Liberty County jury sentences man to life for murder in weedwhacker dispute

Convicted murderer Melvin Adalberto Morales-Rivas is led from the Liberty County Courthouse on Friday after being sentenced to life in prison. Escorting him were (left to right) Brett Audilet, James McQueen and James "Bubba" Pearson with the Liberty County Sheriff's Office, and Chad Elmore, bailiff for the 253rd State District Court. (Photo by Vanesa Brashier, Bluebonnet News)

Convicted murderer Melvin Adalberto Morales-Rivas, 30, hung his head low as his life sentence was announced Friday in the 253rd State District Court in Liberty County. A couple of rows behind him and quietly sobbing at his fate was Morales-Rivas’ wife, who pleaded with the jury to show mercy for the man she said never even raised his voice to her.

Sitting nearby, the sobs of another woman could be heard. Careena Rodriguez, the wife of the victim, Vincente Rodriguez, testified that her husband’s murder has left her stuck in life — unable to move on, make friends or even hold down a job. Since her husband was shot to death on June 27, 2016, in the front yard of their home in the Bella Vista Subdivision in Plum Grove, Rodriguez says she hasn’t been able to return home and now lives with her parents.

“I can’t sleep. I wake up three or four times a night. Every day is a hassle,” Rodriguez told Liberty County District Attorney Logan Pickett during the punishment phase of the five-day trial. “I feel like I can’t trust people. If I don’t know you, I can’t trust you. That’s just how I feel.”

A dispute over a stolen weedwhacker led to Rodriguez’s murder. Two men — Morales-Rivas and Erwin Antonio Donis-Morales, partners in Castores Land Clearing — went to Rodriguez’s home with the intent of retrieving the stolen tool.

Donis-Morales testified that he had gone to the front door to confront Rodriguez but was told by his wife that he wasn’t home. While he talked to the wife, Morales-Rivas, apparently grew angry and retrieved a flashlight from his vehicle, which he used to break out the window of Rodriguez’s van. He then used a diesel-soaked cloth to set the van on fire.

Seeing the vehicle on fire, Careena Rodriguez ran into her house and grabbed a fire extinguisher as her husband ran out of the house with her. As he neared the van, Vincente Rodriguez was shot several times, killing him. Careena said she ran to her husband after he was shot while the two men fled in two separate trucks, one pulling a trailer.

On the evening of the following day, Donis-Morales went to police and admitted that he had been one of the two men at the house, giving up the identity of Morales-Rivas in the process. Donis-Morales explained to investigators that the gun used in the murder belonged to him. He claimed that Morales-Rivas had taken it from his vehicle without his permission or knowledge prior to the shooting, and he had wrestled the gun from Morales-Rivas after the shooting. During the trial, Donis-Morales admitted he had cleaned the gun with diesel following the shooting.

The collection of evidence by sheriff’s office investigators was criticized by the prosecutor, defense attorney and District Judge Chap Cain. Investigators Paul Lasco (now working for another agency) and Josh Cummins were asked why some seemingly obvious items were overlooked during evidence collection.

Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Ellington, subpoenaed to testify for the defense, was asked to explain why the video lineup used to identify Morales-Rivas as the suspect was not part of the evidence in the trial.

Ellington explained that the video lineup should have been uploaded from the Cleveland annex to a server at the sheriff’s office in Liberty. When they found out later that many essential files had not automatically transferred properly, including the video lineup, Ellington took the server to Liberty where a manual transfer was arranged.

A glitch in the system purged files that were more than 180 days old, Ellington said. The video lineup was among the deleted files.

“Y’all knew about the issue with the server for three years, correct?” defense attorney Dustan Neyland said.

Ellington replied, “We had been having problems with that server. We had an outside IT guy to come in and fix the server, but some files were lost.”

Neyland also questioned Paul Lasco, lead investigator for the murder case, about why Donis-Morales’ phone files were not collected along with Morales-Rivas’ phone records, and why investigators seemed unaware of a video camera attached to the exterior of the house.

Lasco said the video camera was not included in the investigation because it was disconnected from power and any other essential equipment.

Neyland also asked Lasco why DNA evidence wasn’t collected for all the parties involved.

“Isn’t it your job to notify DPS of what needs to be investigated?” Neyland asked. “You didn’t do that, did you?”

“Not completely,” Lasco said.

On Thursday, both the state and defense rested their cases in the guilt-innocent phase of the trial. With only 30 minutes left to debate the case before the end of the day, jurors left for the evening and returned Friday to finish. The case was delayed a couple of hours Friday morning by a routine docket call that Judge Cain quickly worked through.

With no new witnesses to call, the state and defense rested their cases. Before closing statements, Judge Cain read the charging document to the jury, once again mentioning that the State failed to retain the video lineup.

Criticism of the evidence collection was brought up in both the defense and prosecutor’s closing statements.

“I apologize for the State of Texas failing you,” said Neyland, then naming off three sheriff’s office employees by name who he said failed in the investigation.

“There were three blood trails leaving the property. They were never analyzed, because why? They didn’t think it was important,” he said.

He also brought up the fact that only three shell casings were recovered from the property even though the victim sustained seven bullet wounds.

“Either someone had time and picked up the shells or there was someone else using a revolver,” the defense attorney claimed.

He also suggested that Donis-Morales was the murderer, not Morales-Rivas.

“He has motive and incentive,” Neyland said. “Donis said Melvin called him but his phone records show his phone was never called. Donis testified that he never touched the fire extinguisher but the wife said she handed it to the non-shooter. Donis said he never saw Melvin shoot Vincente, but then claimed he wrestled the gun from him.”

Neyland also claimed that Careena’s explanation of events was inconsistent and untruthful, particularly her claims that she did not let investigators search her house immediately after the shooting because she suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“The house was not clean. There were no walls in the house and there were drugs all over the place,” he said.

During his closing remarks, Pickett addressed the haphazard collection of evidence, saying it was a shame and an embarrassment to him.

“Embarrassment doesn’t equal not-guilty though,” he said.

He pointed out that three witnesses to the crime – Donis-Morales, Careena Rodriguez and Salvador Rios – were the backbone of the case. All had pointed to Morales-Rivas as the shooter.

“These are people who had firsthand knowledge of the crime,” Pickett said. “Does the physical evidence refute what they say? I don’t believe it does. It actually supports it.”

At around 3 p.m., Friday, the seven-woman, five-man jury announced it reached a guilty verdict. Shortly before 5 p.m., jurors settled on the life sentence and Morales-Rivas was led away from the courthouse in handcuffs.

He will not be eligible for parole until he has served another 28 years as he already has served two years in county jail awaiting trial. As he is an illegal immigrant, who was once deported but returned illegally to the United States, he will be deported again if he is released from prison.

By Vanesa Brashier,

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Before creating Bluebonnet News in 2018, Vanesa Brashier was a community editor for the Houston Chronicle/Houston Community Newspapers. During part of her 12 years at the newspapers, she was assigned as the digital editor and managing editor for the Humble Observer, Kingwood Observer, East Montgomery County Observer and the Lake Houston Observer, and the editor of the Dayton News, Cleveland Advocate and Eastex Advocate. Over the years, she has earned more than two dozen writing awards, including Journalist of the Year.

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