By Elizabeth Howard & Kortney Williams
Senior Assistant District Attorneys in Ector County
“I never thought anyone would believe me.” As Amanda Luna cried and shook in the back of the courtroom following her ex-husband’s conviction for capital murder and aggravated assault, she just kept repeating that sentence: “I never thought anyone would believe me.” But they did believe her. We believed her. As the two of us sat next to Amanda, we thought about all the months of preparation that led us to this point and the importance of the experts that allowed us to obtain justice in this case.
Amanda and Joel Luna were married for about 18 years. They met as teenagers in East Texas, and from the beginning their relationship was volatile. Starting when Amanda was pregnant with their first child, Joel was physically and emotionally abusive and often had affairs with other women. During a fight, Joel’s go-to move was to strangle Amanda to get her to be quiet. Amanda, like many domestic violence victims, learned to walk on eggshells around her husband and to try to keep him happy. In 2016, after moving from East Texas to South Texas, the family moved to Odessa. At first, things were relatively peaceful, but in January 2018 everything changed.
Amanda had lost contact with her family, as Joel cut her off from them to exert control over her. However, that January Amanda decided to take her children back to East Texas to visit her sister for a few weeks. What should have been a joyous family reunion instead revealed betrayal, as Amanda’s sister proudly told Amanda that she had been having an affair with Joel since they were both teenagers. Amanda confronted Joel about the affair, and he confirmed it—and callously brushed it off.
At that moment, for the first time in their relationship, Amanda decided she was finished with Joel forever. She asked for a divorce and began a relationship with someone new. However, over the next few months, family and friends would tell her that she “needed to do everything she could to keep her family together.” In late April 2018, after Joel’s continual pleas, Amanda decided to move with her children back to Odessa to be with him, but before she did, she informed Joel that she believed she was pregnant and that the child was not his. He assured her that they would make it work and to come home.
After Amanda and the children arrived in Odessa, the family spent time together going shopping and out to eat, and life seemed relatively stable. One night, as Amanda and Joel were eating dinner out, Joel told Amanda he wished he could have both her and the girlfriend who had been living with him while Amanda was away. At that, Amanda left the restaurant and walked home.
On Sunday, April 29, Amanda took a pregnancy test and confirmed her pregnancy to Joel. He stated that he wasn’t going to raise another man’s child, making it clear that she would have to have an abortion if she wanted to stay married. That night Joel and Amanda went out in an attempt at normalcy. While watching Joel at a local strip club, Amanda decided that she could not move past his affairs or his treatment of her, and she said she wanted to leave. Both intoxicated, they drove home arguing and arrived sometime around midnight. Amanda walked into the house first and locked Joel out, telling him to leave. She instructed her 14-year-old daughter, Nicole, to keep the door locked and not allow Joel inside, but Joel came in through a bedroom window. Amanda told the children—Nicole, Josh (age 15), and April (5), to pack their belongings immediately and prepare to leave. Joel told her that she was not “fucking taking his kids” and pinned her to a wall. Amanda got away and began throwing things at an advancing Joel. During the next few minutes Joel chased Amanda around the house and strangled her twice on their bed, on one occasion causing her to black out, which Nicole witnessed. The fight ended in the living room with Amanda on the ground and Joel on top of her. Joel put his knee in the center of Amanda’s stomach and repeatedly yelled that he was going to “fucking kill that baby.” Joel continued to drive his knee into Amanda’s stomach until Amanda heard a popping noise and was unable to breathe. Joel got off of her and dragged her to their bedroom. Amanda called out for Nicole to call 911, but Joel took her phone away and told her to go to sleep. For the next 36 hours Amanda lay in excruciating pain in her bedroom while Joel refused to allow anyone to call for help.
Joel finally left for work on Tuesday morning, and Nicole was finally able to call 911. When Amanda arrived at the hospital, Nurse Practitioner Chris Ackerman noticed that something was very wrong with her and ordered tests immediately. These tests confirmed that Amanda was between five and six weeks pregnant, that her unborn child was alive, and that there was a serious injury to Amanda’s pancreas. She was rushed into surgery where Dr. Richard Ellison saved her life. Amanda told both NP Ackerman and Dr. Ellison exactly what happened to her: that Joel strangled her, put his knee in her stomach, and yelled that he was going to kill her baby.
Amanda was hospitalized for six weeks and underwent a number of other procedures as a result of her injuries. While at the hospital, Amanda gave statements about the assault to both medical professionals and the police department. Ultimately, Amanda suffered a “traumatic miscarriage” and lost her child.
The charging decision
When our office first received this case, there was no doubt that Joel Luna had committed aggravated assault. But could we charge him with the murder of Amanda’s unborn child if she was at only five weeks’ gestation? Yes. Texas Penal Code §19.03 states that a person commits the offense of capital murder if the person intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual and the person murders an individual under 10 years of age. The Texas Penal Code further defines an individual as “a human being who is alive, including an unborn child at every stage of gestation from fertilization until birth” in §1.07(26).
