Gang member executed for murders
Remorseful O’Brien one of six individuals convicted in Houston girls’ deaths
Expressing remorse for the crime he and five others committed 13 years ago, Derrick Sean O’Brien repeated “I’m sorry” over and over in the moments before his death Tuesday.
“I’m sorry. I have always been sorry,” O’Brien said. “It’s the worst mistake that I ever made in my whole life. Not because I am here, but because of what I did and I hurt a lot of people — you and my family.”
Three friends witnessed O’Brien’s execution, one of whom became emotional and sobbed openly as O’Brien gave his final statement.
“I will always love you,” she told O’Brien through the glass separating them. “I love you.”
O’Brien was pronounced dead at 6:19 p.m., seven minutes after the lethal dose began.
He was one of six members of a street gang arrested in the slayings of Elizabeth Pena, 16, and Jennifer Ertman, 15. Their bodies were found four days after they failed to return from a swimming party. The girls had been attacked as they took a shortcut along some railroad tracks and stumbled on the group drinking beer after initiating a new gang member.
Ertman’s father and Pena’s parents were among the witnesses to the lethal injection, the 14th this year in Texas, the nation’s most active death penalty state. The victims’ parents were instrumental in getting policies changed allowing victims’ families to witness executions.
“It meant a lot to me that I could sit there and watch that scumbag die,” said Adolfo Pena, Elizabeth’s father. “We finally, finally got some justice for Elizabeth and Jennifer.
“You don’t know how that feels to have some justice for my daughter, for the stuff that she had to go through,” he added. “It’s been a long time coming. I wish we could have done all six at once.”
Pena opened his button-down shirt after the execution, showing reporters a T-shirt emblazoned with the photos of the slain girls.
“These two girls had justice today,” he said.
O’Brien, 31, was spared a trip to the death house May 15 when his lawyers won a reprieve from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals the day before he was to be executed. Days later, however, the same court lifted its order, clearing the way for Tuesday’s execution.
The prisoner’s attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the execution so justices could review his case. They argued there’s no legal procedure allowing condemned Texas prisoners to raise challenges that drugs used in lethal injections “will cause O’Brien to endure unnecessary, excessive, and excruciating pain during the course of this execution.”
When asked if he witnessed any “excruciating pain,” Adolfo Pena replied, “I didn’t see any suffering.
“I wish to God my daughter could have died like that,” he said. “He just closed his eyes and went to sleep.”
About 20 minutes before O’Brien was scheduled to die, the high court rejected his appeal.
Evidence showed the girls were gang raped for more than an hour, then were kicked and beaten before being strangled. A red nylon belt was pulled so tight around Jennifer Ertman’s neck that the belt snapped. When the bodies were discovered, they were decomposing and mummifying in 100-degree heat.
A smiling O’Brien, then 18, was seen on a videotape of the crowd that gathered as investigators worked the scene of the grisly discovery. A tip from the brother of one of the gang members led police to the arrests in the killings that shocked even crime-hardened Houston.
“I’m no fan of the death penalty, but that guy brought it on himself,” said Steve Baldassano, who prosecuted O’Brien. “It was horrible.”
O’Brien, who confessed to police, was one of six gang members convicted in the case and the first to be executed. The ninth-grade dropout, who had previous arrests for shoplifting a pistol, assault and auto theft, also was a suspect in a murder six months before the girls were killed but never was charged. Evidence put him at a Houston park where the body of Patricia Lopez, 27, was found. A beer can carrying his fingerprints was found under the remains of the woman. She had been raped, eviscerated and had her throat cut.
Two of the gang members, Efrain Perez and Raul Villarreal, had their death sentences commuted to life in prison when the Supreme Court last year barred executions for those who were 17 at the time of their crimes.
Peter Cantu, described by authorities as ringleader of the gang, remains on death row without an execution date.
Jose Medellin, who was condemned and who O’Brien said was at one end of the belt being pulled around Ertman’s neck as he yanked on the other, had his case returned to the state courts under an order from President Bush. Medellin is among some 50 Mexican-born offenders who argue that under international law they should have been allowed assistance from the Mexican Consulate before trial.
A sixth person convicted, Medellin’s brother, Vernancio, was 14 at the time and received a 40-year prison term.
Two more Texas inmates are scheduled to die next week.
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