When you believe someone you love is innocent, how do you prove it to the rest of the world?
It was an unusual beginning to a love story.
James Legate was five years into a life sentence for murder. Yolanda Garcia, a 59-year-old clothing store clerk, would drive to the John B. Connally Unit every Sunday from San Antonio to visit her son, Jacob Gamez, who was serving seven years for a drunk driving accident. When Jacob was a young boy, his dad had played music with James, so it was natural that the two of them started hanging out in prison. One Sunday in 2004, Jacob introduced James to his mom in the bleak gray-and-white visitors’ room of the prison. She remembered his name. He was the “Tio Legate” she used to hear so much about.
He started writing her letters. “At first, I would barely write him back,” she recalls. But Yolanda saw he was depressed, and wanted to encourage him to hang in there and find faith in God. For the next few years, she would send an occasional card with a piece of scripture written inside, but that was it.
He kept writing her, and they continued to chat during her visits. “In talking and visiting with him, he started telling me everything [about his case] but I couldn’t believe what he was telling me,” she says. Eventually, she decided to see for herself, so she bought a copy of the trial transcript and got some affidavits and memos from Legate’s trial lawyer. Upon seeing one memo, written by the prosecution’s investigator, Yolanda was floored. The investigator had interviewed a woman who said Legate wasn’t the killer, but the woman never testified and the memo was buried in the prosecution’s files. “That’s when I realized what they had done to this guy,” Yolanda says. In fact, she saw so many holes in the case—so many places where the police and his lawyers hadn’t done their job—that she had an idea. “I said, maybe I can do the legwork. Maybe I can do what the lawyers and investigators should have done but didn’t do.”
In 2007, Jacob was released, but Yolanda was soon back at the prison unit every weekend to visit Legate. She had fallen in love. In 2009, Legate and Yolanda got married by proxy, since they couldn’t hold the ceremony at the prison. After that, Yolanda set out to free her husband from prison. All she had to do was find the witnesses who hadn’t testified, extract missing documents from the San Antonio Police Department and bring media attention to the case. Or so she thought.
Last year her letter landed at the Observer: a single-spaced block of text full of all-caps and typos. It was no wonder many had already brushed it aside. Yet if what she said was true, on a hot September day in 1998 her now-husband had gone to a strip mall to repossess a woman’s car and finished the day in a jail cell, charged with murder. He had been provided ineffective legal counsel, then convicted on flimsy evidence, including the testimony of a snitch.
There’s a story behind the illustration
Marc Burckhardt, who teaches at Texas State University, assigned his students to illustrate the story of Yolanda Garcia and Eddie Garcia, with the winner being published in the magazine. Burckhardt, Observer art director Kate Iltis and New York magazine art director Matthew Lenning critiqued sketches and final illustrations and picked the winner, Everett Hiller.
“I felt very passionate about this project because each time I studied the story and imagined what imagery to use, I was reminded that these are real people,” Hiller says. “This helped me express the immense frustration of the situation, and forced me to respect each character in a more concrete way. The pain I present in my art is the anguish they encounter daily.”
I called Legate’s trial attorney, William Davidson, who told me the case haunted him for years afterward. He told me his client had been “railroaded.” In police and court documents, I found Yolanda’s claims credible: no fingerprints, no gunshot residue, no blood, inconsistent witness statements. I agreed to investigate the case further and to meet her in San Antonio to track down witnesses and lost documents. Yolanda was ecstatic. She knew Legate was innocent, but without a college education, she had been struggling to make sense of legal documents and trial transcripts on her own. Legate’s conviction could be overturned with a little help. I told her I couldn’t promise anything, that I was a reporter and not an innocence attorney, but she wouldn’t hear it. She thought I had been sent by God, and that soon enough, Legate would be free.
After meeting for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel off Interstate 10, Yolanda hands me a box containing 17 volumes of trial transcripts, which I stash in my trunk to look at later. She will soon be sending me emails almost daily: “See Volume 8, page 25, lines 6-24, where Juanita objects …”.
I hop into her impeccably vacuumed car, and she sings along to Christian rock as we head to the crime scene. Raised Catholic, Yolanda joined a nondenominational Christian church in 1976. One of her fondest memories is the time she hosted 22 orphans at her home for Christmas. She spent thousands of dollars on gifts for them, though she is not wealthy.