The next question was, could we prove it at trial? That was a much larger issue. Because Amanda’s pregnancy was only five to six weeks along, proving that Joel actually did cause the death of her child would be difficult. However, Dr. Ellison left us a voicemail where he explained that Amanda’s injuries most likely did cause the child’s death, but he would not definitively say so on the witness stand. With that, we felt like we had enough to at least submit the case to a grand jury. We presented both charges to a grand jury and secured two signed indictments, one for aggravated assault (of Amanda) and one for capital murder (of her unborn child).
For three years, through multiple defense attorneys and a pandemic, Joel Luna sat in the Ector County Jail. For about the first six months after his arrest, Amanda continued to have contact with him via phone, mail, and regular visits. But with the passage of time, physical separation, and new friends who helped Amanda realize the extent of Joel’s abuse, she finally broke off their relationship permanently in January 2019. Joel quickly rebuffed all plea negotiations, though one of his defense attorneys generously offered to have us dismiss the capital murder charge and then he would let us try the aggravated assault (insert eye roll here). We proceeded to prepare for a trial in the summer of 2021.
The first time we met Amanda in person, she was extremely shy and a little shell-shocked. She was terrified of Joel and, understandably, did not really want to testify against him. At one point during our initial interview, we asked if she had any questions for us, and her only question was, “ls it my fault that he did this to me?” The amount of manipulation that Joel put Amanda through was evident in that one question.
We met with Amanda and her daughter Nicole on multiple occasions leading up to trial, and each time we were struck by their strength one moment and their complete insecurity the next. Initially, Amanda would not allow law enforcement or the DA’s Office speak to her children. However, after our initial pretrial meeting with her, she informed us that Nicole was ready to talk about what she had witnessed. Nicole was understandably angry at her father and was firmly in support of her mother, and she recognized that what her dad had done was wrong. Partially because of the trauma of witnessing her father almost kill her mother and partially because it had been more than two years since the offenses occurred, it took multiple meetings with Nicole for her to remember everything that happened that night. While Nicole remembered many events clearly, there were several gaps in her timeline. Nicole was, however, able to clearly recall the majority of what she witnessed.
We reached out to several doctors to see if we could find an obstetrician or gynecologist willing to more firmly testify about the cause of death for Amanda’s unborn child. Each time, we met with resistance to say much because Amanda had been only five or six weeks pregnant at the time. The doctors we spoke to explained that prior to about 12 weeks of pregnancy, it was difficult to distinguish between a miscarriage and what we believed was murder.
However, both the doctor and the nurse practitioner who saved Amanda’s life in the hospital were much more confident when we spoke to them, stating that Amanda was pregnant when she arrived at the hospital, that it was a viable pregnancy, and that the combination of injuries, surgery, and medications had a catastrophic impact on the unborn baby, resulting it what they referred to as a “traumatic miscarriage.” After many hours of speaking to Dr. Ellison on the phone and in person and hearing him describe the effects of these interventions—Amanda’s myriad injuries, the surgery to save her life, and the medications prescribed to her—on her unborn child, we felt confident that Dr. Ellison could show that jury that Joel caused the child’s death beyond a reasonable doubt.
As we got closer to the trial date, we also decided that it would be vitally important to consult and call a domestic violence expert. We reached out to Safe Place of the Permian Basin, our local women’s shelter, and Judy Drury, an incredibly gifted counselor, who has worked with victims of domestic violence for more than 20 years. She was more than willing to testify as an expert at trial.
We began jury selection on November 15, 2021, with the understanding that we needed a jury of people who could understand the dynamics of domestic violence relationships, follow the law regarding the Penal Code’s definition of an individual, be able to convict someone of capital murder even if that murder was of an unborn child, and conceive of a scenario where jurors could assess someone probation for the offense of first-degree aggravated assault (surprisingly, Joel did not have any prior criminal history, so he was probation-eligible).
We concentrated on committing everyone to the definition of “individual” including an unborn child at two minutes, two weeks, or two months of gestation and surprisingly did not have a single juror balk at this definition. We also had to ensure that the jury understood that Joel’s hands, feet, and knee could be considered deadly weapons, which we did by presenting them with photos of different implements (a pillow, a foot, a bat, etc.) to get them talking. We discussed the “manner of its use” part of the deadly weapon definition. Getting them to understand and agree with the range of punishment however, especially regarding probation, was slightly more difficult, and we lost a few favorable jurors to the defense lawyer’s questions, but eventually we felt confident we had been able to keep enough of them to see that justice was done in this case.
Our strategy with regard to witnesses was first to protect Amanda as much as possible, as she was terrified to even be in the same room as Joel. Prior to calling her as a witness, we called Judy Drury, our domestic violence expert. Judy testified about the cycle of violence, the power and control in domestic violence relationships, and the strategies perpetrators use to manipulate their victims. She explained to the jury why victims often stay with or return to their abusers, why they often conceal the abuse or defend their abusers, and the coping mechanisms that victims use when talking about their abuse. Judy said that the most dangerous time for a woman in a domestic violence relationship is when she tries to leave.
