When her boyfriend Juan Balderas was sentenced to death in March 2014, Yancy Escobar Balderas couldn't understand what was happening. She sobbed uncontrollably as the lawyers she believes failed her soon-to-be husband walked out of the courtroom.
Two and a half years later, on a Saturday earlier this month, Yancy sat in a classroom at the University of Houston, dressed in a smart suit, holding her new, hard-earned paralegal certificate. Yancy—a 29-year-old immigrant from El Salvador who is the first from her family to graduate from high school—is turning her experience of marrying a death row inmate into a powerful motivation to become a lawyer and help defend other people facing capital punishment.
"After sitting through this trial, seeing the injustices in Juan's case, I want to do something where I can make a change in the system, in people's lives," she told me this week.
Yancy and Juan, who went to the same middle school, started dating when they were 14 and 15. Her family emigrated from El Salvador, and she was undocumented when she was brought to the U.S. at age six. (She’s now a U.S. citizen.)
Theirs was a pretty typical childhood romance: Yancy remembers holding Juan’s hand in church, and him getting all dressed up to meet her mother. “We would just talk every day on the phone, and he would always try extra to make me happy,” she said. “He was my best friend.”
The two grew up in a rough neighborhood on the edge of Houston’s suburban sprawl. Juan, who had done time in juvenile detention, was involved with a street gang of 18- and 19-year-olds known as La Tercera Crips. Yancy says he was trying to avoid the group, go to college, and move on with his life—but he wasn’t able to escape.
On December 16, 2005, when Juan was 19, he was arrested as part of a larger raid picking up seven alleged gang members who police said were behind a string of shootings. He was charged with murder, accused of gunning down 16-year-old Eduardo Hernandez in a bleak apartment complex near an expressway.
When she first heard that her boyfriend was arrested, Yancy was reeling. “I was in disbelief,” she said. Because she didn’t own a car, she had to take three buses to get to the Harris County jail in downtown Houston to visit him. He said he was innocent, and she stood with him.
Juan and Yancy waited and waited as his trial date kept getting pushed back. The trial didn’t actually begin until January 2014—an extraordinary eight years after he was arrested, all spent behind bars. The case was delayed because of his lawyer getting sick, changes in judges and prosecutors, and a back-and-forth while the district attorney decided whether or not to seek the death penalty. Moreover, Harris County was facing a backlog of more than 1,000 criminal cases.
While Juan was waiting for a trial, according to court documents, his brother committed suicide and he wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral. Before he was arrested, he was preparing to go to college and study art. Instead, he spent the equivalent of two college degrees incarcerated without being convicted of anything.
Once the trial finally began, Yancy quit her job and stopped going to her community college classes because she couldn’t concentrate. She attended Juan’s trial every day for two months, sitting behind him, filled with nerves.
Juan’s court-appointed lawyer was Jerome Godinich, who has been reprimanded by a federal appeals court for missing deadlines and failing to file appeals in other death penalty cases. A 2009 investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that he represented more criminal clients than any other court-appointed attorney in the county. Between 2006 and 2009, he represented 21 different defendants facing the death penalty—a caseload that legal experts say makes it almost impossible to provide sufficient representation.
Godinich and his second chair attorney didn’t even meet with Juan until just before the trial, and conducted almost no investigation, Yancy said.
According to Pat Hartwell (an anti-death penalty activist who attended the trial and befriended Yancy), at times during jury deliberations, neither of Juan's lawyers were present while the judge and prosecutors responded to questions from the jury by themselves. Hartwell said that when she confronted Godinich, he told her, “I have another trial to take care of.” (Godinich did not respond to a request for comment.)
On March 14, 2014, the jury sentenced Juan to death. When the foreman read the verdict, “I didn’t know what was going on,” Yancy told me. “A few jurors were crying, but it was not clicking in my head. Then it became clear to me, the decision—I guess I cried so much, my nose was bleeding.”
Two weeks after the sentence, the couple decided to get married. They had talked about it before, but now they rushed to get it done before Juan was transferred to death row prison, where at the time new marriages were prohibited.
The two stood in an austere visiting room in the Harris County jail, with Yancy in a white dress with her hair done up and Juan in his bright yellow inmate jumpsuit. The jail minister married them while Juan’s two sisters, Hartwell, and Yancy’s boss looked on. "We felt like little kids all over again," Yancy said. The next day, Juan was taken to death row.
For the past two and half years, Yancy has made the two-hour drive to the state’s death row prison in West Livingston just about every Thursday or Friday, talking to Juan through the thick glass panels of the visiting booths. Inmates there aren’t allowed to make phone calls, so the couple send handwritten letters back and forth.
It was Juan, she said, who encouraged her to go back to school; she has an associate degree and is currently working on her bachelor’s at the University of Houston. Inspired by how powerless she felt during Juan’s trial, she decided she wanted to become a lawyer, and finished a three-month paralegal course on Oct. 1.
The intensive course was tough, she said, and she had to stay up late studying legal theories and case law. For one assignment, she was assigned to be a defense attorney for a mock trial, and Juan helped her write her opening statement. When she told him she got her certificate, “he was so proud of me,” she said. “Throughout the whole course, he was always motivating me. I do this for him, for me, for our future.”
She recently started as a paralegal intern for Gregory Gardner, a lawyer who’s helped other Texas death row inmates win stays of execution. Yancy’s personal experience helps make her good at her job, he said. “She’s hungry to learn more,” Gardner told me. “Her attention to detail is just incredible, she’s really smart and dedicated—she’s going to be very successful at this.”
She's also volunteered with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and other advocacy groups. Earlier this year, she traveled to Austin with other activists to meet state lawmakers, share her and Juan's story, and lobby them against capital punishment.
Meanwhile, Juan’s case is progressing through several appeals. His new attorneys point to the fact that the only eyewitness to the shooting who identified Juan at the trial—the sister of the victim’s girlfriend—gave police officers conflicting statements.
Several other members of the alleged gang, including the man whom Yancy believes is the real murderer, also got deals from the prosecutor where murder charges against them were reduced to much lower charges in exchange for testifying against Juan, according to court documents. In addition, the lawyers argue, the eight-year delay between Juan’s arrest and his trial violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.
Because of conflict of interest rules, Yancy might not be able to represent Juan if she does become a lawyer. But she knows his case better than anyone, and is working with his lawyers to help plan the appeal strategy. She’s hopeful that he’ll get a new trial, and dreams of the day they can be together again after 11 years.
For now, she wants to use her experience to help other people on death row, especially families like hers that can’t afford high-priced attorneys. At Gardner’s law firm, she recently started working on her first case as a paralegal intern: a death penalty appeal.
“I’m just blessed to have this opportunity,” she said. “To me, it’s not just work… There’s someone waiting to die and they’ve got all this hope on us. We could save their lives.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.