Yolanda started working at age 10, making masa flour at her local tortilleria. She hasn’t stopped working since, and she says she has no memories of “doing things children do.” As a teenager, she would run out of class at the end of the day to catch the bus to her job at HEB on Commerce Street. “My father provided a roof and food, but that was it,” she says. She would later be “trapped” working at her brother’s furniture store for 25 years. Now, when she isn’t selling guayabera shirts at the North Star Mall, she spends all her time “helping James.”
As we pull into the parking lot of the half boarded-up Callaghan strip mall, we see that a bingo hall still operates there. The hall was once owned by Eddie Garcia, the man Legate allegedly murdered. Twelve years before, on the evening of Sept. 3, 1998, Legate walked out of Player’s bar and into Garcia’s office. Legate claimed he was looking for a woman named Marilyn Maddox, who had recently defaulted on her car payment. James met her months before when she bought the car, and she told him where she worked. Indeed, she had recently worked for Garcia, and she defaulted on her payments around the time of the murder. When Legate entered the office, Garcia was on the phone. Garcia was always on the phone, making a deal.
A short man with indigenous features and a dimpled smile, Garcia, 53, was a major figure in San Antonio’s amigo network, the Chicano politicians and businessmen who had become the city’s power brokers. Known as the “Bingo King,” he ran home health-care businesses, owned huge swaths of real estate, and managed prizefighters like Robert Quiroga, the city’s first world boxing champion. He was involved in everything, including corruption. Close friend state Sen. Frank Madla, who was on the state panel overseeing bingo enterprises in Texas, was on Garcia’s payroll as vice president of his home health care business. Both Madla and Garcia were under investigation by the FBI. Former Congressman Albert Bustamante, also known as “Boostie,” was another close friend. In 1992, after an FBI investigation, a federal jury convicted Bustamante of racketeering and accepting a $35,000 bribe from Garcia. Garcia was never indicted.
San Antonio Express-News columnist Carlos Guerra, who died in December, recalled that every time he saw him, Garcia was driving a different luxury car and was usually with a different woman. At his funeral at San Fernando Cathedral, where more than 800 people mourned amid live mariachi music, different friends escorted Garcia’s half-dozen girlfriends to diminish the insult to his wife, Rosemary.
As Legate stood in Garcia’s office, Garcia kept talking on the phone, then motioned for Legate to follow him to a little room with a table. At that point, Yolanda explains, Legate took out a business card from his briefcase, which had his and his company’s name on it. He watched Garcia grab the table and throw it. “I fell and then I saw somebody [behind me],” Legate told me. “Next thing I know I just took off, I ran. I didn’t even hear a gunshot.” The prosecution said he had taken a gun out of his briefcase, not a business card, and fired three shots.
Legate says he abandoned his briefcase in Garcia’s office, but a police officer would later find it in an empty field behind the building, thrown next to the tape-wrapped revolver. Taking Legate at his word, Yolanda believes the police must have moved his briefcase. Inside Garcia’s office, detectives would also find Legate’s portfolio, which contained a copy of his driver’s license and tags from the dealership where he worked. What seemed like proof of guilt to the police was the opposite to Yolanda. Who would be so stupid as to leave several IDs at the scene of a murder? The portfolio “had every possible identifying item that could be traced to me,” Legate says.
One of the main reasons Yolanda wanted me to see the trial transcripts was to read the testimony of eyewitnesses. One man, Adolfo Salazar, said he saw a man in a black shirt running, and Garcia running after him before falling on the ground. Another man described seeing a man in a white shirt running away who looked “surprised.” When Legate was picked up he was wearing a white shirt that had salsa on it from the bar. It would be tested for blood and would come back negative. For Yolanda, the conflicting witness testimony is proof that three people ran from the crime scene: Legate in white, the killer in black, and Garcia, trailing behind. No one actually saw three people, however.
As Yolanda and I wander around the area, a man comes out and asks if we are looking to rent the place for a quinceanera. We ask who owns the bingo hall; it’s Peter Garcia, Eddie’s son. We go inside and ask to speak with him. Yolanda wonders if the family may know something that’s not in the transcripts, that’s not part of the public record. After a few moments, the young Garcia, who has his father’s dimpled cheeks, leads us into a tiny storage space without any chairs. As we all stand awkwardly among stacks of boxes, he tells us he doesn’t remember much from when his father was killed. “It’s pretty basic, just that he was murdered and there was a trial. I really don’t have any details for you,” he says. When we ask about other family members who might know more, he tells us, “No one’s going to say much. They’re not going to talk a whole lot about it, just like I’m not.” The Garcias, it appears, are not a family that talks.
“If I had been there during the trial I would have stopped this. I would have run into the judge’s chambers,” Yolanda says. By “this” she means everything that went wrong during the investigation and the trial.
