NAPLES — Statements made by a teenager accused in the 2008 stabbing death of an East Naples laborer may have been coerced by detectives, a judge suggested on Monday.
At stake is the first-degree murder charge against Jesus Rene Garza, 20, one of two Lely High School students arrested in the killing of Roberto Avalo-Jasso, 51, for his money.
After listening to a recording of the interrogation on Monday, Baker said it raised “issues.”
He withheld ruling on a defense motion to toss the statement, instead asking both parties to present case law supporting their arguments.
The contested statement is significant — although reports say Garza approached Collier County deputies soon after the killing, the statement at issue details how he and alleged accomplice Juan Jose Barrientos, 18, planned to rob and kill Avalo-Jasso, a nursery worker who lived near Six L’s Farm.
Premeditation must be proved in a first-degree murder charge, which is punishable by execution or life in prison.
Prosecutors have not filed for the death penalty in Garza’s case, but doing so remains an option.
Barrientos, a juvenile at the time of the slaying, cannot be sentenced to death.
Both are also charged with robbery with a deadly weapon.
The high schoolers were arrested on Dec. 30, 2008, two days after Avalo-Jasso was killed. Both had approached deputies with their parents, and each ultimately blamed the other.
Garza said the three men were riding in his car along Lady Bug Lane in East Naples when Barrientos, seated in the back, suddenly began stabbing Avalo-Jasso in the neck, according to the reports. The victim was in the passenger’s seat, and Garza was driving.
The suspects then dragged Avalo-Jasso’s body to the nearby woods, rifled through his wallet and took a power saw he was carrying. They cleaned out the car and replaced the knife in a butcher block in Garza’s family kitchen.
Garza gave two statements, one before investigators went to the scene and one after. In the second, played in Baker’s courtroom, Collier Sheriff’s detective Steve Spell pressured Garza to tell him how the pair planned the killing.
“You tell me the truth and save your life,” Spell demanded.
“Save my life how?” Garza responded.
Spell replied, “Would you like to draw another free breath in your life?” he asked. “You’re 18 years old — would you rather be charged with robbery or with murder?”
Garza’s attorney, Landon Miller, said Spell’s comments suggested the suspect could be executed and that the choice of charges was his.
Garza subsequently told Spell that Barrientos came up with the idea of robbing Avalo-Jasso the day before the killing.
“I told him, ‘Do whatever you want to do,’” he said in the recording.
But Garza said he never expected Barrientos would kill Avalo-Jasso.
Baker said the interrogation was troubling.
“There are clearly some issues that Detective Spell made to Mr. Garza that raise some consequences,” he said.
Barrientos’ attorney, Lee Hollander, said he will also seek to suppress his client’s statements, based on deputies not allowing Barrientos’ parents to be at the interrogation, even though he was a juvenile.
Attorneys in Garza’s case have 10 days to provide supporting case law.