Man convicted of cousin’s slaying gets life in prison
By Miles Smith
A 33-year-old man convicted of capital murder in the 2016 death of his first cousin will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
On Tuesday evening, a jury of six men and six women found Rudy Herrera Jr. of Lockhart guilty of murdering Emilia Juarez, who witnesses for the state said was killed by strangulation during an act that resulted in DNA evidence consistent with that of a sexual assault.
The death penalty was not considered in the case against Herrera, who will serve life in a state penitentiary without the possibility of parole, bringing to a close a tragic saga that began on Aug. 11, 2016 when a local farmer found Juarez’s body in a field off Jolly Road in the outskirts of Lockhart.
In Texas, a person can be convicted on capital murder charges if the murder occurred while the defendant was committing or attempting to commit a kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault or arson.
The jury took just six hours to return the verdict following a trial that included five days of state witnesses that ranged from friends and family members to law enforcement to forensic experts.
Judge Chris Schneider sent jurors back to deliberate at around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday following nearly two-and-a-half hours of closing arguments from the state and defense.
Herrera was arrested in February 2017 after the Department of Public Safety Crime Laboratory matched his DNA to samples recovered from Juarez’s body.
Once the state established a timeline of events intended to rule out friends and most family members as possible suspects, the focus of the trial turned to the testimony of Lt. Billy Mims with the Texas Rangers, who arrested Herrera after taking over the investigation from former Ranger Jimmy Schroeder, who retired from the force and later took a job with the Comal County Sheriff’s Office.
With Mims on the stand, the jury listened Thursday as Montgomery played the recording of Mims’ first interview with Herrera, which he said took place on Feb. 11, 2017 in his truck outside the Lockhart barbecue restaurant at which Herrera was employed.
Mims said Herrera was a suspect at the time the interview was conducted and that he was under suspicion because the Texas Department of Public Safety lab had returned results that matched his DNA to samples taken from the victim.
In the recording, Mims made no mention of Herrera being a suspect during a conversation in which the defendant spoke freely and largely cheerfully, relaying personal details about his life.
“As you could hear, I had built up a good rapport with the defendant and I didn’t want to lose that while I waited for more DNA information,” Mims said.
During the interview, Herrera said multiple times that he didn’t know Juarez that well, that those branches of the family seldom crossed paths, and that the age difference between them limited their interactions.
According to the recorded interview, he remembered seeing Juarez four to five days before her death. When asked the question a different way, he said he hadn’t spoken with her in months. At another point in the conversation, he said he’d last spoken to her a couple of weeks before she died.
“I asked him seven different times when he last saw her, and he gave me a different answer each time,” Mims said.
Mims placed Herrera under arrest on Feb. 18 after the DPS declared additional evidence taken from Juarez’s body a match with the defendant’s DNA.
Following the arrest, Herrera was detained at the Comal County Sheriff’s Office for further questioning. The questioning was caught on video and featured Herrera changing his story several times as Mims advised him of the evidence he’d collected in the case.
During the two-hour interview, Herrera changed his story from barely knowing the victim to eventually stating he had an ongoing sexual relationship with Juarez.
Forensic scientists who testified on the final day of the trial said they had recovered Herrera’s DNA from women’s pajama pants that had been discarded in the roadway near the field from the ankles and waistband … areas scientists said was consistent with a sexual assault.
Defense Attorney Paul Evans told jurors during an impassioned, fiery closing argument that he didn’t believe the case had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, focusing on the absence of a canvassing of the residents of the trailer park in which Juarez had lived, the absence of DNA swabs taken from an area a pathologist testified was consistent with strangulation using a ligature, and the presence of an unidentified DNA source collected from the victim. He characterized Herrera’s story changes as being consistent with someone who was trying to cover up an incestuous relationship.
District Attorney Fred Weber urged jurors to consider the timeline, the matching DNA evidence and Herrera’s story changes when deliberating their verdict, which eventually included a description of the clothing found near Juarez when her body was recovered … clothing that had not been described by any other person interviewed.
Weber finished by showing jurors a slide of Juarez while she was alive and a picture taken of her face after she had died.
“She grew up in Lockhart, she was someone’s friend, granddaughter, daughter and sister,” Weber said. “As much as we’ve talked about Rudy, lets take a moment to talk about the one person who couldn’t be in this courtroom with us today … Emilia Marie Juarez.”