Cameras from the gas station store across the street pointed at the strip mall and caught everything on camera, including the number of people who ran from the scene and what colors they were wearing, but the police never asked for the tapes, and the store recorded over the footage within seven days. Police presented Legate in a one-person lineup to witnesses. The police found no other suspects.
In the trial transcripts Yolanda gave me, prosecutors depict Legate as a drunk, sloppy hit man and says that the documents Legate left at the scene were “overwhelming evidence of guilt.”
Yolanda doesn’t think so. Sure, he had been drinking in the bar, but he hadn’t been drunk when he parked his car in front of Garcia’s business earlier in the day. Why would he park his car there if he were planning on killing someone? And why would he take his personal information into Eddie’s office if he were going to shoot him? Furthermore, the woman Legate said he was looking for, Marilyn Maddox, had recently worked for Garcia, and she did default on her car payments around that time. The only way Legate could have known that, Yolanda says, was if he really were there to repossess her car.
When the defense team gave its opening statement, it began without gusto: “[We] have a job here today and that job is to protect Mr. Legate’s constitutional rights to a fair trial. Mr. Legate has a presumption of innocence, and we ask you to listen to all of the evidence before you make any decision. He’s 38 years old. He’s a family man. He has three children. He writes music. He plays in a band. And he works a job many of us may not like: He repossesses cars.” It was as if the punishment phase had already begun.
The prosecution used the testimony of a criminal named Jesse Hernandez to build its case. The gun was traced to Hernandez, through a few hands, and he first denied knowing anything about the crime. But Hernandez, a professional criminal, had drug and assault charges pending, so the district attorney made a deal with him. If he testified against Legate, they’d drop the charges. So he did, telling the jury that he had been present when Legate was hired as a hit man, and had furnished him with the gun.
The judge could have suppressed Hernandez’ hearsay testimony, or accepted the defense’s motion for a mistrial when evidence came in at the 11th hour, but she didn’t. The last time Legate had been in Judge Sharon McRae’s court, for a DWI charge, she’d told him she didn’t want to see him back in her courtroom, and Legate believed that meant she would throw the book at him. During the trial, McRae “made every decision in [the prosecution’s] favor,” says Davidson, one of Legate’s attorneys. McRae, who has since retired, did not respond to a request for comment.
After Legate was found guilty, and especially after losing his appeal, he was furious with all his attorneys. All he had left was his writ of Habeas Corpus. Prisoners only get one shot at the writ. At that point, Legate had lost all faith in his lawyers. He spent years poring over law books in the prison’s library, and finally he took his best shot at challenging his conviction and wrote the brief himself. Davidson thinks Legate may have made a procedural error since he wasn’t an attorney. Whatever the case, he lost his writ too.
Now his only hope is that new evidence emerges in the case, like DNA or a recantation from a key witness. In that case, Legate could file a new writ.
photo by Sarah Lim
In 2009, when Yolanda set out to investigate James’ case, she started by getting an affidavit from a man whose testimony was suppressed during the trial. Dale Heine had seen Legate at a gas station on the day of the crime, and Legate told him he was on a job looking for a woman named Marilyn Maddox. Heine also said Legate wasn’t acting nervous; he seemed normal. The prosecution objected to Heine’s testimony, calling it hearsay.
Yolanda knew her main mission: Find Marilyn Maddox. The possibility that Maddox held exculpatory information came out in 2004, when Legate’s mother hired Davidson and an investigator named Jim McKay to do an investigation before the writ, and they were allowed to look in the district attorney’s files.
In one of the boxes they found a file called “work product,” the confidential writings and reports between an attorney and client, in this case the state. “That’s the secret stuff. That’s the stuff they don’t have to give us while the trial is going on. But it was still in this box that they gave us,” Davidson says. As McKay pulled out a memo from the box, Davidson saw his face light up.
Five days before the trial began, the prosecutor’s investigator, J. Ray Hildebrand, had gone to Marilyn Maddox’s home in Converse with a subpoena. As he would write in the memo, “She looked at the subpoena and saw James Legate’s name as defendant. She remarked, ‘He didn’t do it.’ I didn’t question her about that remark. I asked her to call you,” Hildebrand wrote. Here was a key witness saying James didn’t do it. If Maddox had testified, and just one juror had believed her, Legate wouldn’t have been convicted.
