24-year-old man pleas and is given eight-year sentence

Christopher Maher, Alice Echo-News Journal

SAN DIEGO- A plea agreement was reached in the case of Eric Lee Leal, 24, in Duval County Tuesday, just minutes before opening arguments were scheduled to begin in the trial.

A jury was selected Monday in the trial of Leal, a Freer native who was charged with possession of cocaine in a May 6, 2006 arrest. That jury returned to the court Tuesday to begin hearing opening arguments in the case, but jurors were informed a plea agreement had been reached.

According to the district attorney's office, under the terms of the agreement Leal pleaded guilty to the possession of cocaine charge and the prosecution recommended a sentence of eight years in the Texas Department of Corrections. In return for his cooperation, three other pending cases for drug-related offenses against Leal will be included in the agreement, and the prosecution agreed not to pursue charges against two co-defendants arrested with Leal in an August incident.

If convicted at trial, Leal's range of punishment would have been between two and 20 years, officials said.

Prosecutor Jon West thanked the jury for their service Tuesday, and shook Leal's hand in front of the jurors.

"I'm going to pay Eric a compliment," West said. "It's good of him to stand up and admit what he did. I have nothing against him."

Leal will officially be sentenced during a hearing on Nov. 14.

Tuesday's plea agreement was the third Duval County case in the past few months to result in prison time for drug-related offenses, West said following the trial.

In May, Ricardo Tanguma, 36, of San Diego, pleaded guilty to a possession of cocaine charge in connection with a Jan. 7, 2006 arrest. During a hearing Monday, Tanguma was sentenced to five years in the Texas Department of Corrections.

In a third case, Blenda Villarreal, 27, of Benavides pleaded guilty to charges of possession of cocaine in connection with a Feb. 22 arrest. Villarreal entered her guilty plea on Aug. 7 and is currently awaiting a sentencing hearing.

On Tuesday, West said the guilty pleas were an indication that the district attorney's office is aggressively pursuing drug-cases in Duval County.

"We are convicting people on drug offenses and sending them to the penitentiary," West said. "We've got to make a statement to kids that this is not the path that they should choose."