MAN ACCUSED OF STRANGLING HIS WIFE AND DUMPING THE BODY AT AN ABANDONED AND ISOLATED HOUSE

Police found the body of Karla Villagra-Garzon (32) in an abandoned and isolated house located in Chatham Township, which is about 15 miles from Elizabeth, New Jersey where she had lived with her 2-year-old daughter and husband. The husband, Abayuba Rivas (39) has now been charged with murder for allegedly beating and strangling his wife to death. He remains in custody subject to a 2- million dollar bail.

Villagra-Garzon had been missing since February 23rd and was the subject of numerous flyers and a Facebook site seeking information relevant to her disappearance. Her husband appeared on TV asking for help from the public and emerging distraught. He had claimed that he had last seen his wife around 10:30 p.m. on the night of her disappearance when she had walked to a pharmacy store to get medicine for her daughter; the video cameras from the nearby drug store apparently failed to yield any depictions of her. Police have since discounted Rivas’s accounting of the evening. It is not clear what the prosecutors will ultimately seek for a penalty if Rivas is convicted – he is presumed to be innocent. The death penalty was repealed in 2007 when Governor Jon S. Corzine said the state was calling an end to what amounted to a “state-endorsed killing.” The penalty statutes still provide for life in prison with no possibility of parole.

COMMENT: What is “The Presumption of Innocence? All of the states and the federal government provide for instructions to the jury (and judges) that a defendant is presumed to be innocent. However, the terms have become commonplace when discussing criminal cases and often mentioned without true regard for the value of this right we extend to those charged with a crime. In essence, the words mean that we start by believing the person is innocent of all charges—not possibly innocent, the presumption is that he has not committed a crime. One way to illustrate this is to assume that a prosecutor and defense lawyer have just completed their opening statements. Say the prosecutor has given a two-hour detailed description of what they intend to prove; a detailed account of not only the crime itself but also what individual witnesses will say possibly including how, when and why a person was murdered. Say the defense attorney gives a brief 2-minute statement reminding the jury that his client is “presumed innocent.” Then the judge tells the jury that “opening statements are not evidence,” but they must nevertheless retire to deliberate to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty (and the trial ended right then). What would your verdict be? Many jurors might say “I can’t reach a verdict because we haven’t heard “all” the evidence. In fact, the verdict must be “not guilty” because the defendant is presumed to be innocent and, in the admittedly absurd example given, there would be no evidence to overcome the presumption of innocence. The point is that the presumption must be taken seriously if it is to have the value that our founding fathers intended. Sad and emotional cases test this vital right we have in the United States.

UPDATE: 2/8/15:  A Union County Grand Jury indicted Abayuba Rivas (40) last week for the murder of his wife, Karla Jose Villagra-Garzon (32); a lesser charge of child endangerment was also included in the indictment. Rivas remains in custody with a $2 million bail.

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