In a comparison meant to draw a similarity with his client’s plight, Matthew Lee Sepulveda’s defense attorney invoked the scene of Jesus Christ standing before Pontius Pilate during the sham trial that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.
He compared his client, who was convicted Wednesday of sexually assaulting two young men in his custody as a police officer, to the Christian messiah notable for living a sinless life.
“This time of year, you start remembering one of our most famous trials, where they took Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate. And they were alleging that he was a radical and a rebel,” said Mauro L. Reyna III during his closing arguments in Sepulveda’s trial.
“(Pilate) washed his hands of the case because there was no evidence,” Reyna continued.
Similarly, there was no credible evidence that his client, Sepulveda, had sexually assaulted two young men during the summer of 2019 while he was a police officer with the Progreso Police Department, Reyna argued.
As such, he urged the jury to clear his client of the charges against him.
“Is there any evidence to show that he harmed them in any way? That he did anything to them?” Reyna asked.
In the end, the jury didn’t find Reyna’s argument persuasive.
Instead, in a unanimous decision, the jury found Sepulveda guilty of two counts of deprivation of rights while under the color of law — a civil rights violation committed when he sexually assaulted the two young men.
Not only did the jury unanimously find Sepulveda guilty, they also found in the affirmative on four yes or no “special questions” they were tasked to consider in relation to the crimes against the second victim, referred to as AA, who, at 17, had been a minor when the sex assault occurred.
On those questions, the jury unanimously found that Sepulveda had committed bodily injury, aggravated sexual abuse, attempted aggravated sexual abuse and kidnapping in relation his assault of AA.
It took the jury just under two hours for them to render that verdict Wednesday afternoon, after hearing testimony from 11 witnesses over the course of the day-and-a-half long trial at the McAllen federal courthouse.
Part of that testimony included detailed accounts from the victims themselves — from AA, now 19, and from 21-year-old CL. The Monitor does not identify victims of sexual assault.
Though they do not know each other, both CL and AA told remarkably similar accounts. They told of how Sepulveda took them into custody on bogus charges, which then gave him the opportunity to sexually assault them.
They both told of how their arrests occurred late at night, at times when the station — at a small police department that was dependent upon the services of reserve officers who patrolled for free — sat deserted.
Both detailed how Sepulveda questioned them extensively about their sex lives, questions that simultaneously pricked at the young men’s masculinity, while sending them tumbling down a mental morass that left them bewildered and nearly paralyzed once Sepulveda ultimately arrived at the goal of his whole charade.
“Turn off the light and let me suck your d—,” Sepulveda told CL on the night of June 28, 2019, while CL’s mother and stepfather stood just yards away in the police station lobby waiting for their son.
“Why did you let him do it?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Angel Castro asked CL during Tuesday’s testimony.
“I didn’t think I had an option. I was under arrest,” CL said.
“I actually thought of running to my mom, but that would just make it worse,” he added, indicating he feared charges of resisting.
AA’s testimony illustrated a parallel account.
“Then he (Sepulveda) asked if he can — asked if he can suck it,” AA testified Sepulveda told him after arresting the teen and his brother just one night following CL’s assault.
AA shook his head silently in response.
“I didn’t know what to do,” AA testified on Wednesday.
“Did you feel like you could stop what was happening?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarina S. DiPiazza asked him.
“No,” AA responded, his voice hitching.
CL and AA’s testimony also aligned in another way — in the intense shame they say they felt after the sexual assaults occurred.
Both young men initially went to great lengths to hide the assaults from their families out of feelings of disgust and fear that they would face repercussions from law enforcement about the alleged crimes that had led to their arrests.
CL took a shower once he got home, placing his underwear with the rest of his dirty laundry. He hadn’t told his parents what had happened as they drove home from the police station at almost 1 a.m. But he did reach out to his then-girlfriend, telling her of the assault via text.
At her urging, CL reported the assault to authorities that night. But when the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office told him they were sending a deputy to talk to him and asked him to have his underwear ready as evidence, he continued to try to hide it from his parents, whom he knew would get up for work before dawn.
CL placed the garment in a bag and hid it in the family’s mailbox, hoping the deputy would arrive after his parents left for work. Instead, the deputy arrived just as they were preparing to leave.
Prosecutors asked CL why he hadn’t told his parents.
“I couldn’t. I was ashamed of myself,” he replied.
“I was feeling nasty. I was feeling wrong.”
That night, CL had also told his girlfriend he wanted to kill himself.
Meanwhile, AA had attempted to resume life as normal after his assault.
In the days that followed, he and his brother went to a church camp out of town. Unbeknownst to AA, while they were looking into CL’s allegations, sheriff’s investigators had obtained surveillance video showing AA and his brother’s arrest.
Investigators wondered if they might be victims of Sepulveda, as well. Investigators soon contacted their mother, telling her they wanted to talk to her sons. But AA told his brother to ignore their mom’s questions about why law enforcement was looking for them.
It wasn’t until the woman was driving AA and his brother to the sheriff’s office to speak with investigators that he admitted something had happened to him.
“I told her that the cop made me do stuff and then she just sat there silent until we got there,” AA testified.
Unlike Christ, who was betrayed by one of his disciples, it was Sepulveda’s own actions that led to his undoing, as jurors also heard from his law enforcement peers about a pattern of questionable behavior and his failure to adhere to police protocol while on the beat.
They heard from his police academy classmate, Jacob Rivera, who tried to stop Sepulveda from arresting AA and his brother, citing state law which limits the confinement of minors.
Rivera had been patrolling as a reserve officer that night.
And they heard how Sepulveda ultimately diverted Rivera and another reserve officer away from his crimes by concocting a ruse of an incoming police pursuit from a neighboring jurisdiction that needed their attention instead.
Sepulveda perpetrated the lie in front of AA, who testified that he heard Sepulveda direct the officers away from the police station just before committing the assault against him.
Moments after delivering their verdict, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane thanked the jurors for their service and dismissed them from the courtroom. He then turned his attention to Sepulveda in order to address the next phase of the judicial proceeding: his sentencing.
Crane set sentencing for May 20 and remanded Sepulveda to custody, saying that his freedom leading up to and during trial had come as a benefit of the presumption of his innocence. With the guilty verdict, that presumption was now “gone,” Crane said.
Sepulveda will have to await his fate from jail.
“Given the very serious nature of what the jury has found unanimously, and the significant sentence that you’re facing, I’m gonna have you taken into custody at this time,” the judge said.
“I’m worried about the safety of the community given the finding that, essentially, you’re a serial rapist in these two rapings of these young men,” he said.