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Brownwood man guilty of murdering neighbor, sentenced to life in prison

Michael John Zarate

BROWNWOOD, Texas - UPDATE: Michael Zarate was sentenced to life in prison Thursday evening after being found guilty of murdering Ernesto Gonzales, Jr. in 2014.

According to 35the Judicial District Attorney Micheal Murray, Zarate will be eligible for parole after he serves a third of his sentence.

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A Brown County jury on Friday found 34-year-old Michael John Zarate guilty of murder and tampering/fabricating evidence in connection with the November 2014 shooting death of his neighbor Ernesto Gonzales Jr.

Prosecutors are seeking the maximum sentence of life for Zarate.

The punishment phase was scheduled to begin after a short recess. The court then planned to break at noon until 1 p.m.

Prosecutors say they have hours of evidence to present during the punishment phase, while the defense says it has less than an hour of evidence.

KTXS will provide additional details as they become available.

Previous story:

The daughter of a Brownwood man murdered three years ago says she forgives the accused killer.

Michael John Zarate, 34, is on trial in the 35th Judicial District Court for murder and tampering/fabricating with evidence for the death of his neighbor, Ernesto Gonzales Jr. on Nov. 2, 2014.

Vanessa Gonzales is Ernesto's eldest daughter. She spoke with KTXS on Thursday of how she first learned of his death.

"The first person I called was my dad, and he didn't answer," she said visibly shaken. "When he didn't answer, I kind of had a feeling that maybe it's true. But I didn't want to believe it until I saw it myself."

She said she spoke with Zarate's sister this week and told her God has given her the strength to forgive Zarate.

"I just want you to know, I don't hate your brother. I don't hate you," Vanessa said she told her.

Prosecutors and the defense rested their cases Thursday and will present their closing arguments at 9 a.m. Friday.

On Thursday two lead investigators testified that all the evidence indicates the defendant killed his neighbor.

Police found Gonzales's body in alley in front of his home on the 1300 block of Brady Avenue.

Zarate's ex-girlfriend Crystal Newingham testified in court Wednesday that she witnessed him shoot Gonzales.

In jailhouse calls played in court between Zarate and his mom, he doesn't deny killing Gonzales when asked.

Texas Ranger Jason Shea assisted the Brownwood Police Department in their homicide investigation. He took the stand on Thursday.

He said Zarate tried distancing himself from both the weapon and Gonzales when officers interviewed him two days after the alleged murder.

Shea told the court, based on the overall investigation, he believes Zarate murdered Gonzales.

The defense called only one witness to the stand Thursday: Zarate's mother.

Victoria Allison testified in court saying she doesn't believe her son did it. Zarate chose not to take the stand.

Allison told KTXS in the courthouse lobby that she doesn't believe her son would shoot another person.

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