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Retrial ends in acquittal: Verdict sets man free after 5 years

Houston Chronicle
Thursday, May 27, 2004
By Andrew Tilghman, Staff Writer

After spending more than five years behind bars, a man accused of murder fell to the courtroom floor and sobbed with relief on Wednesday when a Harris County jury found him not guilty. It was a second trial for Jesse Talamantez Jr., 25, who was convicted in May 1999 and sentenced to 99 years in prison in the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Pedro Vasquez outside a southwest Houston nightclub.

"Thank you, Jesus," Talamantez said to his family as bailiffs led him out of the courtroom. He was released from custody several hours later.

State District Judge Denise Collins said in 2001 that Talamantez's first trial was unfair because his first attorney was ineffective. Collins recommended that Talamantez receive a new trial.

Prosecutors said Talamantez was in the passenger seat of a car when he shot Vasquez outside the Extravaganza nightclub, formerly at Gessner and Bellaire Boulevard, on Jan. 31, 1998.

The case hinged on testimony from two women who were with Vasquez and identified Talamantez as the shooter. Three men said they saw Talamantez at the club shortly before the shooting.

Defense attorneys Randy and Josh Schaffer said the women were unreliable and showed jurors a videotape of the women's vantage point, about 50 feet away from the car.

"It was a tough case, when you are dealing with witnesses who are testifying about something that happened six years ago," said Kelly Blackburn, an assistant district attorney who tried Talamantez's case.

The state's Court of Criminal Appeals agreed in 2002 to grant Talamantez a new trial, in part because his first attorney failed to ask several witnesses about inconsistent statements.

Randy Schaffer said Talamantez's dramatically different verdicts reflect an arbitrary quality to the Harris County criminal justice system.

"That just shows you it's a random deal down at that courthouse. People do not get treated uniformly. It's the luck of the draw," Schaffer said.

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