Texas set to execute triggerman in San Antonio murder-for-hire case

It’s been almost 25 years since Rolando Ruiz shot and killed a San Antonio woman in her garage. He was a 20-year-old hitman, paid $2,000 by the woman's husband and brother-in-law, who were out to collect her life insurance money.

On Tuesday, Texas plans to execute Ruizthe fourth time the state has set a date for his death in nearly a decade. Ruiz's attorneys are hoping to block this one, too, arguing his nearly 22 years on Texas' death row constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Ruiz killed 29-year-old Theresa Rodriguez in July 1992; he was convicted and sentenced to death almost three years later. Rodriguez’s husband and brother-in-law, Michael and Mark Rodriguez, both received life sentences.

Michael, the husband, escaped from prison in 2000, one of the notorious “Texas 7.” He was sentenced to death and executed in 2008 for a murder the prisoners committed while on the run. Mark, the brother-in-law, was released on parole in 2011 and was recently charged with felony theft in an alleged roofing scam.

Ruiz, now 44, still lives in solitary confinement on death row, awaiting an execution that has come down to the wire four times.

“He’s actually had three different execution dates before this one, two of which were stayed at the eleventh hour,” said Burke Butler, one of Ruiz’s appellate attorneys with the Texas Defender Service. “That obviously is something that causes immense psychological pain and stress.”

Ruiz has multiple petitions pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, most claiming his prolonged confinement on death row — about 22 years, or half of his life — qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

The court has been divided on that matter; Justice Stephen Breyer, the high court’s leading death penalty opponent, said in a 1999 opinion that it is cruel and unusual to leave inmates on death row for decades. Others, like Justice Clarence Thomas, have argued it is the defendant who creates the long confinement by filing and refiling appeals.

Ruiz’s first execution was scheduled for July 2007, 12 years after he was sentenced to death.

He had been trying unsuccessfully to bring his claims of ineffective counsel to court. He argued his trial lawyer didn’t present enough mitigating evidence in court, like an abusive childhood and substance abuse, and that his state appellate lawyer failed to bring up his ineffective trial lawyer in appeals. Although a federal court agreed with Ruiz’s argument and went so far as to call his appellate lawyer’s representation “appallingly inept,” procedural rules kept that court from reviewing his case.

But after a new, last-minute filing, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Ruiz a stay and agreed to review the case. Ruiz was sitting in a holding cell waiting to be walked into the execution chamber. Instead he was led out of the prison and back to death row.

Ultimately, the lower federal court ruled that Ruiz’s claims of ineffective counsel were not worthy of a new sentencing trial, and a new execution date was set for July. It was rescheduled to Aug. 31. But five days before that execution, he got another stay, this time from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Ruiz had filed another appeal a couple of weeks earlier, and the court postponed his execution while it reviewed the case. In November, its judges issued a harsh ruling denying Ruiz’s claims — both of ineffective counsel and of cruel and unusual punishment.

“Rolando Ruiz does not contest his guilt. He just doesn’t want to be executed. Neither did Theresa Rodriguez,” Judge Bert Richardson wrote in the court’s opinion.

At the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office, appellate division chief Rico Valdez said Ruiz deserves the death penalty because of his violent nature.

“In Ruiz’s case, it’s just his background. He just had a history of being a violent person,” Valdez said.

Ruiz was a gang member and has had multiple violent encounters in prison with inmates and officers, Valdez said. According to prison records, Ruiz was convicted of aggravated assault on a Bexar County corrections officer while he was awaiting his original death penalty trial.

Now, in the final hours before his execution, Ruiz’s fate lies with the U.S. Supreme Court. If it denies review of Ruiz’s case and doesn’t stay the execution, Ruiz's execution will be the third in Texas this year — and the fifth in the country.

“From my perspective, whether you’re for or against the death penalty, it is the law,” Valdez said. “... At some point, it’s time for the sentence to be fulfilled.”

Read more on the first two executions in Texas this year:

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/03/07/texas-set-execute-triggerman-san-antonio-murder-hire-case/.


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