Man found innocent of murder in drug dealer’s death; conviction overturned

EDINBURG — An Edinburg man previously convicted of murder will soon be free.

EDINBURG — An Edinburg man previously convicted of murder will soon be free.

A jury exonerated Justin Rhys Scepanski earlier this week after they found him not guilty of murder.

The trial, the third time Scepanski would face a jury in connection with the shooting death of Baldemar Villarreal in 2010, ended Tuesday with a not guilty verdict after more than a week of testimony.

Scepanski was facing murder and manslaughter charges connected to a March 6, 2010 shooting that left Villarreal dead after authorities said Scepanski tried to rob him of cash during a drug deal.

Villarreal, a street-level drug dealer, had just encountered Scepanski, who stopped by his house at about 11 p.m. March 6, 2010, saying he wanted to buy Xanax bars — a common anti-depressant frequently abused without a prescription. Villarreal said he didn’t have them.

Scepanski, law enforcement officials said, confronted Villarreal from the passenger seat of a pickup truck; showed a gun and demanded cash. Villarreal refused and struggled with Scepanski, who fired one gunshot into Villarreal’s abdomen.

Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputies found Villarreal, 20, lying on the front steps of his grandparents’ house in the 9900 block of Moorefield Road near Mission, where he lived with his wife and 3-week old baby. He was struggling to breathe and was bleeding internally.

Villarreal’s wife, Christina Crystal Guerra, who testified at all three different trials, told jurors during the trial last April that after Villarreal was shot she went outside to find him in the road.

She told jurors she placed her husband’s gun in a case under their bed after Villarreal asked her to remove the gun from the street, before emergency personnel and officers arrived on the scene.

When emergency crews arrived, Villarreal, who died shortly after he was transported to a local hospital, stated Scepanski had shot him.

Investigators found Scepanski, who left the crime scene along with a friend who was never charged in the case, the day after the late-night attack. Scepanski had gone to a party immediately after the shooting and was planning on going fishing the next day, he later told deputies.

On May 27, 2011, a jury of his peers found the then 20-year-old Scepanski guilty of murder and sentenced him to 45 years in prison, according to court records.

But nearly 5 years to the date the 13th Court of Appeals granted the 26-year-old man a retrial in early 2016, ruling that the 332nd state District Court erred because jurors in Scepanski’s first trial did not receive the proper instructions.

Specifically, the appeals court cited the failure to allow the jury to consider a lesser-included charge of manslaughter during his first trial in May of 2011, based on Scepanski’s claim that he was acting in self-defense during the shooting.

Scepanski went through his first re-trial last year in April, but jurors failed to come to a consensus and the trial was declared a mistrial based on a hung jury.

More than six months later that trial’s re-trial was set to begin but after several hours attorneys for both the state and defense failed to come to a consensus on jurors during the selection process and the trial was delayed until last week.

Calls for comment to Scepanski’s attorney Jaime Aleman went unreturned as of press time.

Scepanski remains in custody at the Hidalgo County Jail as he awaits his release.