On August 3, 2019, Patrick Crusius killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart after driving almost 600 miles to kill Mexicans. Out of six recent mass shooting prosecutions by federal prosecutors, Patrick Crusius is one of two defendants where the death penalty was taken off the table. In the other four cases, the defendants were eligible for the death penalty or were sentenced to death. Why is Crusius in the minority? Why did the federal prosecutors decide to spare Crusius the death penalty? Four years after the horrific targeting of Mexicans by Crusius in one of several recent mass shootings the question is – was a deal made for political favors or because of skin color? Or was it bureaucracy that made the difference?
Disparity On Federal Death Cases
Although the Biden Administration has said it wants to eliminate the death penalty, the Biden Justice Department’s approach to the Crusius case has raised questions that the federal government is not applying its standards equally. In the 2017 case of Sayfullo Saipov, who killed eight pedestrians with a truck in a New York City bike path in 2017, the federal government chose to seek the death penalty. In other recent mass murder cases, federal prosecutors sought the death penalty. But not with Crusius. Why?
Crusius pleaded guilty to intentionally killing 23 at the Walmart in 2019. Crusius intentionally sought to kill as many Mexicans as he could. Although Saipov was convicted of the murders at trial and Crusius pleaded guilty to the charges to avoid the death penalty, Saipov’s lawyers had wanted a similar plea deal for their client, but the Justice Department refused.
The Justice Department justified refusing to accept the plea agreement by arguing that Saipov’s “lack of remorse, the killing of multiple victims and his targeting” of the victims “to instill fear in New York.”
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Crusius targeted his Mexican victims and his killings instilled fear in the community of El Paso. Although Crusius nodded “yes” when confronted in court by one of the victims about being remorseful for his actions, Crusius has not directly said he was remorseful for targeting and killing Mexicans. There is little difference between Crusius and Saipov’s crimes, except one faced the death penalty by federal prosecutors and the other did not.
Although attorney General Merrick Garland “deauthorized 25 death penalty cases” that were started before the Biden Administration assumed office in 2021, nonetheless, it has continued to pursue death penalty cases as recently as Monday. This is especially true on mass murder cases.
On July 31, federal prosecutors argued for the death penalty in the case of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue killer, Rob Bowers, who murdered 11 people in 2018. Federal Prosecutor argued to the jury that the Bowers’ case is one “that calls for the most severe punishment under the law, the death penalty.” Bowers targeted a minority community like Crusius and yet in that case federal prosecutors argued that the death penalty was merited.
Joe Spencer, Crusius’ defense attorney has argued that Crusius is mentally disabled. Spencer’s argument has been used as a reason for taking the death penalty off the table. In the case of Bowers, a psychologist testified in a court hearing the Bowers was “blatantly psychotic.” Bowers was found guilty of killing 11 and wounding six others on June 16. He faces the death penalty when he is sentenced, likely this week, or next week.
Crusius, on the other hand, killed 23 and wounded 22 others. Crusius targeted a minority group – Mexicans. Although his attorneys have alluded to Crusius’ mental illness, the fact remains that mental illness did not stop federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty in the Bowers case. Why the difference in the way federal prosecutors prosecuted the two killers remains the question.
Is it a case of racial bias?
The death penalty has been applied to more Black murderers than white killers, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that analyzes capital punishment. According to the non-profit, “racial bias persists” in capital punishment cases today. Their analysis show that killers of white people are “more likely” to face the death penalty than killers of Black people.
Bowers targeted his victims “because of the religion they chose to worship.” Crusius targeted Mexicans. Members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community “reacted with relief that the jury” in the case “found him eligible for the death penalty.” El Pasoans were never given that opportunity. Why?
Is it because the local federal prosecutor chose not to give El Pasoans an opportunity to decide if Crusius should be sentenced to death? Who is the federal prosecutor?
When Crusius was first arrested, Jaime Esparza was the district attorney that would prosecute Crusius under state law. At the time, Esparza announced he would seek the death penalty against Crusius. In January 2023, federal prosecutors announced that they would not seek the death penalty against Crusius in federal court. Esparza was sworn in as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas in December 2022. U.S. Attorneys prosecute individuals charged with federal crimes.
After Esparza became the federal prosecutor, the federal government announced it would not seek the death penalty against Crusius. Esparza has refused to answer why the death penalty was off the table, instead referring questions about the case to the Department of Justice.
While Esparza was the district attorney prosecuting Crusius on state charges, Esparza told reporters that he knows that “the death penalty is something very powerful,” but in the Crusius case, “it’s something that is necessary.”
