The state’s first execution of the year is scheduled for Thursday night. Rodrigo Hernandez, who was convicted of the rape and murder of Susan Verstegen, a 38-year-old single mother and Frito-Lay employee, is set to die.
In February 1994, Verstegen’s body was found in a 55-gallon barrel outside of a San Antonio church. The case had gone cold until 2002, when DNA evidence collected in Michigan linked Hernandez, 38, to Verstegen’s death.
The San Antonio Express-News ’ Eva Ruth Moravec sat across the plexiglass from Rodrigo Hernandez in the Polunsky Unit for an interview earlier in January, penning a meticulously reported account of all sides of the crime.
Hernandez, who confessed to the murder when questioned by a San Antonio police detective in Michigan, now denies killing Verstegen, claiming he had a standing casual sexual relationship with her. “It still doesn’t feel real. I did not commit this murder; I’ll take that to the grave,” Hernandez told Moravec. “My grandma raised me to respect women.”
But, as Moravec points out, “science says otherwise.” Hernandez’s fingerprints and signs of a struggle were found inside Verstegen’s Firebird. His semen was found on a seat.
Moravec spoke to Verstagen’s mother, Anna Verstagen, and her son, Chuck Monney, who was fifteen at the time of the murder. Verstegen’s family is conflicted over the death penalty, Moravec reported, but Anna Verstagen said she hoped Hernandez could come to grips with his crimes. “Susan would definitely not want somebody to be killed for her, but he was out of control,” she told Moravec.
DNA evidence also linked Hernandez to a 1991 rape and murder of a 77-year-old homeless woman in Grand Rapids, but he has never been tried in that case. For more on Hernandez’s criminal history, see this detailed timeline of his life.
The state parole board rejected Hernandez’s peition for clemency Tusday, the Associated Press’ Michael Graczyk reported. The U.S. Supreme Court was still considering his case on Thursday. The lethal injection is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday.
The Austin Chronicle ’s Jordan Smith noted that if the execution proceeds, Hernandez will become the 478th man executed in Texas since the reinstancement of the death penalty in 1976.
Last November, Moravec interviewed Guadalupe Esparza, the last man Texas executed in 2011. Such thorough coverage should be standard for all newspapers in the state prior to executions.