January 07, 2008
"Let's not make a deal", Rosenthal style

This Houston Press cover story, about the battle that parents of a murdered girl have waged to get her accused killer extradited from Venezuela, certainly has propitious timing.

A native of Venezuela, [accused killer Jesus] Salazar fled the United States to his home country shortly after the murder, and police believe he is still living there today. In Venezuela, Salazar is free, going to parties, dating girls and bragging about getting away with murder, according to what Carrie Ruiz says the FBI told her.

But Felicia Ruiz's parents are fighting to change that.

Despite frosty international relations between the United States and Venezuela and a political minefield of extradition issues, Venezuelan authorities have agreed in principle to send Salazar back to Houston to face murder charges.

The main catch, though, is that Venezuela wants written assurances from Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal that his office will not seek a sentence greater than 30 years in prison for the charge of murder and that Salazar will be prosecuted within ten years of the crime, both of which are in accordance with Venezuelan law.

And Rosenthal does not want to agree to that. Rather than set a precedent of accepting a reduced possible punishment, the Harris County DA would rather sit this one out.

Carrie and Lou Ruiz have 22 months left to change Rosenthal's mind and get Salazar back to a Harris County court. Tick-tock.

According to the U.S. State Department, there have been no successful extraditions between the United States and Venezuela in the last five years. Only two people were extradited from Venezuela to the United States between 1997 and 2001, according to a 2002 report by the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela.

South American and Latin American countries have a history of imposing lighter sentences for crimes than the United States. Several countries, including Venezuela and Mexico, have abolished the death penalty, and much of South America has done away with capital punishment except for special circumstances such as during times of war. Life sentences are also seldom imposed, if ever. Mexico, for instance, defines a life sentence as anywhere from 20 to 40 years in prison.


"The FBI kept telling us they were trying to lure Salazar to Aruba or some other foreign country," says Carrie Ruiz, "but nothing ever came of that. Then in 2006, the agent told us he was busy working cases on the 'high seas,' and that he'd lost track of Salazar. I could feel my blood boiling. Then I hung up the phone and called Congressman Gene Green."

FBI spokeswoman Patricia Villafranca says the bureau does not comment on active cases.

Green was immediately sympathetic but understood the challenges that lay ahead. Still, he committed himself to doing all he could.

"The FBI said they'd rather I not do anything," Green recalls, "and I said, 'Well, I've got two parents here and they need to know someone is working for them.' I think everybody needs to think how they'd feel if this was their daughter who was killed this way."

Green began sending letters to Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera and to Chavez requesting assistance. Alvarez Herrera responded, saying he would try to help if he could.

With the aid of Andy Kahan, director of the Mayor's Crime Victims Office, Carrie and Lou Ruiz and Houston police detectives got a meeting with Alvarez Herrera and forwarded him crime scene pictures of their mutilated daughter. Soon, Venezuelan authorities gave the Ruizes a ray of hope. They told the parents that despite their country's law prohibiting the extradition of its citizens, such matters were up to the discretion of the government and they would in principle agree to send Salazar back to Texas. That is, so long as certain conditions were met, most notably that the prosecutor would not seek a sentence of more than 30 years, the maximum punishment for murder under Venezuelan law.

This offer was again extended to the Ruizes by the Venezuelan Consulate General in Houston as recently as early December, says Carrie Ruiz.

When contacted by the Houston Press, Venezuelan Embassy spokeswoman Marielba Alvarez in Washington, D.C., issued a statement saying that the Venezuelan Embassy "has once again expressed its willingness to support (the Ruiz family) in all it can to see that justice prevails."

Initially, Harris County prosecutor Julian Ramirez was willing to go along. But unfortunately for the Ruiz family, Rosenthal overruled Ramirez. He says he is unwilling to make a deal that limits the possible ­prison term.

"The deal is," he told the Press, "I'm not going to cap a crime just because someone fled to a foreign country. (Salazar) ran, and I'm not going to give him credit for running. I try to treat everybody exactly the same and I think it would be unjustifiable to treat him differently just because he fled the ­jurisdiction."

To Andy Kahan, this does not make sense.

"Deals are cut all the time," he says. "Lisa Huerta got one for 30 years for the same crime. So, from my perspective, all this is is basically an international plea deal. I don't think there is any favoritism or special ­treatment. If Salazar remains free, to me that sends a more ­horrific message to murderers that if you kill one of our citizens here and flee to a country without an extradition policy and as long as you can remain arrest-free and as long as we are not willing to cut any deals, you got away with murder. For Mr. and Mrs. Ruiz, to find out that they can actually get cooperation from Venezuelan officials and then have the buck stop right in your own backyard is almost like getting sucker-punched all over again."

Rosenthal says the fact that Huerta pleaded to a 30-year sentence does not affect his decision.

I can understand the principle Rosenthal is standing behind, but I think Kahan has the better argument. Now that we know we'll have a different DA in a year's time, it would be nice if someone were to ask the various candidates to replace him what they think of this situation, and if they agree or disagree with Rosenthal's approach. I'll see what I can do about that as well.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 07, 2008 to Crime and Punishment