Opinion Released February 8, 2018

Ex parte Isaiah Cardenas, No. 13-17-00424-CR (Opinion by Justice Rodriguez; Panel Members: Justices Benavides and Longoria)

In this appeal from an habeas corpus proceeding and order setting bond, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals analyzed whether the factors established in the Texas Court of Criminal Procedure and by the Court of Criminal Appeals support a bond of $750,000.

On June 11, 2017, 17-year-old Isaiah Cardenas allegedly broke into the home of Rachael Mussett, a 61-year-old woman. Cardenas stabbed and beat Mussett, sexually assaulting her and ultimately strangling her to death. Cardenas the stole Mussett’s hydrocodone prescription and her car before he went to the home of his friend, Michael Tracy, to help clean the blood off his shoes and clothing. Cardenas told Tracy that he had “broken into an old white lady’s house and punched her in the face.” Tracy’s mother, Rexsanna Tracy, then called the Sheriff’s Officer to report the crime.

On June 13, a warrant was issued for Cardenas’s arrest on charges of capital murder, aggravated sexual assault, burglary of a habilitation with the intent to commit a felony, and theft of a motor vehicle. The warrant set “no bond.”

On July 11, Cardenas filed an application for writ of habeas corpus, requesting release on a reasonable bond. Cardenas suggested $75,000, and the State requested no bond, or alternatively, $750,000 per offense. Neither Cardenas nor the State requested conditions on the bond.

The trial court held a hearing on the issue. Cardenas’s mother Rita Martinez testified for the defense, as did a 63-year-old family friend with whom Cardenas had previously lived.

Martinez testified that Cardenas had a marijuana and alcohol problem, although she added he also used “harder narcotics.” She stated that both she and Cardenas’s father (her ex-husband) lived in Victoria, although Martinez was remarried to a man living in India, whom she went to visit every two months. She affirmed that she, Cardenas’s father, and the extended family could pool their resources to post a $75,000 bond. She further affirmed that the family would be able to support and supervise Cardenas if he were released on bond, but admitted on cross examination that she could not force Cardenas to do something he did not want to do. Martinez further acknowledged that Cardenas had been arrested previously for providing the police with a fake ID and had run from the police, but insisted that the family did not have a history of criminal activity.

Cardenas’s family friend, Jose Luis Tejeda, also testified. He stated that he would be willing to help monitor Cardenas and ensure his appearance in court, and noted that he would take Cardenas to his home in the country where “it’s a lot easier to control him.”

The State then asked the court to take judicial notice of Investigator Amy Groethe’s affidavit, which Groethe submitted to obtain Cardenas’s arrest warrant. Groethe detailed the gruesome crime scene and her interview with Michael Tracy.

Groethe then took the stand and provided additional details about the crime scene, confirming the apparent cause of death and the evidence indicating that Mussett had been raped. Groethe testified that there were not only stab wounds and signs of strangulation, but indications of blunt force trauma, which she believed to have been cause by a cast iron skillet. She described the appearance of Mussett’s face and head in detail. Groethe further testified that Mussett had previously reported her vehicle missing and obtained a rental vehicle, both of which were found in a ditch with the keys in Cardenas’s possession. When police contacted Cardenas about the case, he gave a false name and ran.

Groethe then relayed what Cardenas had told his friends and cellmates about the crime, over Cardenas’s running hearsay objection. In particular, Groethe testified that Lagha Boutarfa, an inmate in a cell near Cardenas’s, heard Cardenas say—with  no remorse—that he broke into the home because he wanted to have sex and was frustrated because Mussett died from strangulation before he could “finish the act.” Boutarfa indicated that Cardenas’s motive was to steal Mussett’s narcotics, although another of Cardenas’s friends told Groethe the motive was to steal Mussett’s car.

Finally, Groethe testified that she had listened to Cardenas’s jail calls and heard him joking about not liking his mug shot and bragging about being famous. She opined that Cardenas’s family would not be able to control him or prevent him from taking narcotics, nor would an electronic monitoring device ensure his appearance in court.

