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April 24, 2014

New indictments issued in child murder case

GREENVILLE — New indictments have been issued in the case of a Campbell couple, charged with capital murder involving the 2011 death of a 2 year-old child.

The new charges  against Arturo Daniel Vega and Gabriela Ortiz were released sealed March 28 by the Hunt County grand jury and include several more potential causes of death for Brandon Herrera.

Last month Vega’s defense attorney had asked the judge in the case to set aside the possibility of a death penalty for a conviction on the charge, claiming evidence allegedly lost by investigators would have proven Herrera died of natural causes, rather than homicide.

Vega and Ortiz have pleaded not guilty. They both remain in custody in the Hunt County Jail, each in lieu of $2 million bond.

Vega’s trial had been scheduled to begin this month, although Judge Richard A. Beacom had agreed to reset the case. The trial was not immediately rescheduled, but a pretrial hearing was set for August 20.

The Hunt County District Attorney’s Office is seeking the death penalty for Vega and for Gabriela Ortiz, should they be convicted of capital murder involving Herrera’s death in July 2011.

Documents released in the case show both Ortiz and Vega admitting to having caused injuries to Herrera prior to his July 18, 2011 death.

The original indictments filed against the pair alleged Herrera died as the result of either blunt force trauma, choking/strangling or smothering.

Defense counsel Dennis Davis had requested extra time to prepare for the case, as on March 12 the district attorney’s office sought to amend the indictment, to add four more potential causes of death; including chronic blunt force trauma, dehydration, malnutrition and/or arrhythmia. Davis argued he would be unable to complete all of the work necessary to mount a defense to the amended indictment before the scheduled start of jury selection on April 23.

Beacom agreed and approved the continuance.

The new indictments include eight potential causes of Herrera’s death; blunt force trauma, chronic blunt force trauma, choking/strangling, smothering, causing the victim to be dehydrated, causing Herrera to suffer malnutrition, suffocation and/or arrhythmia.

Davis had also filed a second motion, seeking to set aside the death penalty or to have the court instruct the jury in the case that evidence which could have proven favorable to the defense — known as exculpatory evidence — had been destroyed.

In the motion, Davis claimed that video interviews by Hunt County Sheriff’s Office investigators of Herrera’s mother and other family members, conducted in October 2013, make reference to two and-one-half months of earlier videos in the case having been lost, including the original interviews of the family members, made shortly after Herrera’s death.

“The destroyed evidence included footage of five separate interviews conducted on July 26, 2001,” Davis said. “The notes leave no doubt the destroyed video footage — which was recorded live nine days after the decedent’s death — contained exculpatory evidence.”

Davis said the initial interviews with family members helped prove the defense’s claim that Herrera died of a disease.

“The defense’s working theory is that Brandon Herrera did not die from blunt force trauma, as the State alleges, but from septic shock caused by a staph infection,” Davis said. “According to the notes disclosed by the State on Dec. 17, 2013, the destroyed video footage contained just such evidence.”

Beacom had not ruled on Davis’ motion as of Wednesday.

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