Despite a U.S. Supreme Court ban, Texas has continued to send mentally retarded criminals to death row. Will a Mexican immigrant’s case correct this injustice? BY RENEE FELTZ Fli LORESBINDA PLATA HADN’T SEEN A DOCTOR DURING HER ENTIRE pregnancy in the desolate village of Angoa in Michoacan, Mexico. But after four hours of painful labor, she sought help at the nearest clinic, an hour away by dirt road. After Plata arrived, Dr. Luis Zapien recalls, “We pulled [the baby] out and he was born completely flaccid and purple.” Floresbinda heard the doctor say that her son was dead before he untwined the umbilical cord that was wrapped twice around the baby’s neck and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. After several minutes, though, her son began breathing. But the lack of oxygen had already damaged his brain. A nurse checked off a simple behavioral checklistdid he cry, did he respond appropriately? and gave him two points out of 10, a score for a newborn with profound cognitive defects. Just an hour into his life, and 20 years before he would be sentenced to die in Texas, Daniel Plata was already being tested for mental retardation. By the time he was 3, Daniel could say “Mama” and “Papa,” but not much else. His grandmother grew frustrated when, as he got a little older, he couldn’t seem to run simple errands. “If I sent him for lard he would lose the money,” says Cynthia Hernandez. “If I sent him for peppers he would bring back tomatoes.” In school, Daniel stood out as a slow learner. His firstgrade teacher, Eleazar Herrera Solis, “tried to get him to be the same as the rest,” but “the child could barely read.” His violent father complicated matters. Several times a week he would come home drunk and attack Floresbinda. As the oldest child, Daniel would try to protect his mother and two brothers from Isidro’s fists, belt and occasionally his machete. In the process he became the target of his father’s rage. In 1986, Floresbinda fled with her sons to the United States, hoping for safety and a better life. She found work as a janitor in Houston. When the boys registered for school, Danielthen 10was put in first grade. His friend Nasario Vasquez remembers him as “the kid who got picked last” for basketball. “For Daniel the games had no rules,” Vasquez says. “He would just run down the court and throw up a crazy shot with no coordination.” When Daniel was 15, he was socially promoted to RIGHT: Floresbinda Plata at her home in Houston. FACING PAGE: Photograph of Daniel Plata on a bookshelf in Plata’s living room. PHOTOS BY MICHAEL STRAVATO the ninth grade. He acted up in class and was sent to an alternative learning center. He was flagged as “extremely low” performing by his teacher, Terry Rizzo, in a note to the school counselor. At first Rizzo assumed Daniel was having trouble understanding English, but after studying his behavior, she thought he might be learning disabled. She urged the school to test Daniel to see if he should be placed in special classes. But he was never tested and before his ninthgrade year was halfway over, he dropped out. Daniel started working as a busboy at Luby’s to help support the family. He took to carrying his mother’s gun around as a way to look tough. Then one night in March 1995, Daniel brought the gun along when he and some friends went to rob a nearby Stop’n Go. He had drunk about 20 beers and smoked PCPlaced marijuana, he later testified, so his memory of the night is hazy. But the store’s security camera shows Daniel pointing his gun at the clerk, Murlidhar Mahbubani, and yelling, “Give me the money!” His two friends jumped over the counter and emptied the cash register of about $50. Then Daniel bent over the counter and shot Mahbubani several times in the back. The store’s surveillance system clearly videotaped his face. It also showed him, on the way out, using his shirt to wipe his fingerprints off the door. 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG
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