Juan M. Ovalle was accused of killing John Adam Gutierrez while the two men were locked in a cell at the McConnell Unit on July 25, 2011.
One investigator said before the trial that, on the night of the murder, two men went to bed in the cell. The next morning only one was still alive.
At the time of Ovalle’s indictment by the Bee County Grand Jury, Texas Department of Criminal Justice authorities reported that the victim was found unresponsive.
He was taken to the medical facility at the McConnell Unit and later transferred to Christus Spohn Hospital Beeville, where a doctor pronounced him dead.
As a 10-man, four-woman jury panel waited outside the courtroom for testimony to begin in District Judge Ronald Yeager’s court, attorneys announced that they thought Ovalle wanted to plead guilty and accept a 30-year plea bargain agreement offered by TDCJ prosecutor Mark Edwards.
When Ovalle and his attorney, Michael J. Sawyer of San Antonio, entered the courtroom, the two men spoke briefly before they stepped up to Yeager’s bench.
When the judge asked Ovalle if he was agreeing to plead guilty to the murder charge, the defendant simply stood there, saying nothing.
“The judge is asking you a question,” Sawyer told Ovalle. But the prisoner stood there, visibly stressed by his situation.
“It’s hard for me to do this,” Ovalle finally told Yeager. He said he had dedicated his life to doing the right thing.
“I know that I intentionally put myself in harm’s way,” Ovalle muttered. “I know that I can’t change nothing. I’ve hurt people.”
“I need to have my question answered for the record,” Yeager said.
The judge then offered Ovalle some options. He said he would waive the jury trial and accept one of several pleas from the defendant. Those included a plea of not guilty, a plea of no contest or a plea of guilty.
Yeager than told Ovalle that if chose to plead no contest, he would review the evidence in the case, listen to what the defendant had to say and would decide, himself, as to guilt or innocence.
Yeager also promised that if he found Ovalle guilty of the crime, his punishment would not exceed that recommended by Edwards in the plea agreement.
“The court has to know how you plead on the charges,” Yeager said. Sawyer stood next to Ovalle, looking at the defendant’s face, as if to figure out what he was thinking.
Yeager then assured Ovalle that he would decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
At that point, the judge allowed Sawyer and Ovalle to move to the back of the courtroom to discuss their options. The two men talked for about 30 minutes, under the steady gaze of two armed TDCJ correctional officers, before returning to the bench.
Yeager then read the charge in the indictment, saying that the victim had been killed on July 25, 2011, by blunt force and strangulation.
Ovalle stood silent for several seconds before pleading “no contest.”
The defendant then answered several questions from the judge. He said he had graduated from high school, had earned two associates degrees while in prison and was working on a bachelor’s degree.
“I’m not an emotional person,” Ovalle told the judge. “But I had a notion that my life was in danger, and I realized I had to fight a lot of people.”
The defendant told Yeager that, during his time in prison, he had stayed away from others in the penitentiary.
He then explained how he had dealt, emotionally, with family strife and arguments between his parents. He said he tried to help his mother when she had a mental breakdown and his father had abused him for trying to help her.
Ovalle said he also had taken medication for a depressive state.
He said he had been offered medication at other times while in prison but he had not taken it. He said he was not taking any medication at present.
“I have a problem with Hispanic and black people,” Ovalle told Yeager.
The defendant went on to tell the judge that he could understand the proceedings of the court, and Sawyer confirmed that he thought his client did know what was happening in the courtroom.
Yeager looked at Ovalle’s criminal history, noting that he had been sentenced to a two-year prison term in 1999 for a charge of aggravated assault with serious bodily injury committed on April 14, 1996, and had been sentenced to another two-year term after being convicted in March 1999 on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for a crime committed on April 19, 1996.
Ovalle also was serving a 32-year sentence on a charge of murder committed on April 19, 1996.
All three offenses were committed in Bexar County. Documentation filed with the 187th Judicial District shows that Ovalle had been involved in a drive-by shooting in 1996 that resulted in the death of a rival’s mother.
“In the world, I was gang related,” Ovalle admitted to Yeager. “But I left that.” He said he had been in no trouble for the past 10 years.
“I do practice martial arts and boxing but only for control and for physical fitness,” Ovalle continued.
He said he had seen other inmates talking about him and he knew that members of two prison gangs, the Crips and the Mexican Mafia, had been calling him a “snitch.”
Ovalle said he did go on sick call and he told personnel in the McConnell Unit’s medical department that “I felt like I was going to kill someone.”
“I wasn’t going to fight, but that is exactly how it happened. The light was off, and everything that happened was continuous. Then it stopped. That’s how it happened,” Ovalle told the judge.
“Were you in fear of your life?” Sawyer asked his client.
“Yes, I was,” Ovalle answered.
“How do you feel about the death of the victim?” Sawyer continued.
“I regret it. I wish I could change it,” Ovalle said. He then told the judge that he was a Christian and had changed his life since beginning his 32-year murder sentence in 1998. “I would have done whatever I could to prevent this.”
Ovalle said he had hoped the prison gang members would have beaten him up before the murder that night in his cell. He said he would have then been able to deal with the situation.
“I don’t want to break the rules,” Ovalle told the judge. “I want to go home. That’s the way I live my life.”
“I’ve lost it,” Ovalle continued. “There’s no way I can change that. Those weren’t my intentions. That’s the way I’ve tried to live. Trying to stay out of the way.”
Sawyer then explained to the judge that his client had wanted to tell his story to the prosecutor and the judge and that was why he had decided, once in court, to change his plea.
At that point, Yeager told Ovalle that he was going to find him guilty of the crime and set sentence at 30 years, to run consecutive with the 32 he is now serving. That means the new sentence will begin when the defendant completes his current sentence.
“I’m begging for my life,” Ovalle told the judge. “Can you please consider?”
“I listened to your evidence and your statement very closely,” Yeager assured the defendant. He stood by his verdict and his sentence. Yeager then told Ovalle that because of his plea, he had no right to appeal the verdict.
Before leaving with the two correctional officers, Ovalle actually thanked Yeager.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.