After a week-long trial, jurors found Luis Aguirre guilty of capital murder Friday afternoon in the September 2009 murder of his ex-girlfriend Tanya Maldonado and their 13-month-old son, Juan.
Jurors arrived at the decision after deliberating for no more than three hours. The state, represented by Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson and Assistant Riley County Attorney Barry Disney, and defense, represented by Jeffrey Wicks and Tim Frieden, delivered closing arguments Friday morning.
In interviews with detectives in 2009, not long after the bodies of Maldonado and Juan were found, Aguirre admitted that he had picked the two up from the Olive Branch Mission homeless shelter in Chicago and driven them to his Ogden apartment on Sep. 21, 2009. He had been sharing the apartment with a woman who was deployed to Iraq at the time of the murders, though her young son had been placed in Aguirre’s care and was present in the apartment on the night Maldonado and Juan were killed.
Aguirre told detectives, after changing his story several times over the course of two interviews conducted on Oct. 30 and Nov. 3, that Maldonado died in the heat of an argument after he had covered her mouth to quiet her . He said Juan had died after his breathing was constricted from being tucked in too tight when he had been put to bed.
He told detectives that he panicked and his first thought was to hide what had happened, so he hastily buried the two bodies. He said he knew he should have called the police and repeated several times that their deaths were not planned.
The trial will now enter its second phase, when jurors must decide whether Aguirre will be sentenced to death or given life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The state rested its case Thursday afternoon after testimony from Spencer Tomb, a Kansas State University biology professor and botanist who helped police examine the grave-site.
Maldonado and Juan were found in shallow grave near the 6300 block of 32nd Street in Ogden on Oct. 25, 2009 by a deer hunter.
Tomb determined for detectives that the grave was about four to six weeks old and also testified that leaf-fall in the grave, found in an undisturbed area under Maldonado’s body, had raised his suspicions about how long the grave had been open before their bodies were placed inside.
He was a key witness for prosecutors by providing evidence that Aguirre had planned the murders. According to Tomb, the grave had to have been dug by Aguirre at least three to four days before Maldonado and her son were buried. He concluded this after studying several box elder leaves that had been found flattened and stacked underneath Maldonado’s body, saying it is not possible that they could have fallen in the short amount of time the grave would have been open if Aguirre had hastily dug the graves early in the morning of Sep. 22, 2009 and then dropped their bodies inside.
Defense attorneys objected to his testimony and took issue with the changed time frame from Tomb’s original report to his present-day conclusion. In his initial report, the defense argued, Tomb had written that the grave was probably open for 12 hours. Tomb said he changed his time frame after further studying box elder trees.
His testimony Thursday afternoon followed three days of testimony by witnesses for the state, including forensic pathologist Erik Mitchell, who performed the autopsies on Maldonado and Juan, detectives who investigated the murders, and family and acquaintances of Maldonado.
Mitchell’s testimony contradicted the version of events Aguirre gave to detectives in October and November 2009.
Mitchell told the court that he found what he believed were ante-mortem internal injuries on the left sides of Maldonado and Juan’s chest walls caused by blunt trauma.
He said the injuries showed hemorrhaging and blood going into the tissue in a way that would not happen post-mortem.
Jurors were shown the autopsy photographs of Maldonado and Juan, including images of both of their chests with the soft tissue pulled back to expose the internal injuries Mitchell described.
Mitchell also contradicted the description of Juan’s death that Aguirre gave to Det. Ryan Runyan, saying the only way you could tuck a child in too tightly is if you wrap them very tightly, like a mummy.
“These are not accidental deaths,” Mitchell said.
Aguirre was visibly agitated while the autopsy photographs were shown, shaking and covering his hand with his face while his attorneys provided him with tissues.
The state also submitted as evidence the emails sent between Aguirre and Maldonado between January 2009 and October 2009. Aguirre sent two emails to Maldonado’s account after she was dead.
In the emails, Maldonado several times asked Aguirre for assistance and told him she would take him to court if he did not start to help. The state argued that Maldonado and Juan became a burden for Aguirre and that they were not going to go away, even though he was trying to start a life with his new girlfriend and her son.
The defense rested its case Friday morning without calling a witness to the stand. Aguirre chose not to testify.
Jurors will meet for phase two of the trial on July 9 at 9 a.m., when they will decide whether Aguirre will get the death penalty or life in prison without parole.