After prosecutor Juanita Vasquez-Gardner received the memo, she called Maddox. She says Maddox denied ever telling the investigator that Legate didn’t do it. It seems improbable that Vasquez-Gardner’s own investigator made this up, but the memo was stashed in the files and never turned over to the defense. After Davidson told Legate about the memo, Legate was upset. Why hadn’t his lawyers found her during the investigation? But he was elated, too. This seemed to be the break he had been waiting for.
Kevin McMunigal, a law professor at Case Western University who specializes in prosecutorial misconduct, says the most glaring flaw in the memo isn’t what it says but what it doesn’t say. An investigator is not supposed to stop an interview when exculpatory information starts coming out. After all, the state is supposed to seek justice, not merely convict. “It doesn’t look good. It looks like he’s consciously avoiding exculpatory information,” McMunigal says. And Davidson agrees, saying the memo is “Brady material . . . the mere fact that he stopped the interview,” referring to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, in which the court ruled that suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to a defendant violates due process.
Yolanda was convinced that if she could find Marilyn Maddox, she could clear Legate’s name. Maddox would remember Legate. She would prove Legate had come into Garcia’s office on official business; if she had said that he didn’t commit the murder, she must have had a reason. Yolanda had a photocopy of a check Maddox had written for the BMW, and it had an address on it. She also had the memo that had a separate address on it, a mailbox number in Converse, thirty minutes outside San Antonio.
She found the mailbox alongside several others, but she had no idea which house the mailbox went to. There was no one around to ask. She tried approaching one house with several cars, but barking dogs scared her away. Feeling defeated, she drove back to San Antonio. She also drove to the address on Maddox’s check. A young man came out who couldn’t help her. So she drove to another address she found from an Internet search, in one of San Antonio’s roughest neighborhoods. She hesitated to get out of her car. “I was trembling. I prayed. I said, ‘Dear God, I have to help my husband.’ I walked up to the apartment. Then I saw through the window the apartment was empty. Another brick wall.”
She went to the Department of Public Safety and looked up Maddox’s license number, hoping to find her latest address. The number wasn’t even in the system anymore. It was as if she had evaporated. Yolanda couldn’t find her anywhere.
Meanwhile, Yolanda and Legate became fixated on getting the gunshot residue results. The results had been introduced midway through the trial—such evidence is supposed to be turned over before the trial begins—and revealed no residue particles on Legate’s hands. The prosecution brushed off the results, citing the test’s unreliability. The defense, without time or resources, did not bring in any experts who might have been able to explain why the results mattered. “It’s not like what you see on Law and Order. They are not sleuthing around. They are relying on what the prosecutor turns over to them,” says Prof. McMunigal.
What really bugs Yolanda, though, is that the prosecution kept referring to the results of the test as “indeterminate.” That makes it sound as if forensics experts were unable to determine whether there was any residue. Later, in an affidavit, the prosecutor called the results “negative.” So which was it? Yolanda and Legate never saw the results, so they didn’t know what the test actually found. But Yolanda found something else fishy: The prosecution had directed an officer to only read paragraph two from the results. Maybe paragraph one contained the word “negative.” She anticipated the a-ha moment, the proof of deception. She and Legate even paid an organization called the National Inmate Advocacy Group $500 to track down the results, but the organization went bust and they never got their money back. The Observer filed an open-records request for the results with the district attorney’s office, and Yolanda waited to hear.
In our search for clues, Yolanda and I end up south of downtown at the darkly furnished La Focaccia restaurant, where aging members of the League of United Latin American Citizens sit around a table drinking red wine. Henry Rodriguez was Garcia’s best friend and right-hand man. When I ask him what sorts of jobs he used to do for Eddie, he laughs and says, “Some of them I have to take to my grave.” While his friends and family insist Garcia stayed within the limits of the law, comments like these suggest a different story. When Garcia was shot and killed, Rodriguez adds, “It was like Luca Brasi had been hit.”
Rodriguez always believed Legate did it, but he questions his assumptions now. Rodriguez is a convicted murderer, and he’s known a lot of criminals. “That was so sloppy. I’m not saying one way or the other, but how could anybody be so stupid?” he says. “To telegraph it so that everyone would know? A real hit man does not do that. He goes in there and takes care of business and is out of there.” But he doesn’t know of any alternate scenarios. He says a reliable source told him it wasn’t La Eme, the Mexican Mafia. “You should talk to Joe Lopez,” he tells us. “He always said Legate wasn’t the guy. Maybe he knows something.”
