Closing Arguments: He said, he said

Defendant takes the stand and points finger at State’s key witness

State v. Joel Cordova Rodriguez:
Pima County Superior Court Case CR20170336-003

Closing arguments in State v. Joel Cordova Rodriguez occurred late in the day on March 1, 2019, and the jury deliberated for a day and a half before reaching their verdicts.

Rodriguez is one of three co-conspirators indicted in the murder of Richard Jensen, the other two are Jensen’s wife, Jessica Rodriguez-Cordova also Rodriguez’ sister, and her boyfriend-on-the-side, Aaron Abel Heath.

Rodriguez waived his Fifth Amendment rights and took the stand on April 30 and May 1 to present a story that mirrored but at the same time contradicted testimony from Heath, his co-conspirator and the State’s compelling witness to Jensen’s murder.

Rodriguez admitted he lied to authorities repeatedly during the course of their investigation. But he said he lied because he was afraid of Heath, whom he alleged was the gunman.

“He said if I snitched him out, he would hurt my family,” Rodriguez testified.

Rodriguez had previously denied ever even being in Tucson when detectives visited him multiple times in Phoenix to talk about the investigation.

When detectives discovered Rodriguez had changed his license plate, from an Arizona Diamondbacks to a University of Arizona plate, days after the murder, and asked him about it, he said his license plate simply fell off.

When they presented him with irrefutable evidence such as phone records indicating his phone used cell towers throughout Tucson the day before and the day of the murder, he continued to deny it.

With an image of the murder scene projected on the courtroom screen, Deputy County Attorney Dan South began his closing argument, “Richard Jensen bled out under that mesquite tree…120 feet from his house…he was brutally murdered.”

Rodriguez agreed with South during cross examination that he was closest to Jensen in the moments leading up to the murder. Rodriguez said he was talking to Jensen through the fence.

“He got mad about how I’m asking questions…” Rodriguez testified, “He got bugged by something I said…I started backing up.

“I just heard shots, I didn’t know if it’s Richard, I ducked and ran to the side of the vehicle.”

Rodriguez testified he ducked to the side of his car and didn’t see much, but when he got into the car Heath had a handgun, pointed it at him and told him to drive.

This contradicted much of Heath’s testimony placing the defendant as the passenger and triggerman.

Rodriguez maintained he was asked by Heath to talk with Jensen and that Heath must’ve had other plans, unbeknownst to him.

In his closing arguments defense attorney Richard Bock called Heath’s story a contrived attempt to pin the blame on Rodriguez.

Bock argued the State’s case against his client had a black hole in it, motive. What would Rodriguez benefit from killing Jensen?

“The state has no answer to that,” Bock argued.

Rodriguez testified he was “cool with” Jensen and met him a few times during the course of his relationship with Cordova.

Bock pointed to Heath’s possible motives for killing Jensen including his intimate affair with Jensen’s wife, Rodriguez-Cordova, and plans to move with her to Mesa.

“What is Heath’s position? He’s charged with first degree murder…so what’s Heath do, he contrives a story,” Bock argued.

“He wanted to eliminate poor Richard Jensen because he wants to preserve his relationship with Jessica Rodriguez,” Bock said.

“This case is not about who you believe,” South countered on rebuttal. “It’s the State of Arizona versus Joel Rodriguez.”

“All of the calls, all of the witnesses who saw these guys before they took Richard Jensen’s life,” South said, “Joel Rodriguez gave you the motive.

“He drove from Phoenix, he picked up Aaron Heath and he made a decision to confront the victim…motive is not an element of this offense.”

Rodriguez’ version of events relied on the testimony of Priscilla Torres, a resident who witnessed “an arm come out of the [passenger] window and heard gunshots,” according to South.

Rodriguez maintained Torres must have seen Heath firing from the passenger-side window.

“That doesn’t add up with where the shell casings were, they were right up against the fence.

“Priscilla Torres said the car was 20 to 40-feet away from the fence,” South argued.

South reminded the jury of testimony given by Pima County Medical Examiner David Winston who indicated the bullets entered and exited Jensen in a “slightly downward” direction.

And the shots were likely fired at close range according to the location of the shell casings.

“The defendant was not merely present…when you look at all of the evidence…do you really believe Joel Rodriguez didn’t know what was about to happen?” South fired back on Bock’s claim that Rodriguez was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“It doesn’t really matter who pulled the trigger…each one of the actors that contribute share the consequences,” South said.

The jury deliberated for nearly two days before returning their verdicts.

A juror who wished to remain anonymous said Rodriguez’ story was “hard to believe” and his testimony had “many unbelievable aspects” and was “pretty bad.”

For instance, the juror recalled Rodriguez testifying he had never been to Rodriguez-Cordova and Jensen’s home before the day of the murder but phone records in evidence indicated he in fact had been in the area multiple times.

The jury found Rodriguez guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, his sentencing is set for June 3, 2019, at 11 a.m.