WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
On June 24, 1993, 2 teenaged girls named Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Peña were raped and murdered in Houston, Texas. Due to the violent nature of the crime, it made headlines in many a Texas newspaper.
The case also brought about new legislation that allowed families of the victims to view the execution of the murder, or murderers.
The teens were victims of 6 different male assailants. 3 were sentenced to death, 2 were sentenced to death but commuted to life in prison, and 1 perpetrator was sentenced to 40 years.
Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Peña, 16, both high school students, were attending a friend's pool party in Spring Hill Apartments. When they realized their curfew was approaching, they decided to leave the party to be home by 11 PM. To make it home more quickly, they decided to take a shortcut through a park. (1)
When the girls were walking along the White Oak Bayou, they encountered 6 gang members who were drinking and holding a gang initiation. They kidnapped Elizabeth, and though Jennifer initially escaped the gang, she ran back to help her best friend when she heard her screaming. (1)
The gang members raped the teens repeatedly, for over an hour. They were forced to perform oral sex. They were beaten, their teeth knocked out, hair pulled out, and kicked until their ribs broke. (2)
Initially, they had planned to let them go, but the gang leader noted that they might be able to identify them. Thus, Peter Cantu, the leader, ordered the members to murder the girls. (1)
Derrick O'Brien and Raul Villarreal strangled 14-year-old Jennifer to death with a belt, which broke from the force. They finished murdering her with a shoelace. Cantu, Jose Medellin, and Efrain Perez strangled 16-year-old Elizabeth with shoelaces, before all of them stomped on the throats of the strangled teens to ensure they were dead. (1)
4 of the members, Cantu, Medellin, Perez and Villarreal met at Cantu's house, where he lived with his brother and sister-in-law. His sister-in-law, Christina, questioned why one of the men was bleeding and why another one of them had a bloody shirt, which prompted Perez to respond that the gang had had fun and she would see more details on the news. Then, he elaborated and explained that they had raped 2 teen girls. (1)
They had also stolen items off of the girls, though because they were 14 and 16 year old kids on the way home from a pool party, they didn't have much Medellin took Elizabeth's ring with an "E" on it so he could give it to his girlfriend, Esther. Lucky girl. However, though none of the gang members appeared to express any remorse for the killings, Christina encouraged Cantu to report the crime to the police. (1)
The bodies weren't discovered for another 4 days when someone found the girls decaying in the park. The medical examiner was able to determine that the cause of death was strangulation. All of the men involved were arrested. Police had received a tip to find the bodies, and Cantu's brother, becoming upset with the gang's gloating about "having fun" with the girls, called the police. (2)
All of the offenders were remanded to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. There is not much information pertaining to their trials, but all of the defendents were found guilty, whether through pleas or a jury. (1)
Peter Cantu, Jose Medellin, Derrick O'Brien, Efrain Perez and Raul Villarreal all received death sentences for their involvement in the murders. Venacio Medellin, the 6th perpetrator and the 14-year-old brother of Jose Medellin, received a 40-year prison sentence because he was a minor. Once executions were banned for criminals under the age of 18, the sentences of Perez and Villarreal were commuted to life in prison. The other 3 men were sentenced to death. (1)
O'Brien, a black man and the only non-Hispanic in the gang, was executed first in July of 2006. He said that the murder of the girls was the "worst mistake that I ever made in my whole life" minutes before he was executed. (1)
Jose Medellin appealed his execution, claiming he had informed the City of Houston that he was a Mexican citizen and was denied his right to confer with Mexican officials. Prosecutors claimed he had never told him that. His execution became controversial because of it, with various hearings held to determine the legality of his execution. He was granted a stay of execution, but his sentence has not been revoked. The families of both Elizabeth and Jennifer strongly favor execution. He was finally executed on August 5, 2008, after all of his last minute appeals were rejected. He also apologized to the family before his execution. (1)
17 years after the murders, Peter Cantu was executed, on August 17, 2010. Though his appeals lawyer said that he was a well-behaved inmate who had accepted responsibility for his crimes, Cantu does not believe there is any reason for his sentence not to be upheld. (1,2)
Though Jennifer's father has since died, he had witnessed the executions of his 14-year-old beloved daughter's killers and had lobbied for the death penalty for all of them. In 2015, he sent a friend after his death to speak at the parole hearing for Venacio Medellin, who had served 22 years for his involvement in the rapes and murders at 14 years old. He and his family had strongly fought against his parole. As of 2020, he is still serving his 40 year prison sentence. (3)
Efrain Perez is continuing out his life sentence. Before the attack, he had a lengthy criminal history, from schoolyard brawls to robbery to actually committing murder before participating in the murders of Jennifer and Elizabeth. Though his defense attorney argued he had fallen in with the wrong crowd, the prosecutor called him a "predatory animal". (4)
Raul Villarreal is also continuing his life sentence.
The victims' parents advocated for the State of Texas to allow relatives to witness the executions of the killers of their family members, and they were successful, making it Texas law. (1)
I wish I could find more information on the girls, but I was unable to. By all accounts, and from the dedicated, passionate advocacy displayed from both of their families, Jennifer and Elizabeth were beautiful, typical teen girls. They were responsible, having left a party in order to make it home for curfew. And they were brutally raped, tortured and murdered by 6 terrible men with nothing better to do.
My feelings re: the death penalty are not strong in either direction. I don't think that murdering someone because they murdered someone is morally right, but I also understand. I also, personally, think a life behind bars is worse punishment, and I know that capital murder costs more than life imprisonment. Ultimately, I suppose I am more anti-death penalty, but I don't think I am morally against it. And, if it does remain, I think the families should have the right to attend if they wish. Perhaps it would not be important for some, but for others, it might be enough closure to try to begin to even think about moving past it.
Ultimately, 3 men were executed and 3 men remain behind bars for what happened to Jennifer and Elizabeth, and regardless of how they remain away from the public, I'm glad they are. Cantu spent more years on death row than either of his victims were alive.
27 years ago today, 2 young, innocent girls fell victim to gang violence, and I hope they are resting in peace, and I hope that their families, who have advocated for the rights of other people like them, have found peace, too.