Medical examiner says injuries to head as severe as if run over by a car
MANTI—After a four-day jury trial last week, Julio Cesar Garza, a prisoner at the Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF), was convicted of aggravated murder for killing his cellmate, Carlos Adrian Hernandez.
Judge Wallace Lee presided over the trial at the Sanpete County Courthouse, which ran from Monday through Thursday, Feb. 28-March 3. Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels prosecuted the case with assistance from deputy county attorneys Wes Mangum and Arek Butler.
Public defender Richard Gale of Provo represented Garza. In his opening statement, Gale described Garza’s upbringing. Gale said that Garza, 31, was born in Laredo, Texas, to a mentally ill single mother. He has three sisters, two older and one younger. According to Gale, all the children had different fathers.
Gale said the family moved to Utah and settled in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City when Garza was about 12. He immediately began having problems at school. His social problems led to fights, and he sought protection by joining a gang.
Gale said Garza thrived in the gang environment and by age 17 was so skilled at stealing cars that gang leaders tapped him to teach the skill to new recruits.
During just such an instruction session, Garza was caught, and because he threatened to kill the car owner during the robbery, a simple charge of grand theft was elevated to aggravated robbery. He was tried as an adult and sent to prison.
Garza’s problems continued after he was in custody. He is affiliated with the violent Cerringo prison gang. He later assaulted another prisoner and was also prosecuted for possession of a controlled substance by a prisoner. Those charges extended his prison sentence.
On Aug. 25, 2016, the Utah Department of Corrections tried to break up gang problems at the Utah State Prison in Draper. They transferred five Cerringo gang members to CUCF. Garza was one of them.
Garza was assigned to the Hickory housing unit, the most secure in the prison. The four prisoners he’d been transferred with, inmates he characterized in his testimony as his “homies” (fellow gang members), were assigned to the same unit.
Garza was assigned a new roommate who was not a Cerringo gang member. He testified he had never been housed with someone outside of his gang before.
According to Garza’s testimony, Cerringo gang members have strict rules about who they can be peaceably housed with. If they are housed with a member of a rival gang or someone else the gang has a problem with, they are obligated to do violence to that person.
The Cerringo gang has problems with sex offenders, Garza said, and his new cellmate, Hernandez, was a sex offender.
Garza described some of the punishments his gang would mete out if he broke the gang rules. They could include anything from beatings to stabbings. The terms for stabbing were “soft candy,” “hard candy,” or just “candy,” which is the most lethal.
Gale held up a pen and had Garza describe the various stages of “candy.” Soft candy was a knife or “shank” penetration of approximately 1-1/2 inches. Hard candy was a couple of inches more, and candy meant no restrictions. Garza said he had been stabbed multiple times during his years in prison.
Garza testified that the afternoon of his arrival at CUCF, as he was being issued his bedroll and other necessities, he learned from other gang members that his new cellmate, Hernandez, was a sex offender who had been convicted of child molestation and murder.
Given the circumstances, Garza told the court he knew what he had to do. He said he spent the rest of the afternoon and evening “negotiating” with Hernandez, which meant Garza was letting Hernandez know he planned to harm him.
But if Hernandez offered something of value to the gang, like money or some other consideration, he might be able to buy his way out of the punishment.
The negotiation was not successful, and around 8 p.m., Garza carried out the punishment. The prosecution showed a videotape taken outside the cell that showed Garza administering a horrific beating to Hernandez that continued for more than 7 minutes.
The video showed Garza punching Hernandez while he was laying in his bunk, then grabbing him and dragging him to the floor, where Garza repeatedly stomped, kicked and punched Hernandez, many times lifting himself up over the man by using the top bed and the wall to gain as much force as he could while stomping down on Hernandez’s head.
The beating was so furious that the camera showed that Garza had to rest several times before resuming the violent mayhem.
During the assault, Hernandez’s head was against the lower portion of the cell door. The force of the assault triggered a door alarm, which signaled to the control room officer, Victor Orozco, that something was amiss in Cell 109.
Orozco testified that he called down to 109 and asked what was going on. Garza replied that he was sorry (for triggering the alarm) and that it wouldn’t happen again. In the background, Orozco heard Hernandez’s labored breathing, so he dispatched Matthew Larson, a corrections officer, to investigate.
Larson testified that as he approached the cell, he saw a large pool of blood seeped under the door and onto the gangway in front of it. He said he closed the cell’s cuff port and looked in to see Garza sitting upright on the bed with blood spatters on his clothing but apparently unhurt.
Hernandez was lying on the floor covered in blood from the waist up. Larsen said Hernandez was struggling to breathe, so he called for medical assistance.
An emergency response team entered the cell and secured Garza, whereupon a medical team determined that Hernandez needed to be taken immediately to Gunnison Valley Hospital. He was later airlifted to Utah Valley Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.
Dr. Cameron A. Symmonds, the trauma physician who treated Hernandez, testified that Hernandez had two skull fractures, broken bones in his face, and numerous other broken bones. He compared the head injuries to having the man’s head run over by a car.
Dr. Pamela Ulmer of the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office said an autopsy showed Hernandez had brain lacerations on both sides of his head and that the injuries were consistent with severe stomping. She said that one of the scalp lacerations had almost the full imprint of Garza’s shoe.
In all, prosecutors called seven witnesses, including four corrections officers. All the officers testified that the amount of blood they saw in the cell was the most they had ever seen in a prison beating.
Gale, the defense attorney, called only one witness: Garza himself. Garza never denied killing Hernandez but said he didn’t intend to do so.
Garza wove a chilling tale of life in prison. He gave details about gangs that conveyed the atmosphere of violence prisoners live with. On the whole, Garza admitted what he had done and didn’t particularly defend his actions.
The case went to the jury about 6 p.m. Thursday, March 3. Four hours later, the jury came back and returned the verdict of “guilty” of aggravated murder.
None of Garza’s sentences for previous crimes precluded him from receiving parole at some point. However, the new conviction could result in a sentence of life without parole. Garza’s sentencing is scheduled for today (Wednesday).