Editor's note: Casey Miller served as a member of the jury that last week found Brenda Delgado guilty of capital murder in the contract killing of Dallas dentist Kendra Hatcher. Delgado will serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. Miller offered the Observer this essay about his experiences on the jury.
I still don’t understand what makes people do such stupid, cruel things. How does a 23-year-old Dallas woman get talked into planning and completing a murder with someone she has known for one month? When does a dental hygienist student in her 30s become so self-absorbed that she must have the new girlfriend of her ex “eliminated” so they can be reunited and live happily ever after? Why does a train-wreck stoner with three kids of his own think cash, a bag of weed and some cocaine is an even trade for shooting a stranger in the back of the head, execution style?
The sheer idiocy of it all would be laughable. If, of course, it hadn’t horrifically ended one life, hadn’t wrecked countless other lives and hadn’t cost hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
And a capital murder trial and verdict in five business days? WTF, this is Texas.
The Victims and Killers
- Dr. Kendra Hatcher, DDS: Pediatric dentist murdered Labor Day weekend 2015 in the garage of her Uptown apartment complex.
- Dr. Ricardo “Ricky” Paniagua: Finishing up a dermatology residency in Dallas, he had an on-off relationship with Brenda Delgado for two years before ending it in February 2015; started dating Hatcher the spring 2015.
- Brenda Delgado: the defendant, charged with capital murder, extradited from Mexico after she made the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives List in 2016.
- Crystal Cortes: accomplice and getaway driver, agreed to plead guilty to murder; awaiting her 35-year sentence in exchange for testifying against Delgado and the trigger man.
- Kristopher Love: the trigger man, convicted of capital murder in October 2018; now on Texas’ death row.
How I Got InvolvedFor my seventh (yes, seventh) jury summons, I schlepped down to the Dallas County Central Jury Room the morning of Friday, May 17, along with 450 or so of my peers. Capital murder case, for life in prison without parole. Yay? Introduction of prosecution and defense attorneys. Introduction of defendant. Instructions from 363rd District Judge Tracy Holmes about mandatory disqualifications and voluntary exemptions. Admonishments to not research or post about the case online. Questionnaire to fill out. FYI: I truthfully answered that I knew little to nothing about the case. (As an NPR snob, I stopped watching local news years ago.)
Paraphrasing Judge Holmes: “Both sides will take next week (May 20-24) to review questionnaires. From there, 72 of you will be called back Friday, May 31, for a full day of jury selection. From that pool, 12 jurors and two alternates will be selected. If you are selected, plan to be present for the trial for the following two weeks (June 3-14).”
I had a decent chance of not getting picked. Then on May 23 I got the email from the court: Casey Miller, Juror 491, you are scheduled to appear Friday, May 31. On that Friday I was asked just one question directly, by the prosecution’s Justin Lord. I answered briefly, and thought I was in the clear.
Then I got picked.
How To Finish a Capital Murder Trial in Five DaysSince it was my first one, I’m sort of spitballing here.
First, get an organized prosecution team with a related capital murder conviction already completed. Use the physical evidence, cellphone records, surveillance camera footage and accomplice-witness testimony that worked the first time. Put the ex-boyfriend on the stand to lay out the timeline. Present not one, not two but three witnesses who each independently tell of the defendant’s solicitations of murder for hire. Present the initial filmed police interview with the defendant wherein she hears her Miranda rights, voluntarily consents to having her cellphone dumped and incriminates the hell out of herself with multiple lies. Have the trial in the same court, with the same no-nonsense judge, as the related conviction.
The state opened its case Monday morning, putting the mother of the murdered dentist on the witness stand. Watching her physical agony from grief, shaking as she struggled to answer questions about her daughter almost four years after the murder, was searing. Fast-forward to Thursday morning: The state closed with autopsy testimony and the essential-but-gruesome autopsy photos. The defense presented its case in less than two hours on Thursday afternoon, one cellphone record expert, then rested.
Friday morning: Closing arguments, instructions from the judge, jury deliberation and verdict. Deliver the verdict. Bear witness to gut-wrenching victim impact statements wherein Kendra Hatcher’s mom, one of Hatcher’s sisters (who is pregnant) and her granddad each stare down Brenda Delgado and tell her exactly what they think of her. Witness the mandatory automatic sentencing of Brenda Delgado. Be discharged from service. Stay for an optional informal, oddly friendly, meet and greet with both sides’ attorneys and the judge. Finish by about 12:15 p.m.
