MANHATTAN, Kan. (WIBW) -- Jurors recommended Thursday that convicted killer Luis Aguirre serve a life sentence, in what officials say is the first capital murder trial in Riley County in decades.
On June 22, 2012, Aguirre, 24, was found guilty of capital murder in connection with the 2009 deaths of his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Tanya Maldonado, and the couple’s 13-month-old son Juan.
The verdict came after a week of testimony. On Monday, July 9, 2012, the second part of the trial got underway at the Riley County Courthouse in downtown Manhattan. Judge Meryl Wilson is presiding over the trial.
The state, represented by Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson and Assistant Riley County Attorney Barry Disney, encouraged members of the jury to look at all of the evidence that was presented to them during the first phase of the trial when they found Aguirre guilty of both murders.
Jeffrey Wicks, a member of Aguirre’s defense team, detailed Aguirre’s background and upbringing in Chicago, telling members of the jury that his mother had drug and alcohol problems when she was pregnant with him and that he was placed in foster care growing up, passing from home to home. When his mother eventually regained custody of her children, she did not have a home and Aguirre lived in a homeless shelter. He did not know his father and had a rough life growing up in a tough neighborhood, Wicks said.
Wicks said that the defense is not trying to excuse Aguirre’s actions but they are trying to show how he got to this point in his life so that jurors might choose life in prison over the death penalty.
The defense called a GIS analyst to the stand who outlined the demographics and statistics of the community where Aguirre grew up in Chicago, telling jurors that it is a poor neighborhood where a significant portion of the Hispanic population does not have an education beyond the ninth grade. She says she linked her findings to a youth violence risk factors study done by the Department of Justice which found that youths living in poverty with no role models and a poor education are at a higher risk to commit violence.
Members of Aguirre’s family also took the stand Monday during the second phase of his trial. WIBW could not capture their testimony as they requested not to be on camera. Jurors heard testimony from Aguirre's older sister, mother and foster mother who said that his execution would devastate their family.
On Tuesday, Aguirre's younger sister took the stand and said that he is a great brother and is very protective of her. She says that both of them were abused as children. Aguirre cried at one point during her testimony. She told jurors that she wants to see him live because her brother is the only person in her life who has not hurt her.
A recorded deposition was also played for the jury Tuesday from Aguirre's ex-girlfriend Nicole who is the mother of two of his children. Several of her family members also made statements in the recording. They said that Aguirre is a supportive father who has always been there for his children. If he receives a life sentence and is incarcerated, they said they will still be able to have him in their lives.
On Wednesday, one of the last witnesses for the defense in part two of the trial was called to the stand- Dr. George Athey from the Heritage Mental Health Clinic in Topeka. Athey is a clinical psychologist who evaluated Aguirre in the Fall of 2011. He testified that Aguirre does not show psychopathic tendencies and if he received a life sentence, he would not perpetuate violence in prison. He said Aguirre showed extreme sadness and loss when talking about the deaths of Tanya and Juan, shedding light on his remorse. Athey told the jury that because of Aguirre's abuse by his mother when he was growing up, the prior trauma has left him with a limited range of trust and attachment and he remains a stranger in relationships, pushing aside any emotional situations.
Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson questioned Aguirre's sincerity during the evaluation, suggesting that he was putting his best foot forward because he knew it would be used in his trial. He referenced emails that were presented in the first phase of the trial where Aguirre told Tanya he wanted to settle down when he was really building a life with another woman. Wilkerson said there were even emails Aguirre sent to Tanya after she was already dead where he was trying to come across as genuinely caring and concerned.
In his closing argument Thursday, Wicks asked jurors to show mercy to Aguirre and his family members who love him. Throughout the second part of the trial, he stressed Aguirre's traumatic upbringing. Assistant Riley County Attorney Barry Disney said there is no one to blame for what happened but Aguirre and that it's one thing to have abusive mother but 13-month-old Juan had a father who killed him.
