Jury in Mercedes murder trial won’t hear from analysts on DNA

Fidencio Castillo Cosme and his attorneys, O. Rene Flores and Mauricio Martinez, speak in the 370th state district court at the Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg on Monday morning, which was during a break in day three of his trial over accusations he stabbed and killed a 16-year-old last September. (Mark Reagan | The Monitor)

EDINBURG — A blue binder was the center of nearly four hours of back-and-forth Monday between defense attorneys and the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office, coming before the jury entered the courtroom to hear evidence in the murder trial of a 34-year-old Mercedes man accused of stabbing a 16-year-old to death last September.

That binder contained notes from two Texas Department of Public Safety forensic analysts the state planned to have testify Monday.

The conflict?

Assistant District Attorney Jay Garza disclosed the existence of the notes to defense attorneys Saturday and turned over the binder to defense attorneys O. Rene Flores and Mauricio Martinez Monday morning.

Flores and Martinez represent Fidencio Castillo Cosme, who has pleaded not guilty to killing 16-year-old Armando Torres IV on Sept. 28, 2020.

Monday marked the third day of testimony in Hidalgo County’s first jury trial since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The binder that became the center of contention in the case contained notes from DPS forensic analysts Shifa Khan and Caleb Garcia, who used the notes to create reports regarding DNA in the case that they were called to testify about.

The late disclosure resulted in a strong challenge to either forensic analysts testifying and even a request for a mistrial, which 370th state District Judge Noe Gonzalez denied.

Instead, after an hours-long argument from attorneys, including appellate attorneys with the DA’s office, and testimony from Khan and Garcia outside the presence of the jury, Gonzalez ruled that the witnesses would be excluded from testifying in front of the jury because of the late disclosure.

The jury did not enter the courtroom until nearly 2 p.m. Monday and testimony from Mercedes police personnel also revealed that authorities there apparently did not save the 9-1-1 call reporting that a man was down and a possible gunshot.

That’s the 9-1-1 call that resulted in the discovery of Torres’ body, which had a stab wound to the middle of the chest.

Additionally, a former evidence custodian for Mercedes police testified that an iPad she used to take photos of Torres’ autopsy and to take notes from the same procedure had been reset to factory settings after she resigned, essentially destroying evidence.

That former evidence custodian is Janie Ramos, who testified that she resigned about three months after the murder for personal reasons regarding her family.

When she did, she handed the iPad over to former police chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez and that’s the last she knew about it until she was called to testify in the case.

During her prep for testifying, she learned about the factory reset on the device that resulted in the destruction of some evidence in the case.

The defense attorneys also did not learn about this until the state disclosed it Sunday.

Those are not the only last-minute disclosures defense attorneys have had to handle during the trial.

Last week, the defense attorneys notified Gonzalez, the judge, that the DA’s office had just provided information regarding Torres’ parents, who are apparently under investigation by the DA’s office for drug trafficking.

Testimony on Monday also included Aaron Villarreal, the Mercedes Police Department’s current evidence custodian, who briefly testified to his role in the chain of custody of a knife, which Ramos also testified about.

Assistant Police Chief Blanca Sanchez also testified, explaining to the jury her role in the investigation on Sept. 28, 2020.

Sanchez, who at the time was assigned to work at the Mercedes school district, testified that she had just finished lunch when she heard the call over dispatch and responded to the scene.

She told the jury how she followed a blood trail from where Torres’ body was found near the intersection of Heidrick and Dallas streets to Fidencio’s home on Heidrick.

That blood trail led investigators to where they believe the murder occurred, which is between two vehicles right next to the property where Fidencio lived.

Sanchez said she found blood spatter on both vehicles, a black hat and a pack of cigarillos.

That blood trail also led to a wooden ramp to where Fidencio lived, which is adjacent to those two vehicle, Sanchez said.

Fidencio’s brother, 37-year-old Juan Jose Cosme, is also charged with murder.

He’s accused of putting Torres in a headlock while Fidencio stabbed him.

Investigators believe the brothers suspected that Torres and some other individuals were casing their house to steal money being stashed in a vehicle the night before the murder.

Juan has also pleaded not guilty and is currently awaiting trial.

Fidencio’s trial is scheduled to continue Tuesday.