By Michael Graczyk
HUNTSVILLE — An inmate already saddled with 17 life prison terms told a jury he deserved death for organizing the largest-ever jailbreak from a Texas prison and then killing a suburban Dallas police officer while a fugitive with six others who escaped with him.
Prosecutors insisted George Rivas actually was trying to manipulate jurors and use reverse psychology on them to avoid the death chamber. But if that was the prisoner’s plan, it didn’t work.
Jurors decided he should die, and now the 41-year-old Rivas is set for lethal injection Wed. evening in Huntsville.
Rivas was the first of his prison-break gang, which became known as the “Texas 7,” to be tried for the fatal shooting of Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins on Christmas Eve of 2000.
All of the inmates received death sentences for the killing.
With his appeals exhausted, Rivas has seen his request for clemency rejected by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. He’s acknowledged he’s ready to die for the killing.
“It’s bittersweet,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from death row. “Bitter because I hurt for my family … Sweet because it’s almost over.” He declined an interview with The Associated Press.
Former Dallas County assistant district attorney Toby Shook told the AP that Hawkins’ wife is not expected to be at Rivas’ execution.
Shook said she asked him to attend. Some of her husband’s former colleagues also will be witnesses.
“She can’t go through that anymore,” said Shook, who prosecuted Rivas for capital murder. “She wants the cases obviously to move forward. She’s frustrated it’s taken a long time on appeal.”
On Dec. 13, 2000, Rivas’ gang overpowered workers at a prison in Kenedy, about 60 miles south of San Antonio.
They stole the workers’ clothes, broke into the prison armory to get guns and drove away in a prison truck. They committed several robberies, including two in Houston, more than 200 miles to the east.
Then, 11 days later on Christmas Eve, they gunned down the 29-year-old Hawkins another 200 miles to the north.
The officer, who had been on the force just more than a year, interrupted their holdup of a sporting goods store.
He was shot 11 times, with some of the gunfire being from Rivas, and was run over with a stolen SUV driven by Rivas.
The escaped inmates stole $70,000 in cash from store, 44 firearms and ammunition, and winter clothing. They also took jewelry and wallets from store workers who were closing up for the evening.
The fugitives were caught a month later in Colorado, where one of them, Larry Harper, killed himself rather than surrender.
Rivas will be the second member of the gang to be executed by the state. Michael Rodriguez, 45, volunteered for lethal injection and was executed in 2008.
“We all knew it would end up here eventually,” Rivas’ trial lawyer, Wayne Huff, told the AP. “They killed a police officer and that kind of makes you a poster boy for the death penalty.”
Rivas, from El Paso, planned the prison break while serving life sentences for 13 counts of aggravated kidnapping, four counts of aggravated robbery and a burglary count. “I wasn’t going to die an old man in prison,” he said at his trial.
He testified that he handpicked some of his partners, gaining the trust of prison supervisors and then getting the inmates transferred to the prison maintenance area where he worked.
Rivas said he and the other inmates went to great lengths to avoid hurting officers during the prison break.
“Quite honestly, if we wanted to be brutal, we had sledgehammers,” he said. “We had axes. … The reason every single one is alive is because we didn’t want to hurt them.”
He testified he intended to handcuff Hawkins and shot him once in each shoulder because he thought the officer was reaching for his gun.
Shook disputed Rivas’ statements. “If his lips moved, generally he was telling a lie,” the former prosecutor told the AP. “He’s quite the storyteller.”
Rivas and two other members of his gang were arrested at a convenience store near a trailer park in Woodland Park, Colo., a month after Hawkins’ death. Two others were captured at a Colorado Springs, Colo., motel.
The last two, including Harper who committed suicide, were found in a motor home at the trailer park.
The inmates had told park operators they were Christian missionaries from Texas, but a neighbor at the RV park called police after seeing the case profiled on the “America’s Most Wanted” TV show.
Another Texas 7 member, Donald Newbury, was set to die earlier this month but U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stopped his punishment at least temporarily. Appeals for three other members, Patrick Murphy Jr., Joseph Garcia and Randy Halprin, are still pending.