This testimony was absolutely critical because, although she knew almost nothing about the case and had never met Amanda, almost everything Judy testified about was mirrored in Amanda’s testimony. In fact, we could see the jury react when Amanda later testified about something that sounded like what Judy had said about domestic violence. For example, Amanda talked about how she blamed herself for the abuse Joel inflicted on her throughout their marriage, her repeatedly reconciling with him (even after he was arrested), and how Joel kept her isolated from friends and family. Judy Drury had explained all of these things prior to Amanda’s testimony, teaching the jury about domestic violence relationships before Amanda said a word on the stand. In this way, we kept the jurors from discounting Amanda and the severity of the abuse.
Following Judy’s testimony, we called Amanda to testify. She had a panic attack outside the courtroom, and it took both of us going out into the hallway, reassuring her that Joel could no longer hurt her, that we believed her, and that she was strong enough to testify, to get her to the witness stand. Once she got on the stand, she was a rock star. She recounted the horrifying events in incredible detail. Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 38.371 allowed us to present not only the abuse from April 29, 2018, but also the 18 years of abuse Joel had committed against her. She bravely withstood cross-examination from an excellent defense attorney and stayed firm in the truth of what happened that night.
The last witness we put on was Dr. Richard Ellison, the surgeon who saved Amanda’s life the night she went to the emergency room. Dr. Ellison was vital to our case to explain how Amanda’s injury was life-threatening, as well as how Joel was ultimately responsible for the death of her unborn child. Dr. Ellison is a former military doctor who served two tours in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan as a combat surgeon, who was wounded several times in combat, and who left the military only when the building he was in blew up. Dr. Ellison is a no-nonsense surgeon, and he testified in a straightforward, blunt manner. Dr. Ellison first discussed Amanda’s injuries, explaining that her pancreas had basically been split in half by her backbone. A brief anatomy lesson: The pancreas is located in the middle of the torso, behind the intestines, liver, and lots of other organs. It is closer to the spine than the belly button. If a person were to press down on your bellybutton, your organs would shift out of the way to avoid trauma, similar to the way the filling in a beanbag chair shifts when you sit on it. The pancreas, however, can’t move out of the way.
Dr. Ellison explained that the force on Amanda’s stomach from Joel’s knee was so strong that essentially all of her other organs shifted out of the way and his knee pinned her pancreas against her spine, cutting it in half. Dr. Ellison, the combat surgeon, said that the only times he’d seen a pancreas injury anywhere close to Amanda’s was when someone had been blown up, stabbed, shot in the back, or in a car accident where the person broke his back and the broken back cut the pancreas. Dr. Ellison even stated that someone could have beaten Amanda with a baseball bat and not caused such severe injuries. Without the emergency surgery he performed, Amanda would have died. He testified that he was amazed she was still alive at all by the time she reached the hospital.
Regarding her unborn child, Dr. Ellison testified that the trauma alone would have catastrophic consequences on a fetus. He stated that the pancreas injury alone could have caused Amanda’s baby to die, but add to that the surgery, anesthesia, and medications she had to take for more than a month, and there was almost no possible way her child could have survived. Dr. Ellison also testified that Amanda’s baby was alive prior to the surgery and that she suffered a “traumatic miscarriage” almost certainly caused by her injuries and subsequent treatment. (Our favorite moment of the trial—other than the guilty verdict—was when Amanda got to meet and talk to the doctor who saved her life. She and Dr. Ellison hugged and bonded over their mutual love of motorcycles, and it will probably stand out as a highlight of both of our careers.)
The defendant’s testimony
After the doctor’s testimony, the State rested, and the defense called Joel Luna to the stand. He testified that Amanda was the aggressor that night and that he put his hands and knee on her only to restrain her. He said she had thrown a knife at his face, and magically the knife flew like a throwing star and the tip barely cut him on the forehead. He also testified that he never knew she was pregnant and only put his knee on her stomach to hold her down because she was hitting him, something Amanda and her daughter Nicole vehemently denied. Like many abusers, Joel attempted to gaslight Amanda: She was crazy, she was lying, he didn’t have an affair with her sister because he only slept with her once, she told him not to call an ambulance, and on and on it went.
Under cross-examination, Joel could not explain why he would put his knee directly into his wife’s stomach to hold her down. He admitted that he was not in fear for his life when he caused her nearly fatal injuries and killed her unborn child, and he kept insisting that he simply “assisted” Amanda to the ground. He could not explain why he never called 911 to get her some help and continually denied abusing her. The defense called no other witnesses and rested.
The guilty verdict
We argued to the jury that Joel absolutely knew that Amanda was pregnant—why else would he assault her in that manner?—and that he was guilty of capital murder. The jury agreed. They convicted Joel Luna of both capital murder, which resulted in an automatic life sentence without parole, and sentenced him to 36 years for the assault on Amanda.
The turning point in this trial was the testimony of Judy Drury and Dr. Ellison, who expertly explained both the personal suffering and the medical trauma that Amanda went through. Without them, and a team of help along the way, we never would have been able to see justice done for Amanda and her unborn child. We believed her, and the jury believed her, and now Joel Luna will spend the rest of his life behind bars where he belongs.