a huge sum for them, but laughable compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars private lawyers typically charge to represent a capital murder defendant. The Rodriguezes took their money to Bruce Perkins, a Corpus Christi lawyer the family had used once before when one of Tina’s brothers-in-law was in legal trouble. Perkins recruited Michael Collins, of San Antonio, as co-counsel. The family got what it paid for. By early 1999, Tina’s case had been downgraded: the district attorney had decided a jury might balk at the idea of executing her, and besides, Bandera County couldn’t afford the money it would take to prosecute a death penalty case. But the state was still asking for a capital murder conviction, which would carry a heavier penalty than first-degree murder. Despite the gravity of the charge, the trial, which took place in February, was a bargain-basement fiasco. Perkins and Collins failed to present any testimony about their client’s confusion over how to feed babies. They offered virtually no evidence of possible abuse by her husband. They made only the most cursory attempt to suggest that Ramiro might have had a disease that caused him to waste away. \(The one illness they hypothesized was quickly discounted by a prosecution witness who pointed out that electrolytes worst of all, the lawyers never interviewed Tina’s co-workers to hear their recollections of her joy over Ramiro’s birth. Nor did they talk to the emergency medical technicians, who could have testified about a mother’s grief the night of her son’s death. Absent these witnesses, Tina came across as a person with no friends or coworkers, and no feelings for her child. The jurors all middle-class Anglo men saw only a few poorly-dressed, intimidated family members: the kind of people for whom it’s easy to confuse nervousness with sullenness. Tina seemed the same. When she answered questions, she came across as reserved, even sour. She showed strong feeling only twice on the stand. Once was when when she described the day she went into labor with Ramiro. She became downright animated then, reciting attending nurses’ names, using long, almost breathlessly involved sentences, and employing medical terms such as “consistent with” and “dilation.” Her excitement during this testimony was eerie and sad: it seems that ever since she miscarried her twins, at the age of fifteen, Tina’s role as bearer of children has been the sole basis of her identity. The jurors knew nothing about the twins, or anything else of Tina’s life. All they saw was the state of Texas insisting that this compulsive bearer of children, this veritable baby-making machine, would cruelly shut down operations as soon as its labor was done. The other time Tina’s stolidness disappeared was when she was asked to look at her son’s autopsy picture, and began wailing so inconsolably that the judge had to call a recess. But jurors later said they wondered why she had been calm earlier in the trial, when her lawyers first showed her the picture. Even so, the panel wanted to give Tina a break. “Maybe she emoted on the stand because her lawyers told her to,” juror Greg Deiley speculated during an interview months after the trial. Another juror, Donald Downer, said he and the others were looking for something anything to consider in Tina’s favor. The jurors had been suspicious that Noel had done something terrible to Tina that affected her ability to care for her children. They speculated that Noel was pushing his wife around when they heard about the family moving from their decent mobile home in Kerrville to the Bandera Pass shack. “I really believed that, at the least, she was a controlled spouse,” Downer says. Jurors also wanted to hear about possible health problems in Ramiro. “Her lawyers,” Downer says, “could have brought somebody in to refute the prosecution’ s starvation theory. All it would have taken is one expert opinion. The defense attorneys were obviously not doing their jobs. But as a jury we were required to weigh only the evidence presented. And based on what we were given, there was really no option. We did what we had to do.” The trial lasted three days. In as many hours, the jury convicted Tina. Next day she was sentenced to prison, ostensibly for the rest of her life. Four months later, the district attorney offered Noel Perez a bargain allowing him to plead to a more lenient charge than capital murder. Having accepted the deal, for a maximum of twenty-five years in prison but only half that much for good behavior, he is now doing far less time than his wife. Following the guilty verdict, Tina was assigned a court-appointed attorney for her appeal and habeas corpus \(a presentation of new evis Adrienne Zuflacht, a young criminal defense lawyer in San Antonio. Zuflacht started making calls and dropping in on people. Immediately she discovered the emergency medical technicians from the night of Ramiro’s death. She also found Dr. Steven Clarke, a U.T.Austin professor of nutrition, who examined Ramiro Perez’ medical and autopsy records. He found several suspicious findings from the autopsy, including drastically low blood glucose levels. Low glucose, Clarke says, signals a rare metabolic disorder, pyruvic hydrogenase deficiency. Babies born with the disease lack an enzyme that helps convert food into the sugar or glucose needed for growth and for life. The illness can cause newborns to lose weight, then suddenly go into a coma and die. Coroner Bayardo should have ordered tests to check definitively for the disorder, says Clarke. Zuflacht also plans to present experts to testify about Tina’s confusion about how and what to feed her child. She will consider putting on testimony about how easy it is to watch a child lose weight without seeing a problem. And she may call specialists in batteredwife syndrome. They would likely testify that tenor and low self-esteem often cause victims to deny abuse even for years after being separated from their abusers. All this may happen if Tina Rodriguez gets a new trial. But an appellate or habeas corpus decision could take years. And there is no assurance that it will be in her favor. She could spend decades, if not the rest of her life, behind bars. Sociologist Martha Smithey has studied mothers from throughout Texas who were charged with killing their babies. She found that they share several common characteristics. Virtually all are poor. Most have suffered sexual abuse. Typically they were in abusive or conflictive relationships with male partners when their children died. All seemed overwhelmed by the dilemmas of mothering without adequate emotional or material resources. Yet they did not seek help. Their reticence does not surprise. In our culture, Smithey says, femininity is still equated with the ideal of perfect motherhood, and not mothering perfectly means not being a woman. The fiction is even more entrenched among Latinas. Smithey fears that growing law-and-order responses to “bad” See “Rodriguez,” page 18 SEPTEMBER 3, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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