July 8, 2009 -- To a casual observer, the evidence was overwhelming and damning: Surveillance cameras at multiple locations showed Ernesto Reyes as he stalked his victim, Melanie Goodwin, and then coldly went about the grisly work of disposing of her body. But for the defense, the 90 minutes that Reyes was not on tape provided critical room for reasonable doubt.
Fearing a blistering cross examination, Reyes' attorneys did not allow him to testify in front of the jury. Instead, they relied on a Spanish-language TV interview that was shown in court that in effect let Reyes tell his tale without a prosecutor to challenge him directly.
Reyes' defense was a standard case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He claimed that his friend, Donovan Young, was the actual killer.
"I never wanted to be a killer. I was just there in the wrong place, hanging with the wrong people," he said in the interview.
A key witness at the trial, Young admitted that Reyes came to his apartment about 3 a.m. on the night of Melanie Goodwin's murder. Shockingly, Young also testified that Reyes led him to the parking lot and showed him Goodwin's body, her underwear slightly pulled down, in the back seat of the red Saturn.
"I seen her eyes were open. When I looked in the back seat. He said he killed someone. It looked like a dead person," he told the jury.
Unfazed at the site of Goodwin's lifeless body, Young did not stop to call the police or get assistance. Instead, he helped Reyes cover up the gruesome crime, lending him money and a gas can before returning to sleep in his apartment. "He said he needed some gas, he said he needed a few dollars," Young told the jury.
Young's cold-hearted testimony left an opening for Reyes and his attorneys, who saw this unsympathetic character as their scapegoat.
Click HERE for a slide show of Melanie Goodwin's life.
Reyes Gives Account of Goodwin's Death
While Reyes did admit to following Goodwin at the convenience store, his account of what happened in her car contrasted starkly with that of the prosecution.
"I asked for a ride, and she said to me, 'Where are you going?' And I told her, 'To my friend's house.' And she said, 'Yes.'"
According to Reyes, Goodwin approach him and asked for drugs. Reyes said he instructed her to drive to Young's house. He got in the back seat while Goodwin and Young sat in the front seat sharing marijuana and pills.
At this point, Reyes claimed that things turned ugly, but provided scant details in his interview.
"I don't know how it happened, the fight, I didn't know if he was hitting her or messing with her. Then I started getting scared. You could see that she was not OK and then I asked, 'What happened?' And then when I said, 'I am going to leave,' this guy pulled a gun on me, a black pistol. I am not guilty, this guy is the one who killed her," he claimed.
Reyes did admit that he disposed of Goodwin's body, dragging it from her car then setting it ablaze. Again, he pinned the blame on Young.
"He said to me, 'Put gasoline on her,' and I said to him, 'No.' And he told me laughing, laughing, 'You do it, you do it.' So I did it," Reyes testified, also claiming that Young threatened him with a gun.
In chilling fashion, Reyes proceeded to describe his version of Goodwin's death. "Hitting her, just hitting her, and I believe choking her, because when I was high on drugs, he was holding her, grabbing her."
For Goodwin's grieving family, having their daughter's name dragged through the mud by the defense was salt in their still-open wounds.
"For them to imply that she would just go in and pick up somebody, that is so absurd and it hurts so bad that they would even have the nerve to imply that about my daughter. The anger I had was like a mother bear with her claws out," Melanie's mother, Peggy Goodwin, told "Primetime."
For the jury, the story of a drug-crazy young woman, eager for sex with a complete stranger was already implausible, but the dubious story had numerous other holes. First, the medical examiner didn't find a single trace of drugs in Goodwin's system. Second, Goodwin was in a deeply committed relationship with a man she wanted to marry, Ale Valencia.
Surveillance Footage Shows Suspect Dump Body, Set It Afire
Also, despite Reyes' claim that Young was the mastermind behind the murder and that he forced Reyes to dispose of the body, Young didn't appear in a single frame of surveillance footage -- not even in the clearly visible backseat of the car as Reyes lit Goodwin's body ablaze.
Yet another hole in Reyes' story came from the victim herself in the form of a single trace of DNA. Although most of the crime scene evidence was destroyed, one critical piece of genetic material tying Reyes to the attack did not burn.
"The DNA evidence that we were able to get was from the vaginal smear. We were not able to get DNA necessarily from her clothes or from her hands. The fire had done a pretty good job, but it did not get that DNA," recalls Dallas County Prosecutor Andrea Handley.
The issue of consent was crucial to both sides in the trial. On one hand, the defense tried to convince the jury that this girl, in a committed and happy relationship, had willingly had sex with Reyes. Goodwin did not have any DNA under her fingernails, as do many rape victims who try to fend off their attackers by scratching or clawing at them.
The prosecution did not take this argument lying down. "It was important for me ... to be able to show that everything he said about her willingly getting in the backseat of her car is complete and utter nonsense. Not her. Maybe somebody. Not Melanie Goodwin," said Handley. "I had to prove it was not consensual sex."
Melanie's mother, Peggy, also took the stand in order to explain the apparent lack of a struggle. "She was so tiny that when her brother would wrestle with her and tickle her, he would hold both of her wrists in one hand," said Goodwin.
For Handley, Goodwin's testimony solidified their case against Reyes.
"That he was able to take hold of both her wrists and attack her that way ... she didn't have the opportunity to scratch anybody's eyes out. That's why she didn't have DNA under her nails. He held both of her wrists in his hand, while he beat her!" she told "Primetime."
Grieving Mom Embraces Killer's Family
The jury took three hours to reach a unanimous verdict: Ernesto Reyes was guilty of capital murder. Reyes was sentenced to life in prison, and is currently appealing the conviction. He has never admitted to the murder or apologized to Goodwin's family. Young was sentenced to eight years in prison for tampering with evidence.
Despite Reyes' obstinacy, the Goodwin family bears no ill will towards Reyes' family, only the most human kind of sympathy. On the last day of the trial, a small amount of peace was made: Peggy Goodwin reached out and embraced Ernesto Reyes' mother.
"I noticed when they showed the fire video that she was crying in the distance and I thought she finally realized he's been lying to her. So I guess my heart just reached out to her as a woman who had realized her son was this monster. And so we just walked over to her. And we just hugged each other. And she kept saying she was sorry," Goodwin explained to "Primetime."
Melanie's family is determined that good will continue to come from this unthinkable tragedy, starting a scholarship fund for young actors in their daughter's name. Although she was taken in a brutal and senseless fashion, they are determined to keep her memory alive.
"In 19 years, she became an incredible young lady who touched a lot of people and made a very positive impact on a lot of people. We'll never know how big that impact would have grown and what a difference she would have made if given the opportunity," said Peggy Goodwin.
To learn more about Melanie's life or to make a donation to the scholarship fund, click here.