How To Render a Capital Murder Verdict in 20 MinutesIt might seem sloppy, even flippant, to make such a serious decision in 20 minutes, but it was neither. The two alternate jurors were released, and the 12 of us came back to the cramped jury room and we waited for a bit. One of the jurors opened the veggie tray and dips she had brought in that morning. The bailiff appeared with a basket with pens, notepads and the verdict form. We asked a couple of questions about lunch, and he locked us in.
Previously an extremely chatty bunch during downtime, we were quiet, reverent. I suggested taking a moment or two to center ourselves and get settled. Another juror suggested taking an initial anonymous vote via paper before jumping into discussions.
We passed around sheets of paper and the three or four pens provided. Some of us scavenged in our bags or purses for more pens. We took that moment of quiet. A couple of jurors silently prayed. I'm an atheist. I closed my eyes and took a breath.
We wrote our votes, folded them and passed them down to a woman who had volunteered to be lead juror. Quietly, she opened each vote and started organizing them by guilty or not guilty. When she finished, all 12 votes were in one pile.
I said something to the effect that I was confident in my vote, and wanted everyone to be clear and confident. We agreed to take another few moments to quietly let the verdict sink in, and breathe, for each of us to be sure. When everyone was settled and ready, we could ring the buzzer for the bailiff. We looked around the table at each other. One of the jurors said she needed a little time.
When she was ready, we all were ready, and we rang the buzzer.
Notes for the JudgeJudge Holmes, you run a tight courtroom and I appreciated that. It sounds like a small thing, but that jury deliberation room of yours is claustrophobically small for 14 adults. We can barely walk around the conference table. It’s too big for the room. Get rid of some of the sad furniture just taking up space; 86 the tall metal storage cabinet, the two-drawer file cabinet, the lumpy oversized couch. Put the microwave on the side table and get rid of its cart.
Notes for the ProsecutionOverall, well done. Organized and logical and thorough. Four presenters got to be crowded. Three would be better. Take a final pass at the cellphone records and maps next time, rehearse those for clarity and focus. We got bogged down in some confusing technical details.
Notes for the DefenseMostly just a God bless y’all for trying. Delgado dug herself a huge hole, and you had a big old batch of nothing to work with as far as evidence, testimony or credibility. The more you tried to trip up the state’s key witness, accomplice-getaway driver Crystal Cortes, the clearer she became to me. You postulated that Cortes set up Delgado as a Plan B in case her and Love’s “robbery” of Hatcher went bad. I didn’t believe Cortes was capable of that level of manipulation.
You called Cortes’ 35-year murder sentence plea “the deal of the century.” It’s so not. It’s a sentence of 35 years in prison for murder. To me it felt like a troubled single mom was starting to face up to the consequences of her actions and hopefully trying to accept at least some responsibility for this horrifying mess.
Notes for Fellow JurorsI sincerely appreciated your efforts, but y’all scared me sometimes. I probably came off as cold because I purposely avoided group conversations, and igged your overtures of friendship and familiarity. A couple of you wanted us all to be instant best friends, and that was a bad, bad idea.
I kept you at a distance, fearful that crowd mentality, friendly alliances and/or reality show-style drama would goof our deliberations. I needed to be among you, but not join you. All of us as diverse individuals with different backgrounds, different ages, different genders, different careers, different families and different life experiences came to the same reasonable conclusion. By ourselves. That was super important to me.
Notes for the PublicBlah blah blah, no one loves jury duty. But the more we weasel out of it, the more we weaken an already underfunded, overcrowded system. For all the bitching and moaning we all do, it’s not that bad. Some simple advice: Show up, shut up and do what is asked of you. The rest usually works itself out.
And if you remember one thing from all of this, dear readers, I truly hope it is this: Never, Ever, EVER let vehicles in behind you, avoiding a security gate, when you pull into gated parking. Same goes for restricted door access in buildings. Delgado, Cortes and/or Love waited in visitor parking at Hatcher’s apartment complex repeatedly, followed a resident in, and they had full access to the “secured” parking area where Hatcher was murdered. Stop it.
In SummationThe older I get, the more I know myself. I know I kept an open mind. I know I listened carefully to the judge’s instructions. I know I considered the evidence and judged the credibility of the testimony fairly. I believe my fellow jurors did the same.
And I sure as hell know what Brenda Delgado did.
A former daily newspaper journalist, Casey Miller works as a corporate communications content manager downtown. He plans to donate his $206 jury salary and his fee for writing this article to the children’s charity Kendra Hatcher supported. She traveled to Guatemala to provide dental services to children and families in need.