A 35th District Court jury sentenced Michael Zarate to life in prison Friday for the Nov. 2, 2014 murder of Ernesto Gonzales Jr. in Brownwood.
The same jury took less than an hour earlier Friday to convict Zarate, 34, of fatally shooting Gonales, who was his next-door neighbor, and of evidence tampering.
Jurors saw evidence of Zarate’s criminal history in Ohio and Brown County before hearing from Brown County jailers and Brownwood police officers, who told of numerous instances of Zarate’s assaultive and defiant behavior.
“I have never had any positive interaction with him,” Brownwood police detective Aaron Taylor said, who told of his encounters with Zarate when Taylor was a patrolman.
Zarate’s lawyer, Tommy Adams, asked Taylor if he could name any redeeming feature about Zarate.
“I don’t hate anybody,” Taylor replied, adding that he could usually have a conversation with Zarate after he calmed down.
Earlier Friday morning, Adams gave jurors a brief closing argument as the guilt-innocence portion of the trial concluded. Adams said he’s not the type of lawyer to try to convince people that black is white and white is black.
“I’m not going to tell you the elephant’s not in the room,” Adams told jurors. There had been a significant amount of circumstantial evidence against Zarate, Adams said, and the only direct evidence had been the testimony of Zarate’s ex-girlfriend, Crystal McConnell.
“This is her Jerry Springer appearance, and she’s ridden it for three years,” Adams told jurors.
Murray told jurors in his closing argument there had been overwhelming evidence of Zarate’s guilt. “The inescapable truth of this case is that Michael John Zarate is guilty of murdering Ernesto Gonzales Jr.,” Murray said, adding that the “tight, good evidence” from the work of investigators had made the case.
Murray recounted the evidence as presented by witnesses:
Gonzales was a hard-working family man who lived with his family in the 1300 block of Brady Avenue and became embroiled in an ongoing dispute with Zarate, his neighbor. Gonzales became angry when Zarate and McConnell drove fast through the neighborhood, endangering his children, Murray told jurors.
Gonzales also referred to Zarate as “Chester,” a slang reference to a child molester, Murray said.
The afternoon of Nov. 2, 2014, a Sunday, the two exchanged angry words outside and Zarate went inside his home, where he stared at Gonzales through a window, Murray told jurors. Zarate went outside with a gun and fired several shots. Gonzales ran into a nearby alley with Zarate following him and collapsed after being hit by a bullet that passed through his arm and entered his chest, Murray told jurors.
McConnell, whose last name was Newingham at the time of the murder, both loved and feared Zarate and tried to cover for him, law enforcement officers testified earlier. McConnell began telling investigators about the murder once she was certain Zarate would not get out of jail and said she saw Zarate shoot Gonzales, according to earlier testimony.