The Sweet Song of Justice

It took the jury less than three hours to find Yolanda Saldivar guilty of murdering Selena. But for two weeks in October, all of Texas followed the most sensational trial in years. A behind-the-scenes look at what happened inside the courtroom.
After the jury reached its verdict, hundreds of Selena’s fans filled the streets around the Houston courthouse and celebrated the news.
Photograph by Adrees Latif

“You might not want to sit down here,” Douglas Tinker said wearily, holding a glass of white wine. “Man, I haven’t won a case in so long.” The rotund balding man with the expansive white beard who recalled both Santa Claus and Ernest Hemingway was slouched in a booth at Buster’s Drinkery, an anonymous dive frequented by the lawyers who work nearby at the Harris County courthouse. It was a Monday afternoon in late October. While the boys at the next table were engrossed in their usual game of gin rummy, a loud party was going on in the streets outside, with honking horns, blaring music, and cheering crowds filling the sidewalks. Most of the several hundred revelers were Hispanic—Mexican American Texans to be precise—and they had plenty to celebrate. Yolanda Saldivar had just been found guilty of murdering their heroine, Selena. Tinker and his court-appointed co-counsel, Arnold Garcia, a hard-boiled former prosecutor from Jim Wells County, had just finished the thankless task of defending Selena’s killer, and they were already second-guessing their defense strategy. Believing they had discredited key prosecution witnesses, they had decided not to ask that the jury consider a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, which might have meant a shorter sentence. They had rested their case without calling Abraham Quintanilla, Jr., Selena’s father, whom they had portrayed as a controlling stage dad and manager and the catalyst behind the murder. They had decided against putting their client on the stand.

The honking of the horns grew more persistent. Tinker had had clients accused of unsavory crimes in his thirty years as a Corpus Christi defense attorney, including George B. Parr (the Duke of Duval County) and a Branch Davidian, but no client had generated the pure hatred that Saldivar did. There had been death threats, and more than once he had spoken of going out in a blaze of bullets, like Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata! “They saw us walk in. They know we’re here,” Tinker said in a low voice. “Let’s have another round.” When the evening news came on the television in Buster’s, it touted coverage of the “Selena trial.” Tinker talked back to the tube: “The Selena trial? What about the Yolanda Saldivar trial?” As the celebration outside continued, Tinker smiled at Garcia and raised his glass. “Well,” he said, “at least this reduces our chances of getting shot.”

The same could not be said for Yolanda Saldivar. Ever since that drizzly day in March when she shot Selena, she had been a marked woman. With millions of fans still distraught over Selena’s murder, it is debatable whether the 35-year-old Saldivar is safer in prison or out.

In life, the 23-year-old Selena Quintanilla Perez was the undisputed queen of Tejano music and an international superstar. In death, she has become bigger than ever. Since the shooting, the legend of the talented, beautiful, smart, clean-living vocalist who proved you can assimilate and have your culture too has spread from her hometown of Corpus Christi throughout the world. Street murals in barrios around the state have elevated her to a saintlike status almost equal to that of the Virgin of Guadalupe. More than six hundred babies born in Texas between April and September have been named Selena. Her posthumous album, Dreaming of You , debuted at number one on Billboard magazine’s album chart in July, making it the second fastest-selling release by a female singer in the history of popular music, after Janet Jackson. Selena’s appeal has always been strongest in South Texas, where she lived and worked, and for this reason, state district judge Mike Westergren moved the trial from Corpus Christi to Houston, where finding a fair jury would be easier.

Throughout the trial of State of Texas v. Yolanda Saldivar , Nueces County district attorney Carlos Valdez kept saying, “This is a simple murder case.” The evidence seemed to support him. Immediately following the shooting at the Days Inn Hotel in Corpus Christi on March 31, 1995, Saldivar, the former president of Selena’s fan club and close business associate, sat in a pickup in the motel’s parking lot for nine and a half hours with the murder weapon pointed at her head, negotiating her surrender to the police. After she gave up, she signed a confession admitting her guilt. This was an open and shut case, one that Valdez, a native of Molina, the same humble neighborhood on the southwestern edge of Corpus Christi where Selena had grown up and resided, was determined to win.

In his opening statement Douglas Tinker presented a much darker picture of the events surrounding the murder. Saldivar was Selena’s best friend, and she was trusted by the entire Quintanilla family; with, among other evidence, the audio tapes of her negotiations with the police, the defense would prove the shooting was an accident. Also, it would show that the confession she had signed didn’t include her claim that the shooting was an accident. Paul Rivera, one of the Corpus police officers who had interrogated her, had left that part out. Texas Ranger Robert Garza would reluctantly testify that he had witnessed Saldivar protesting to Rivera that the written confession he had prepared said nothing about the shooting being an accident. Furthermore, the defense would prove that Saldivar was forced into this confrontation and its unfortunate conclusion by Selena’s father, who lived his life through his daughter and was involved in a power struggle with Saldivar, even telling Selena that Saldivar was a lesbian. The defense believed that Abraham did not approve of Selena’s expanding her fashion business, with which Saldivar was intimately involved, into Mexico. (Selena had had a salon-boutique in San Antonio and another in Corpus Christi.) Her father, the defense said, thought she was doing so at the expense of the family band.

But once the trial got under way, Valdez preempted the defense’s blame-the-father strategy by calling Abraham as the first witness. Quintanilla obliged by speaking affectionately about the family and the band he

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week