Death and Texas
Men in spurs still ride on horseback to the Eleventh Street Cowboy Bar here, hitch Smokey or Pancho to the post and, after enough beers, sing songs of their own making that are wry or a bit bawdy but, above all, stake the singer's claim to the "real" in a region too open to infection from potpourriana and the bric-a-brac of kowboy kulture. Bandera, "Cowboy Capital of the World," has only 975 people, but it's getting dicey to take a horse through town now that some 13,000 cars travel up Main Street every day.
Thirty-seven miles northwest of San Antonio, Bandera is in the heart of the Hill Country, where dude ranches outnumber the working variety and No Trespassing signs sprout like bluebonnets in the spring, demarcating the property of "Winter Texans" or city folk with money to invest in the rustic experience. It is the fourth-fastest-growing county in Texas, outpacing those that hold Dallas and Austin. Realtors' brochures tout premium property in an area that's "on the way to nowhere," and people mention that a nearby ranch of 300-some acres recently sold for $3.2 million, but the houses most easily in view in Bandera are modest affairs with scrappy yards that speak of too little money and too little time. Local men work for ranches or work construction or "work for each other," according to a real estate agent in town, "but how much are you going to make shoeing horses?" Women work mostly in the services. Father Stanislaw Oleksy of St. Stanislaus Church says the churches in the area have a well-coordinated relief system to pay a heating or electric bill or cover a prescription or distribute food if once in a while someone doesn't make payroll and families need something to help them hold on. "Of course you have a lot of roads where you never see these people. You never know they exist."
Off Highway 173 five miles to the north and not far from a ranch where the rich pay to shoot exotic creatures is one of those places you won't see unless you're looking. It's a colonia, unincorporated, unregulated territory not too different in appearance from the pictures of maquiladora communities that Ross Perot held up as an argument against NAFTA back in 1992. Three years ago a baby died to a Chicana/Mexican family living there in a one-room shack attached to animal pens of similar design, and before the grief-struck mother knew what was happening the state had transformed her personal tragedy into a case of capital murder.
Ernestina Rodriguez lived in that colonia off 173, in that shack measuring ten feet by fourteen feet, with her husband and four little children, without plumbing or running water, a place patched together out of wood and corrugated metal for which they paid $200 a month rent. On February 11, 1998, her two-and-a-half-month-old son, Ramiro, stopped breathing. Now at 28 she's serving a life sentence at the Hobby Unit in Marlin, Texas, for knowingly, intentionally killing him by starvation.
Last year's presidential campaign directed enough unwelcome light on the more outrageous features of the Texas criminal justice system that the state legislature spent a fair portion of its session this spring trying to make some face-saving adjustments, but this is not one of those cases that would cause a politician embarrassment. Nor is it the kind of case, like the one involving the Texas woman recently charged with drowning her five children, that whips up national comment. Except for the relatively rare allegation of starvation, it is crushing in its ordinariness. Like most prisoners in Texas, which ranks tenth in the country for poverty and third in the world for having a population in chains (after the United States and Russia), Rodriguez is poor. And as in most cases in which someone dies mysteriously and the people involved are poor, the first assumption was murder. At the Eleventh Street Cowboy Bar a perfectly nice rodeo rider said he'd been called for jury duty in the case but was excused after he admitted he was sure of the mother's guilt before hearing any evidence. "I know these people," he said at the bar--not Rodriguez and her family per se but these people, "inbred sons-of-bitches."
In the autopsy, baby Ramiro was found to have milk in his stomach, which suggests he had been fed, and throughout his short life the family's neighbor heard him cry the way any baby does, which is inconsistent with death by starvation. Recall the stock image of a thousand famine stories in which the African village has "an eerie silence, the babies too weak even to cry." Rodriguez says she fed the baby alternately at the breast and by bottle, with formula or watered-down cow's milk, not the best approach but hardly murderous. She says he was a hungry baby, yet he didn't grow. When he stopped breathing and she ran to her landlord's trailer to use the phone, she was hysterical. But the coroner presumed the child had been starved from the get-go, and alternative explanations were never pursued. Rodriguez was charged with capital murder.
Overcharging, getting a grand jury to indict on the most severe rap in hopes that a defendant will take a plea and do some jail time, is a common prosecutorial tactic; in Texas it is practically the rule. Rodriguez has always insisted on her innocence. After she was sentenced to life, her husband, Noel Perez, pleaded guilty--he says his lawyer demanded it--and avoided the same outcome. He was sentenced to twenty-five years and could be out in 2012. Unless she wins on appeal, it will be thirty-eight years before Rodriguez is eligible for parole.