the murder as it occurred, according to the writ.
“Mr. Faustino Barrera, who was home at the time, heard the victim cry out, ‘¿por qué yo?’ (‘why me?’) from the outside of the apartment. Mr. Barrera did not go or look outside to see what was going no because he was scared and feared for his life,” the writ stated.
Twenty minutes later, Barrera says he heard a woman, who the appellate attorneys believe is Corona, scream. Then he heard police sirens.
“Again, Mr. Barrera’s sworn testimony — which indicates that Mr. Castelan was initially attacked several minutes before Ms. Corona and the police arrived on the scene — is more consistent with Mr. Armstrong’s account (as well as the forensic evidence discussed above) than the prosecution’s theory of what happened,” the writ stated. “But defense counsel, who had not investigated Mr. Armstrong’s innocence, had no clue of these facts and leads.”
The appellate attorneys also allege that Corona and Reyes’ testimony changed from the night of the murder to the trial, alleging their stories became more embellished as the case went forward.
“Over the following days and weeks, Ms. Corona and Mr. Reyes gave several different accounts of what they witnessed, with each account becoming progressively more incriminating of Mr. Armstrong,” the writ stated.
Maslon LLP hired forensic scientists while working on Armstrong’s appeal.
Those experts uncovered evidence that the jury never heard before sentencing Armstrong to death.
For instance, take the Medicaid card.
The appellate attorneys argue that if Armstrong had slashed Castelan’s throat and stolen his Medicaid card, the blood on the card found in his pocket would have been smeared, making it impossible for a shoe imprint to be left on the document.
“If Mr. Armstrong were rifling through Mr. Castelan’s pockets, his palm would have slid or brushed along the card, leaving a smeared blood print,” the writ stated.
But the blood on the card was dry, according to the appellate attorneys.
As for Armstrong’s shorts, the forensic experts found no blood inside the pockets. Had Armstrong slashed Castelan’s throat and went through his pockets, presumably, he would have blood on his hands that would have been found inside the pockets, according to the writ.
This contradicts the witness testimony that says Armstrong slashed the man’s throat and went through his pockets, according to the appellate attorneys.
The police, prosecution and defense also failed to uncover that Castelan had what appears to be cocaine hidden in his shorts. Experts hired by the appellate attorneys discovered two small slits cut into the waistband of Castelan’s shorts.
“Upon further examination, three small tied plastic bags — two of which contain a white powder substance weighing approximately .78 grams and one of which is empty — were discovered inside of the slits and recovered for further analysis,” the writ stated. “The bags and their contents, which closely resemble cocaine, were never discovered during the course of any prior investigation — police, forensic, or otherwise.”
The appellate attorneys allege that Castelan was a drug dealer who was the victim of a drug hit and say the jury that sent Armstrong to death row never heard this defense theory.
“Again, because defense counsel did not investigate Mr. Armstrong’s claim of innocence, they were unaware of these facts or leads and did not pursue them, much less present them at trial,” the writ stated.
Then there’s the blood, which is found on the street and near where that van drove toward Armstrong and Castelan, who was dying, the appellate attorneys say in the writ.
According to Barton Epstien, a forensic scientist with expertise in blood spatter, the blood at the scene corroborates Armstrong’s story.
Appellate counsel says there was a large pool of blood soaked into the ground near the sidewalk outside of Castelan’s apartment.
“This pool of blood indicates Mr. Castelan was lying on the ground near the sidewalk for at least several minutes, just as Mr. Armstrong described in his statement on the night of his arrest,” the writ stated.
Susan Roe, a forensic pathologist, said the blood near the sidewalk could have only come from a single wound: a severed jugular vein to the neck. According to Roe, Castelan would have lain near the sidewalk for several minutes and could not have walked 30 feet from the sidewalk to the alley where he died without assistance.
Roe also said that the blood on Armstrong’s clothing was from direct and sustained physical contact with the victim, according to the writ.
“Therefore, Mr. Armstrong’s clothing became blood soaked because he was physically in contact with a very bloody Mr. Castelan — again, just as Mr. Armstrong had described in his statement on the night of the murder. In other words, the blood on his clothing is more consistent with somebody carrying a bleeding person and assisting them in walking than it is with an arm’s length knife attack.”
Armstrong is inmate 02185120.
His last hearing in McAllen federal court was on May 28.
In that hearing, Magistrate Judge Peter E. Ormsby ordered both sides, the state of Texas and the defense, to find better quality exhibits for review.
Ormsby gave the attorneys 30 days to apply with the order.
A date for a future hearing has not been set.
Armstrong is seeking an order of immediate release or an evidentiary hearing or any further relief the court deems just.