HOUSTON (AP) — A Texas death row inmate who raped and strangled a 77-year-old woman at her Houston home nearly 27 years ago has died after being diagnosed with COVID-19, his attorney said Tuesday.
Jorge Villanueva, 66, had been receiving treatment for liver cancer when he recently tested positive for the coronavirus, said Jeremy Schepers, one of his lawyers.
Villanueva died Saturday afternoon at Hospital Galveston, a medical facility run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said agency spokesman Jeremy Desel.
His death is under investigation and an autopsy is being performed, Desel said.
While a formal cause of death has not been confirmed, Schepers said in an email that hospital records “indicate that COVID-19 is the presumed, but as of yet unconfirmed, cause of death.”
Villanueva, who had been on death row for nearly 25 years, did not have an execution date at the time of his death.
Villanueva was convicted of the August 1994 slaying of Maria Jova Montiel.
Prosecutors said forensic evidence tied Villanueva to the crime.
He also gave a confession to police in which he acknowledged going to Montiel’s house to sexually assault her, and hitting her on the head with a bottle after she fought back.
According to court records, “the large amount of blood throughout the bedroom, indicated that she had been violently assaulted before she died of asphyxia.”
At his trial, Villanueva’s attorneys had argued he should be spared a death sentence, describing him as a “family man who had killed because of his heroin and alcohol use.”
Villanueva’s death was first made public on Monday by a reporter with The Marshall Project.
According to a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project exploring the state of the U.S. prison system in the coronavirus pandemic, there have been at least 2,359 deaths from the coronavirus among prisoners.
In Texas, 187 inmates have been confirmed or presumed to have died from COVID-19, according the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Thirty-seven agency employees are presumed to have died from the virus.