Robert Garza is scheduled to die on September 19. The state of Texas has not attempted to prove that he killed anyone. When a young Latino male in the Rio Grande Valley — the long-impoverished, southernmost tip of the state — is accused of gang involvement, the question of who actually pulled the trigger does not give pause to Texas’ well-oiled killing machine.
Garza was convicted of involvement in the shooting of four immigrant women in a car in Donna, Texas, 11 years ago. The killings were carried out by members of the gang to which Garza belonged, allegedly to protect the gang from criminal charges from a witness to a previous crime. He was convicted under a controversial law in the state known as the Law of Parties, which does not require the prosecution to prove that the defendant killed anyone, or even intended to kill, but only that she or he had a certain level of involvement in a felony that led to a murder. Under this law, for example, someone who drives a culprit to a convenience store and waits outside, intending to drive the get-away car after an armed robbery, can be charged with murder if the other person kills someone inside the store.
In 2007, Kenneth Foster, Jr., was facing execution in Texas under the Law of Parties, and his case had been subject to much media attention and protest. Just hours before his execution, Foster’s sentence was commuted by Governor Rick Perry — who is not known for skepticism about capital punishment — from death to life imprisonment. Following the commutation of Foster’s sentence, a bill was proposed in the state legislature to remove the application of the death penalty to Law of Parties cases; the bill failed to pass, however, and it is still possible to receive a death sentence under the Law of Parties.
Garza contends that he did not participate in shooting the women whose murder has landed him on death row, and that he was not even at the scene of the crime. However, he does not eschew all blame for the deaths of the four women that day in 2002; he admits that he knew the crime was going to occur and that he did not act to prevent the killings. But after 11 years of incarceration, he speaks of repentance, of having become a devoted Christian. He now deeply regrets his involvement in gang activity and wants to speak out against gang violence. (Garza’s mother, Sylvia Garza, has also become an active advocate of an end to gang violence.) This is a long journey from Garza’s troubled youth. He left school after eighth grade, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and he spent time in the juvenile corrections system while still a teenager.
Supporters of Garza have created a Facebook event with further information for those who wish to contact the governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles to stop the execution. Letters to decision-makers can also be found here and here.
Very little public discussion has drawn the connection between the Law of Parties and Garza’s fast-approaching execution date. In fact, a local television news interviewearlier this summer focused instead on a prosecutor’s claim that Garza was involved in the infamous “Edinburg massacre,” which occurred months after the crime for which Garza was convicted. Garza was not tried for involvement in the Edinburg killings, but the report focused on that crime instead and on the mother of two of the Edinburg shooting victims, who wants to be present at Garza’s execution.
Like the “stand your ground” laws that have garnered much press of late in relation to the George Zimmerman trial, the Law of Parties is not neutral with regard to race, class and other power differentials because of how it treats members of so-called gangs.
A gang, like a corporation, is a group of people organized in a particular way. Unlike a gang, however, corporations have recognition as legal persons, and members and shareholders in a corporation are largely protected from criminal liability when the corporation engages in illegal activity. The members of a gang, however — often younger and generally darker-skinned than corporate CEOs — tend to be held criminally liable for each other’s actions under legislation such as the Law of Parties. Although one might object that gangs have an explicitly violent aim while corporations do not, that is much too simple. It is well known, for example, that some gangs in U.S. history have played roles in social justice movements; “CRIPS,” for example, stands for Citizens Revolution in Progress. The Latin Kings gang in New York has been reconfiguring itself into a nonviolent organization against police brutality and for basic liberties, as detailed in the documentary Black and Gold. Although Robert Garza’s own gang, the Tri-City Bombers, has been involved in multiple murders and can hardly be considered an nonviolent advocacy organization, the difference in treatment between the Bombers and, say, Union Carbide is puzzling.
There are a myriad of reasons that people oppose the death penalty across the board, from holistic commitments to nonviolence to concerns about racial and economic disparities and the false convictions of innocent people. But Robert Garza’s case is not simply a case about the death penalty. It forces us to ask whether we are willing, as a society, to inflict execution upon people whom we acknowledge did not intentionally or directly participate in the killing of anyone.
The British common law tradition, out of which our legal system largely emerged, linked murder to “malice aforethought” — premeditated evil, with full intent to kill. The Law of Parties, in a rush to place harsher sentences on people involved in gang-type criminal activities, cuts away at this tradition and privileges punishment over basic justice. Blaming gang members for the entire collective’s actions does not necessarily stop the gang; loyalty and the sacrifice of a few might strengthen them all.
Garza’s case represents a missed opportunity that we still have time to rectify. We should be improving community support and education so young people have some place besides gangs to turn to. Rather than trying to put more people in prison and on death row, we can strive to run out of prisoners instead. Achieving this goal will only happen if we critically re-evaluate our current conceptions of justice. Garza’s life could represent a starting point for dialogue about these difficult topics. Silencing Garza by executing him not only stops his story from becoming a powerful message of hope — it makes our own silence deafening.