Texas executes man caught years after crime by DNA
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas executed a convicted murderer by lethal injection on Thursday, administering the ultimate punishment to a man who had been paroled for an assault in Michigan when his DNA linked him to a years-old murder in San Antonio.
Rodrigo Hernandez, 38, was convicted of sexually assaulting and strangling Susan Verstegen in 1994, leaving her body in a San Antonio trash can.
The execution, which a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said was carried out at a prison in Huntsville, was the second in the United States this year after Oklahoma executed Gary Welch on January 5 for stabbing a man to death during a drug dispute.
Among Hernandez's final statements, he said: "I want to tell everybody that I love everybody. Keep your heads up," according to the Department of Criminal Justice spokesman. "We are all family, people of God almighty."
Shortly before lapsing into unconsciousness, he said: "This stuff stings, man," according to Jason Clark, the department spokesman.
Hernandez's victim was a 38-year-old Frito-Lay worker who was stocking snacks at a grocery store when she was attacked in 1994, according to the Texas Attorney General's Office.
Hernandez's DNA wasn't matched to the crime until 2002, when Michigan officials took a sample from him as he was paroled for a separate crime and put it into a national database.
Hernandez was the first person executed this year in Texas, which executed 13 people in 2011 and has put to death more than four times as many people as any other state since the United States reinstated capital punishment in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Hernandez told the San Antonio Express-News in an interview published this month he didn't kill Verstegen and will "take that to the grave."
But Verstegen's mother, Anna Verstegen of San Antonio, said this week she hoped Hernandez would, before he died, feel sorry for what he did to her daughter, who left behind a 15-year-old son.
"It's never too late," she told Reuters. "We're just praying for him. The kind of God I believe in can forgive."
In 2010, Michigan investigators said DNA evidence linked Hernandez to the 1991 murder of Muriel Stoepker, 77, of Grand Rapids, but that he would not be tried because he was already on death row in Texas.
An execution that had been scheduled in Texas for next week was stayed on Wednesday by the Supreme Court. The convict granted the reprieve, Donald Newbury, was to be executed for his role in the 2000 murder of an Irving, Texas, police officer.
Newbury, part of a group known as the "Texas Seven," escaped from prison and robbed a sporting goods store at gunpoint. The officer, Aubrey Hawkins, was killed outside the store as the group left the scene.
Newbury was granted the stay after his attorneys raised concerns about the effectiveness of his lawyers during post-conviction proceedings.
Nationwide, the number of executions fell for the second year in a row in 2011, with 43 inmates put to death compared with 46 in 2010 and 52 in 2009, Death Penalty Information Center figures show. In 1999, a record 98 prisoners were executed.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)
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