Esparza was first elected in 1993. He retired in 2020. Shortly after taking office in 1993, Esparza filed capital murder charges against two individuals, Juan Villalobos and Mathew Medrano, for the February 27, 1996 murder of Benton Smith. Esparza was criticized for “botching” the criminal case by the son of the victim, because according to the son, Esparza was prosecuting someone that was not at the murder scene at the time of the murder.
In 1997, Villalobos’ second trial began after the first one had been dismissed because Esparza’s office “had not shown probable cause.” The second trial was dismissed on the first day of trial after the witnesses offered by Esparza’s office could not place Villalobos as the murder scene. The victim’s son had predicted that would happen. The case against the second man charged by Esparza’s office was quietly dismissed on March 9, 2004 without going to trial. The witness that Esparza proffered to argue Medrano was the murderer only placed him at the crime scene after being “hypnotized” by police to help her pick out Medrano from a photographic lineup. The court tossed out the testimony, effectively ending the case.
To this day, the murder of Benton Smith remains unsolved.
At the time that Esparza was trying the Smith murder, he was also trying the Daniel Villegas case. It took two attempts for Esparza to convict Villegas only to be overturned 18 years later after a judge determined that Villegas was “factually innocent” of the murder that Esparza prosecuted him for.
Today, Esparza refuses to answer why his office decided not to seek the death penalty against Crusius.
According to the El Paso Inc. the reason that the federal government took the death penalty off the table was for “placating” Crusius’ defense attorney – Joe Spencer. According to the weekly, judge Sam Medrano “spoke with a federal official” where “an agreement was reached to ‘defer’ the Walmart case to the federal courts” because Spencer “was heard to demand that the State of Texas remove the death penalty.”
Was this the reason?
The decision to apply the death penalty in federal cases is a “murky process.” Ultimately the decision is made by U.S., Attorney General Merrick Garland after reviewing the recommendation made by the assistant district attorney. Jaime Esparza would have been the one to make the recommendation to Garland. However, according to the El Paso Inc. Esparza was not allowed to participate in the decision process because his sister was a “witness” in the Walmart shootings.
On September 9, 2019, Jaime Esparza told the county commissioners that although one of his sisters was at the Walmart shootings, her presence “does not legally disqualify” him from prosecuting Crusius. Esparza added that he intended to seek the death penalty against Crusius.
For an unknown reason, Esparza was seemingly allowed to prepare for the prosecution of Crusius on state charges even though his sister was a potential witness but was not allowed to recommend the death penalty to the U.S. Attorney. Who and why was this decision made remains unknown. However, although Crusius is now facing life in prison under the federal charges, the new district attorney, Bill Hicks, says he will seek the death penalty for Crusius under state charges. Hicks was appointed by Greg Abbott to serve out the term of former district attorney, Yvonne Rosales after Rosales resigned the office on December 15, 2022, after accusations of incompetence were made against her. But will Hicks seek the death penalty?
The State Prosecution Of Crusius
Crusius was sentenced to 90 consecutive life sentences last month on the federal charges. District attorney Bill Hicks, who is running to keep the office he was appointed to in the March 2024 primaries, has reiterated that the state will seek the death penalty against Crusius. However, the trial is unlikely to be held prior to the 2024 elections, leaving open the question of whether Crusius will face the death penalty when he is tried on the state charges. Hicks will run as a Republican in the upcoming elections.
It is judge Sam Medrano who will set the trial date for Crusius. Medrano, who has issued a gag order on the case prohibiting attorneys from discussing the case with the public, was involved in an alleged discussion with federal prosecutors to placate Crusius’ defense attorney, Joe Spencer, by allowing the federal prosecutors to try Crusius on federal charges before allowing the state prosecution to move forward.
One of the controversies involving Yvonne Rosales, who abruptly resigned as the district attorney to be replaced by Hicks, involved controversies between her and Medrano and the Crusius case. Rosales announced she was ready to prosecute Crusius before the federal government. However, Medrano chastised her for making the announcement. Rosales resigned soon after amidst several controversies surrounding her office.
The behind-the-scenes political gamesmanship and the 2024 elections, and whether the Crusius criminal trial on state charges will include the death penalty remains open to discussion. Hicks, like Esparza, will be able to argue he continues to seek the death penalty against Crusius through the election cycle. The open question remains, will Crusius, who targeted Mexicans for mass-murder, face the death penalty? The answer will not likely be known until after the 2024 elections.