HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A San Antonio man who fatally shot a SWAT team member with the officer's own gun more than 14 years ago was executed Wednesday, the sixth convicted murderer put to death in Texas so far this year.
Manuel Garza Jr. received a lethal injection of pentobarbital for killing San Antonio Police Officer John "Rocky" Riojas in February 2001. The U.S. Supreme Court had refused in November to review his case, and no last-day appeals were filed before his execution.
Asked to make a final statement, Garza said he was sorry for causing pain to his family, friends and "especially police officers."
"Y'all probably hate me," he said, looking at three friends of his victim, dressed in their navy blue San Antonio police uniforms. He wished them "peace and love and hope y'all find God like I have and I'll see you on the other side."
As the lethal drug began taking effect, Garza uttered: "Here it comes!" His voice rose as he said "Goodbye," and then he let out a howl that was cut short within seconds as he took three deep breaths, then a couple of shallow ones. He was pronounced dead 26 minutes later at 6:40 p.m. CDT.
Garza, 35, already had a long criminal record at age 20 when he was stopped by Riojas, who was part of a team targeting property crimes at apartment complexes. Garza ran off and witnesses say that when Riojas caught up with him, the two struggled and Garza grabbed the officer's gun.
Riojas, 37, was fatally shot in the head. Witnesses said Garza put Riojas' gun in his pants, cursed at the fallen officer, and ran away.
Garza was apprehended a day later at his sister's apartment after an informant told detectives that someone had tried to sell him the officer's missing semi-automatic service weapon.
In a statement to detectives, Garza blamed Riojas.
"I truly think this was the cop's fault," he said. "I don't see why he wanted to pull out his gun."
Garza said he initially ran because he feared the officer would discover he was wanted on outstanding warrants.
"I didn't want to go to jail," he said.
While being escorted to a holding cell after his arrest, court documents described Garza as cocky and smirking. He used obscenity-laced language to tell officers they were "lucky I didn't get y'all ... too."
The San Antonio Police Officers Association provided buses for officers to make the 200-mile-trip to Huntsville. Several dozen police officers were outside the prison Wednesday evening, and stood at attention and saluted as Riojas' sister — who also is with the San Antonio department and watched Garza die — and the officer-witnesses emerged.
"We want them to see we do care and the salute is a form of respect," said Mike Helle, president of the association.
But Helle, who was in the same police academy training class with Riojas, said the execution "doesn't bring back my classmate and my friend."
Defense attorneys had said the shooting was accidental and Garza was a product of childhood neglect and abuse. In a 2013 failed appeal, attorney Michael Gross said Garza's family encouraged him to break the law.
His criminal record began at age 14, and included burglaries, thefts, escape from custody and leading police on a stolen car chase.
Texas carries out the death penalty more than any other state. Garza was the first inmate executed with a new supply of pentobarbital recently obtained by Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials that would allow his and two other lethal injections scheduled for this month to be carried out.
If the other two take place, the state prison agency once again will have to replenish its inventory of the scarce drug or find a new chemical to accommodate at least three more scheduled executions beginning next month.
Drug manufacturers, under pressure from death penalty opponents, have been withholding their products for use in capital punishment.
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