Juan Leonardo Quintero was a pretty good yard man. His employer, Camp Landscaping of Deer Park, Texas, valued his services so much that the boss bailed him out of jail when he was arrested on a morals charge, and after Quintero pleaded guilty and was deported to Mexico, Camp lent him the money he needed to be smuggled back into the United States.
Then the bill for the yard man’s services came due.
Quintero knew that if found here again, he might go to federal prison for 10 years or more, so he took pains to avoid the authorities’ notice. But then, in 2006, while driving his employer’s truck along a street in Houston, he was pulled over for speeding.
“I knew I was in trouble,” he would say later. “Since I came back, I knew I was in trouble. I was worried about being put in prison.”
So Quintero drew a gun from his pants and put four bullets into Officer Rodney Johnson’s head.
The crime was a big deal in Texas. Quintero stood trial for capital murder and was sentenced to life without parole. His boss, Robert Camp, pleaded guilty to federal charges of harboring an illegal alien and went to jail, too. And the Houston police started cooperating more closely with federal immigration authorities.
In 2010, when Houston Mayor Bill White challenged longtime incumbent Rick Perry for Texas governor, Johnson’s widow appeared in a Perry campaign ad blaming White for the “sanctuary city” policies that had made it harder for those immigration authorities to detect and deport people like Quintero. White lost to Perry, bigly.
I remembered the Quintero case when I heard about the recent courtroom antics of California cop killer Luis Bracamontes. His performance has to be seen to be believed. Dropping F-bombs and N-words left and right, he cursed out the judge, insulted the surviving victims to their face, laughed at their families, and generally behaved as if he had just won the lottery. He finally was thrown out of the courtroom, to watch the remainder of his trial by remote TV.
Like Quintero, Bracamontes is a previously deported illegal immigrant. He admits killing his victims, as Quintero did. He’s on trial for his life, as Quintero was. But, like Quintero, Bracamontes is in no immediate danger of mounting the scaffold and taking a long drop on a short rope.
Quintero at least had a passing scare in that regard. Texas prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for Johnson’s slaying, and when convicted, Quintero says, “I was expecting that I get executed right there and then.” But, he explains, “It didn’t happen.” The jury chose prison for him instead. Though Texas may be known for running the nation’s busiest Death Row, rules imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court ensure that even in Texas, such justice is neither swift nor certain. After months, years, even decades of appeals, fewer than 1 percent of Texas murderers in the past half-century have ever taken the long walk to the death chamber.
For Johnson’s widow, the leniency shown Quintero was “a slap in the face.” When Quintero was subsequently injured in an attempted prison breakout, Joslyn Johnson called it a shame the guards didn’t shoot him. “We have to pay for this man to live in jail for the rest of his life,” she told the Texas Tribune. “I felt he deserved to die just like Rodney died.”
As for Bracamontes, he has even less reason to sweat than Quintero did, because California hasn’t executed anyone in 12 years. Only 13 California murderers have been put to death since 1968. Meanwhile, almost 120,000 Californians have been murdered. A California murderer’s chance of being put to death, then, is scarcely one tenth of 1 percent. No wonder Bracamontes is grinning like the cat that ate the canary.
Like Rick Perry dispatching Bill White, President Trump is softening up the Democrats this year with a campaign ad featuring Bracamontes. “Build the wall, now,” the ad demands. “Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants. President Trump will fix our border and keep our families safe.”
By all means, build the wall. But let’s all understand that the key to keeping America safe from people like Quintero and Bracamontes is not border enforcement. It’s death penalty enforcement. Maybe those two guys could have been kept from re-entering the country by a better border barrier. Maybe not. But the question to ponder is this: Why weren’t they afraid to shed innocent blood once they got here?
As I have argued for years, the Democrats who labor against capital punishment are “complicit in every murder committed” not just by illegal aliens but by the many hundreds of previously convicted American murderers who should have already gone to Death Row—and by the countless thousands of murderers who could have been deterred by a credible, meaning inexorable, death penalty regime.
Kenneth McDuff, for example. This homegrown Texas monster slaughtered three teenagers in 1966, was saved from the electric chair by the Supreme Court in 1972, was paroled after years of refusals in 1989, and then committed more than a dozen other murders before being caught. He was convicted of two of them, sent back to Death Row, and finally executed in 1998. What would a border wall do to stop someone like McDuff?
They say it’s easier to tear down than to build up. Giving the McDuffs of this world their just deserts, however, will require a major demolition job on the extra-constitutional “obstacle course” the courts have erected between a murderer’s conviction and his execution. And that very difficult task will take more than just choosing sound nominees to fill judicial vacancies. Consider that just this month, Justice Clarence Thomas—who is probably the Supreme Court’s most law-and-order member—granted a temporary stay of execution to an Alabama man who murdered a policeman more than 30 years ago. It seems the cop killer’s advancing years have burdened him with dementia, poor man. Therefore, his lawyers say, it wouldn’t be fair to execute him now.
If President Trump really aims to “keep our families safe,” it’s essential that he put a stop to such nonsense. Dementia be damned. Protecting families means crushing crime. That is the task Trump set for himself a year ago when he promised us an abrupt end to “this American carnage.” To fulfill that task, he needs to do much, much more than “build the wall.”