Jurors deliberated for several hours Thursday. They could not come to a unanimous decision on the death penalty so they recommended Aguirre be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
"We are perfectly satisfied with the jury’s verdict in this case. Mr. Aguirre will be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He is not a threat to public safety. He’s not going to be released from prison. And it’s difficult to ask 12 people plus an alternate to sit in here and listen to the evidence that they heard and make a decision as to whether or not someone lives or dies," said Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson coming out of court. He said the trial has taken an emotional toll on everyone involved.
The trial attracted the attention of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty whose members are working to abolish capital punishment in the Sunflower State. It was re-established in 1994.
"We feel that it’s adequate punishment. We feel that it also protects the public and gives the defendant a chance to make something positive out of his confinement. This is life in prison. This isn’t 20 years to be collapsed to 15. This is life and life means life in Kansas at this time," said Don Anderson, trial monitor for the coalition.
"We are actively working. We have been since 1994 and we will keep it up until we abolish the death penalty, no question," he added.
Members of Aguirre's defense team declined to comment on the trial.
A formal sentencing will be held for Aguirre on August 7, 2012 in Riley County District Court.
The bodies of Tanya and Juan were discovered in late October 2009 in a shallow grave east of Ogden.
Roughly a month earlier, Aguirre brought Tanya and Juan to Ogden to the apartment where he was living with his new girlfriend, Dulce Mendez. Mendez was stationed at Fort Riley and was deployed to Iraq when the killings took place. Tanya and Juan had been living in Chicago in a homeless shelter and were desperate for support, prosecutors said. Aguirre was also originally from Chicago and was in the National Guard. During training in Alabama, he met Mendez and moved to Ogden to live with her and her 18-month-old son. Prosecutors allege that Aguirre planned the murders and killed Tanya and Juan so he could move on with Dulce Mendez. But the defense says he was trying to help his ex and son get back on their feet and that he never intended for them to die.
Aguirre said on the weekend of September 19 and 20, 2009, he had drill for the National Guard in Chicago and ended up meeting up with Tanya near the mission where she was staying with their son. Aguirre says he wanted to see how she was doing because he knew she was having trouble. He was just going to give her a ride to a friend’s house or relative’s house but she told him she wanted to go with him back to Kansas. He says Tanya wanted to start fresh and find a job and get away from her family and maybe meet a nice guy in the military. Aguirre told her about his current girlfriend, who was deployed. He was going to let Tanya and Juan stay with him for a few days until they found another place to stay.
Aguirre told the investigators that in the midst of an argument and struggle in the kitchen, he covered Tanya’s mouth for five minutes to stop her from yelling and he didn't realize that he was also covering her nose. After she stopped kicking and moving, Aguirre says he thought she had calmed down and let her go. She started spitting up blood and he tried to revive her with chest compressions but she died.
When he went to check on his son so he wouldn't wander into the kitchen and see what had happened with his mother, Aguirre says he found toddler asleep, somewhat hanging off the baby bed. Aguirre says he tucked Juan in tightly and later found him face down on a pillow with a pacifier in his mouth and he could not be revived.
Aguirre told the detectives that his anxiety and fear kicked in and his first reaction was to try to hide what had happened so he drove around for a while not knowing what to do and ended up burying Tanya and Juan. He said the whole situation was an accident and he knew he should have called 911. He insisted that no one helped him and that he didn’t tell anyone else about what happened. He was also adamant that he did not plan the killings and did not know about the spot where he buried the victims ahead of time.
During the first phase of the trial, jurors heard testimony from Dr. Spencer Tomb, a longtime Kansas State University professor and botanist. Tomb was asked by authorities to examine the shallow grave outside of Ogden where the victims were found on, examining the plant matter found directly under their remains and around the grave site. Tanya and Juan Maldonado were killed on September 21, 2009 and buried in the early morning hours of September 22, 2009. A hunter discovered the grave roughly a month later on October 25, 2009. Tomb told the jury during his testimony that based on the build up of leaflets at the bottom of the grave, he believes it was dug several days before the victims were buried, remaining open for a "significant" period of time before their bodies were placed inside. The testimony supported the state’s stance that the murders were premeditated.