Yolanda and I head west again, past Elmendorf Lake Park, and land in the Loma Vista neighborhood, near where Yolanda grew up. Small colorful houses, many with gates and barred windows, line the dusty streets. A basketball hoop with a logo announces that we’ve arrived at Angel’s Boxing Gym. Joe Lopez, the man Henry Rodriguez told us might have clues, once trained Robert Quiroga, the prizefighter Eddie Garcia managed. Trophies and framed photos of Garcia, Lopez and Quiroga line the outdoor hallway leading to a backyard gym.
In the gated-off front patio, a couple of paunchy men sit around an old kitchen table surrounded by potted plants, wind chimes, discarded electronics and other junk; altogether, it feels homey. Lopez invites us to sit down. Yolanda asks him what he knows about Garcia’s murder.
“I remember hearing that some wetbacks came in from Mexico and did him in,” he tells us. “The one who shot Eddie got away. They got the second guy. The guy that shot him had left like a minute before.” Legate was not a “wetback from Mexico,” but the story of two people fleeing jibes with Legate’s story. Who did he hear this from? He doesn’t remember. Does he know anything else? Nothing. Like so many of Yolanda’s searches, this one has led to a dead end. Yet she was not discouraged. She’s been doing this for years, and if what she says is true, she’ll keep it up until she dies, or her husband is released.
A couple of months later, in December, Yolanda drove, as she does every Sunday, 60 miles to the John Connally Unit, a colossal prison on an open plain outside Kenedy, tucked just out of sight from the highway. She was accustomed to leaving her valuables at the gate, walking through metal detectors, and getting buzzed through multiple doors to see her husband. But this week was different. She had bad news. Inside, she sat across the table from Legate. Before speaking to the man she loved more than anyone else in the world, she silently berated herself. You should have looked sooner. You should have tried harder.
Marilyn Maddox is dead, she told him. With the information Yolanda had collected about Maddox, I had begun looking for her too. I called numbers in the phone book, sent messages to Marilyn Maddoxes on Facebook, and waded through public records. In December I had found the missing information: a death certificate. Marilyn Maddox had died in 2002. When I told Yolanda, she was incredulous at first, but then realized it all made sense: the missing license number in the DPS records, all the dead ends.
When she told Legate, he said: “She was our only hope, mi hija.” But Yolanda couldn’t accept that. She started getting desperate. We need to find Hildebrand, she thought, the investigator who wrote the memo. I came to find out he had died, too. So Yolanda tried contacting his wife. “Maybe she knows something. Men talk about everything with their wives.” It felt like a stretch, but she wrote her a letter. No response.
Soon after following up on the gunshot residue test, the district attorney’s office informed me it was unable to locate the investigative file that should have contained the gunshot residue results. Yolanda, at that point, was developing conspiracies: “I pray they have not made it disappear. I would not put it past them,” she wrote me. “Now you see why my husband could not trust anyone in S.A., because they all cover up for each other. Sad but true.” In November, though, Yolanda met a woman who told her she would try to get the investigative file containing the test. The woman , a wife of a civil rights lawyer who doesn’t want her identity revealed, was able to get the file that held the results from the test.
The word “negative” doesn’t appear anywhere, but neither does the word “positive.” The document reads: “No gunshot residue particles were detected on the right or left hand of the subject. It is indeterminate if the subject fired a weapon.” The results don’t deter Yolanda. “To me, that’s negative,” she says. “They say ‘indeterminate’ to, I’m sorry, but to cover their ass. If it would have been positive they would have said ‘positive.’”
Sadly, Legate’s situation is a common one. In fact, there are likely thousands of inmates whose cases contain glaring flaws. We hear about exonerations, but that’s just a sliver of the many people convicted in less-than-ideal circumstances. There are thousands of people convicted and sitting in jail, with no DNA evidence to exonerate them. Many have already used up their habeas writ and have long given up hoping for a big break. Many have no one advocating for them. Sometimes their families assume they’re guilty. Or the families don’t have the time or resources to do what Yolanda’s doing, says Catherine Whitworth, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas. “Most are indigent and they can’t afford transcripts. They don’t have the time to do investigations,” she says.
Yolanda thought God would guide her through this, but with little hope now, she has fallen into despair, suffering anxiety and feeling her mental health deteriorate. “Maybe it’s because I love the Lord so much and I want to believe that he has a purpose. I want to believe that he loves me so much that he wouldn’t let me suffer like this, just because,” she sobbed to me one day.
For every person exonerated for a crime they didn’t commit, there are many like James Legate: questionable cases, bulldozed through a flawed system, with no recourse left. Only a miracle could exonerate him. Yolanda is hoping for no less.
See the sketch James Legate made of the man he says was the killer.
Contributing writer Laura Burke lives in Austin.