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Man scheduled to be executed for killing San Antonio police officer in 2001 shooting

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Manuel Garza Jr. already had a lengthy criminal record and was wanted on outstanding warrants when a police officer working on a special team targeting property crimes stopped him at a San Antonio apartment complex in 2001.

"I knew he'd find out about the warrants and I didn't want to go to jail, so I just ran," Garza, who was 20 at the time, would say later.

Officer John "Rocky" Riojas jumped out of his patrol car, leaving the door open and engine running, and chased Garza into a maze of walkways at the complex. After Riojas caught Garza, a witness saw Garza get his hands on Riojas' gun during a struggle that left the 37-year-old San Antonio SWAT officer dead from a gunshot to the head.

Garza is scheduled to be executed Wednesday evening for Riojas' killing. The 35-year-old Garza would be the sixth convicted killer put to death this year in Texas, which carries out the death penalty more than any other state. He would be the first inmate executed with a new small supply of pentobarbital recently obtained by Texas prison officials.

If two other lethal injections set for this month are carried out, officials once again will have exhausted the state's supply of the execution drug. After that, Texas' stock of the increasingly difficult-to-obtain sedative will need to be replenished or a new chemical found as a replacement to handle at least three more executions on the schedule starting next month.

No late appeals for Garza were pending in the courts Tuesday. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case last year.

Garza was taken into custody the day after the Feb. 2, 2001, shooting. Evidence showed he fled the scene with Riojas' gun and sold the .40-caliber Glock to a relative who then tried to sell it to a police informant after learning from TV reports that the officer's weapon was missing. The informant alerted authorities who traced the semi-automatic pistol back to Garza.

In a statement to detectives, Garza blamed Riojas for the shooting.

"I truly think this was the cop's fault," he said. "I don't see why he wanted to pull out his gun."

He asked for justice and for the courts to "please have mercy on me and give me the benefit of the doubt."

"I wasn't raised right," he added.

Defense attorneys contended Garza, whose criminal record began at age 14, was a product of childhood neglect and abuse.

Bill Pennington, one of the Bexar County prosecutors handling the case, said a key part of the guilt-innocence portion of the trial focused on defense efforts to characterize the shooting by Garza as accidental.

"It wasn't an issue of whether he did it or not," Pennington said last week.

A Bexar County jury deliberated about three hours before convicting Garza. At the trial's punishment phase, prosecutors called some 60 witnesses over two days to detail Garza's lengthy criminal history that included burglaries, thefts, escaping from custody and leading police on a chase in a stolen car.

Pennington said Riojas was "a larger than life kind of guy that everybody knew and everybody respected."

"The entire police force felt like they had their heart tugged out of them when he died," the prosecutor said.

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PHOTO: This undated handout photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows Manuel Garza Jr. Garza is scheduled to be executed for the 2001 shooting death of San Antonio, Texas, SWAT officer John “Rocky” Riojas.  (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP)

This undated handout photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows Manuel Garza Jr. Garza is scheduled to be executed for the 2001 shooting death of San Antonio, Texas, SWAT officer John “Rocky” Riojas. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP)

 

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