The trial court noted its consideration of the Article 17.15 requirements, and set bond at $750,000 for all three offenses, with no conditions. The following day, Cardenas was indicated for capital murder, sexual assault, and burglary with the intent to commit a felony.

Cardenas appealed, arguing (1) the amount of the bond was oppressive, (2) the trial court failed to consider all the relevant bond factors, (3) the trial court could have secured his appearance in court with a lower bond that included condition, and (4) the trial court improperly relied on hearsay evidence.

Held: The trial court’s order setting bond at $750,000 was reasonable and within the court’s discretion. The order was affirmed.

Amount of the Bond

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals reviewed the trial court’s bond determination for an abuse of discretion. Article 17.15 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure requires a trial court to consider 5 factors in setting the bond amount: “(1) that the bail be set sufficiently high to insure compliance; (2) that the bail not be used as a tool of oppression; (3) the nature of the offense the accused is suspected of having committed and the circumstances under which it was committed; (4) the ability of the defendant to make bail; and (5) the future safety of the victim and the community.” The Court of Criminal Appeals has also instructed courts to consider the defendant’s family, ties to the community, length of residency, work record, criminal record, compliance with past bonds, outstanding bonds, and any aggravating circumstances in the alleged crime.

Sufficiently high to insure appearance at trial

The court first noted the severity of the offenses with which Cardenas was charged. Because he faced life in prison, he had a strong motive to run rather than appearing for trial. His mother’s husband in India created a clear connection to another country that could allow him to flee. Furthermore, Cardenas had a history of giving false ID and running from the police.

The testimony at the hearing also indicated that his family was not able to control Cardenas or his drug use. The money that would be used to pay Cardenas’s bond would be his family’s rather than his own, giving Cardenas little incentive to appear.

In sum, this factor supports the combined $750,000 bond.

Tool of oppression

Next, the Thirteenth Court considered whether the bond was a tool of oppression. The court noted that, in comparable cases, courts of appeals have upheld bonds over $1 million where the defendant was facing a capital murder charge. Cardenas’s bond amount was significantly lower than in those cases, even though he is charged with multiple crimes. Moreover, it is 1/3 of what the State requested.

Although Cardenas argued that the trial court should have imposed conditions if it were really concerned with his appearance in court, neither Cardenas nor the State requested conditions, and the court was not required to impose them. Regardless, the $750,000 amount was not oppressive.

Nature and circumstances of offense

The Thirteenth Court noted that the nature of the offense and potential punishment imposed in the primary factor in assessing bail. Here, Cardenas beat, stabbed strangled, and sexually assaulted a 61-year-old woman. Cardenas joked and bragged about the murder, showing no remorse and regretting only that the woman died before he could “finish.” He faces a possible life sentence for the crime. This factor thus supports the $750,000 bond.

Ability to make bail

The court noted that the ability to make bail is the only factor supporting Cardenas’s position. However, a defendant’s inability to make bail does not render the amount unreasonable; it must be weighed against the other factors. In light of the gruesome crime and potential life sentence, Cardenas’s inability to make bond is outweighed by the others factors.

Future safety of the community

Again, the court reiterated that the violent nature of the capital murder and aggravated sexual assault show Cardenas posed a risk to the community. The actions appear to be motivated by Cardenas’s drug habit, greed, and frustrations. Cardenas showed no remorse and would likely use narcotics again.  The safety of the community supports the trial court’s $750,000 bond.

Other factors

The court then examined the Court of Criminal Appeals’ additional factors. Cardenas had lived in Victoria with his family all his life and was a U.S. citizen. His family had no criminal history and offered to help supervise him. Apart from the prior arrest for failure to identify, Cardenas had no criminal history. However, he had a drug problem. The factor thus weighs only slightly in favor of Cardenas.

Weighing these factors, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by setting bond at $750,000, and that the amount was reasonable.

Hearsay evidence

Cardenas next argued that the trial court improperly considered hearsay evidence, and that without the hearsay evidence there was insufficient evidence to show probable cause. The court held that the issue is moot because Cardenas has since been indicted for his crimes, which establishes probable cause as a matter of law.

The trial court’s order setting bond was affirmed.

Read the Full Opinion Here