San Benito Three

Cameron County, Texas
Date of Crime:  December 23, 1984
Jesse Romero Executed May 20, 1992
Davis Losada Executed June 4, 1997

Davis Losada, Jose “Joe” Cardenas, and Jesus “Jesse” Romero were convicted of the rape and murder of 15-year-old Olga Lydia Perales. Losada and Romero were sentenced to death while Cardenas was given life imprisonment. Perales had been found Dec. 24, 1984 in the brush on the outskirts of San Benito, Texas. She had been bludgeoned 10 to 20 times about the head and shoulders and stabbed twice in the chest after her death. Two weeks later on Jan. 8, Rafael Levya, Jr., age 16, told his probation officer he knew who killed Perales. Leyra initially stated he had only seen the murder, but he would eventually admit involvement.

Leyra stated the defendants had gone to the home of Ray Amara in Cardenas' car after hearing there was a party there. When the defendants got to Amara's, there was no party but Amara told them he just had sex with Perales in his shed. When Perales came out of the shed, the defendants offered to give her a ride home. Perales agreed and got into the passenger side of the car. Leyra was sitting in the back seat with along with Losada. Cardanas was driving and Romero was sitting in the middle of the front seat. The defendants drove Perales out to the country where they gang raped and sodomized her. After the sexual assaults were finished the defendants took turns beating Perales with a pipe to kill her so that she would not report their crimes to the police.

The defendants were tried successively in separate trials with Leyra as the star witness. Leyra's testimony about repeated rapes by individual defendants appeared overwrought and seemed calculated to incite prejudice against them. Leyra testified that Romero held Perales with a knife even before the defendants' car left Amara's house. This testimony perhaps was designed to cause the defendants' juries to infer that she was abducted. It would have been easier for the defendants to have her sit in the middle front seat if they feared she would leave. At Romero's trial, Leyra testified that Romero forced Perales into the car, again to indicate abduction, yet he did not explain how Romero ended up sitting between her and the driver. The prosecution presumably wanted to prove abduction to secure the death penalty.

At Losada's trial, his attorney, Jose Luis Peña, barely questioned Leyva on cross-examination. Peña had been assigned by the State to represent Leyva, and had done so for a short time before he was re-assigned by the State to represent Losada. Since Peña was bound by attorney-client privilege to not reveal anything he had learned during his interview with Leyva, the re-assignment created a clear conflict of interest and should not have been permitted.

In appeals for Losada, Peña, who no longer represented Losada, conceded in 1989 and 1993 affidavits that he had been inhibited in his questioning of Leyva because he had interviewed the same as his attorney. He could not ask any questions for which he already knew the answers. Peña was not specific about what questions he failed to ask, since that too would violate attorney-client confidentiality. The appellate court was unimpressed and argued the conflict was insignificant given the overwhelming evidence of Losada’s guilt; it declined to grant a new trial.

Jesse Romero was executed for the crime on May 20, 1992. When Losada's final 1997 execution date approached, Peña signed another affidavit regarding his conflict of interest. In this affidavit, he violated his attorney-client privilege with Leyva and told the appellate court what he had learned in his one interview with Leyva. Peña's action was a serious violation of legal ethics, although he could not lose his law license as he had already been disbarred for pocketing money that belonged to clients.

According to Peña, Leyva told him that Perales was engaging in consensual sex with the others. Because he had been drinking and using drugs, he had been unable to attain an erection. She mocked him, that enraged him, and he killed her, to the shock and amazement of the others. Peña was an officer of the court, whose testimony is normally accorded more weight than that of ordinary trial witnesses like Leyra. Peña's affidavit was corroborated by his undisputed representation of Leyra, by his failure to seriously cross-examine the same, and by his earlier 1989 and 1993 affidavits.

Texas law technically prevented the defendants from being convicted by the uncorroborated testimony of a co-defendant. Courts, however, ruled that Leyva's testimony was corroborated by other witnesses, such as Amara, who placed the defendants with Perales on the night of the crime. Nevertheless, the corroboration of this one undisputed detail of Leyra's story does not corroborate Leyra's claim that the defendants committed the crime. Texas courts rejected Peña's final affidavit and Losada was executed on June 4, 1997. His last words were, “If it matters to anyone, I did not kill Olga.” Cardenas became eligible for parole in 2005, but as of 2011 he is still serving a life sentence.  [2/11]


References:  Skeptical Juror, Losada v. Johnson, Brownsville Herald

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Southeast Texas Cases, Defendants Executed by Texas