Re-Hanging the Judge
If Judge Lupe Salinas emerges unindicted from his extended engagement with the criminal justice system, it won't be for lack of trying on the part of the Harris County District Attorney's office.
Having chewed through three grand juries in their pursuit of sustainable indictments against Salinas on perjury allegations, prosecutors are now preparing to take their case to a fourth grand jury. District Attorney Johnny Holmes says he has the right to continue trying to obtain indictments against the state district judge "till hell freezes over." But two members of the last grand jury to consider the allegations say the only injustices they saw in the Salinas case were perpetrated by the D.A.'s office.
Lawyer Yolanda Villarreal Ryan, one of the grand jurors who mulled the Salinas case over the last month and no-billed (that is, cleared) the judge on one of the charges prosecutors have tried to pin on him, flatly questions the district attorney's motivation for continuing to target Salinas.
"Why would anyone want to subject someone like that to this if it weren't for political reasons?" she says. "With all of the criminals out there on the street, with the limited resources that are available to all public entities, including the D.A.'s office, why would they want to waste their resources and our time and energy to indict a man like that?"
"It was a political deal, no doubt about it," adds another grand juror, who requested anonymity for this story. "And there were a lot of other grand jurors who felt the same way. They're trying to crucify this poor guy in an issue involving a little over $200."
Salinas' problems started last year shortly after he was recommended to the Clinton administration for nomination to a federal judgeship ("Hanging the Judge," the Houston Press, December 8). Initially acting on information supplied by a disgruntled former court coordinator of Salinas' who had been told she wouldn't be accompanying him to the federal courthouse, assistant district attorney Don Stricklin has since conducted three separate probes of the judge focusing on minor discrepancies in his campaign reports. Some of Salinas' defenders have contended all along that prosecutors are pursuing a vendetta against the judge for a ruling he made against the D.A.'s office more than five years ago.
The first grand jury to scrutinize the case returned two misdemeanor perjury indictments against Salinas. A second grand jury no-billed the judge on felony perjury charges requested by Stricklin based on statements Salinas made to the first grand jury. But the indictments returned by the first grand jury were dismissed after it was determined that some members of that panel had been improperly chosen, and Stricklin presented the case to a third grand jury. In the meantime Salinas' name was withdrawn from consideration for the federal bench.
The third grand jury no-billed Salinas on one of the two original misdemeanor counts, one that involved the judge's claiming of a $400 reimbursement to him from his campaign account when the amount he was owed was actually less.
After it became apparent the grand jury also was likely to exonerate the judge on the remaining accusations, several members who favored an indictment of Salinas stopped coming to the panel's sessions, according to the grand jurors critical of the D.A.'s office.
As a result, even though there were more than the required nine members present at its sessions during the final two weeks of the grand jury's term, Stricklin stopped presenting his case -- in effect taking his ball and skipping home.
Yolanda Ryan says the grand jurors initially were given an itinerary specifying the charges they would hear and the evidence that would be presented. The understanding was that the issues would then be brought to a vote, she says.
"One day one grand juror didn't attend the session and asked that the vote be delayed until he returned. That day nothing was presented," says Ryan. "Then he returned on Monday and two other members were absent, but we weren't given an explanation as to why we weren't hearing the case." Ryan says the jurors still expected to vote on the cases.
"Then on the last day, the same juror was absent, and we were told that because all the grand jurors were not there, they would not present the case for a vote. It was ridiculous. We had heard so much already. We had been given enough evidence [to make a decision]."
Holmes says the grand jury only heard evidence related to the $400 reimbursement because the statute of limitations on that accusation was about to expire. "Don quit going to it after they had some recalcitrant grand jurors who weren't posting," he says. "They did not have a full complement, so they didn't get to hear it all."
The juror who requested anonymity takes issue with Holmes' account.
"We felt Stricklin had presented the case from A to Z. I'm sure he felt he was into a losing situation. I am almost 100 percent positive that Salinas would have been no-billed and Stricklin used [the absences] as an excuse that he could not finish presenting his case unless all 12 jurors were there."
Holmes agrees the case could have been heard by fewer grand jurors -- if Stricklin had been so inclined (the assistant D.A. did not return calls from the Press.). "We could have," Holmes acknowledges, "but Don said, 'I'm just not going to let these issues be decided on less than a full complement.'"
Ryan's collleague suspects that the prosecutors and grand jurors favoring indictments cooperated in tanking the panel.
"I think it was a staged thing," says the juror, "because two of the jurors all of a sudden in the last few days were involved in accidents and didn't show up. And one day one of the grand jurors was so stressed out she couldn't make it. I have an idea that it was pre-planned because they were the ones doing see-saw battles back and forth with Yolanda, who was outspoken on the issues 'cause she knew the law, and the rest of us didn't really know the law that much." (At least one of the missing grand jurors, however, was actually hospitalized during the period she was absent.)
Ryan says that once she and others began asking independent questions about the Salinas case, the grand jury's deliberations turned ugly.
"Prior to this case, many of the grand jurors would come up to me after a session and say, 'Thank you for articulating that position.' They would compliment me on the things that I would say or the insight I would bring to the table."
But as the Salinas case unfolded, the discussion developed a racial edge, Ryan says.
"Those things included comments that I favored Lupe Salinas because I was a Mexican. I am Mexican-American and I'm very proud of it. But I do not know Lupe Salinas and don't think I've ever met him."
A commercial law attorney who practices with her husband in a west Houston firm, Ryan contends that the D.A.'s attempts to find a compliant grand jury have made a farce of the system.
"The D.A. has given this institution of the grand jury the appearance of being nothing more than a kangaroo court," she says. "If you don't rubber stamp, then the case will be yanked from you and will be moved to another grand jury that will rubber stamp. That's not justice."
Ryan says she's considering compiling a report for submission to Texas Attorney General Dan Morales alleging that the D.A.'s office misused the grand jury system.
"I took my duty as a grand juror very seriously," she says. "I did extensive research on the responsibilities of a grand juror, what the powers are. Part of that is an investigative role. My investigation leads me to believe an injustice has been committed here ...."
Holmes says that even if his office were shopping for a rubber-stamp grand jury (and he's not acknowledging it is), "We still have the right to do that. There's no jeopardy in a grand jury presentation. And if they no-bill, we can present it to another."
And to hear the district attorney tell it, he's just looking out for Salinas' rights, trying to resolve the questions about the judge's conduct that resulted in the since-dismissed indictments.
Although he apparently has lost his shot at a federal judgeship, Salinas, after a temporary suspension, has been restored to his state criminal court bench by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. He now is the only Hispanic to hold a state district court judgeship in Harris County. But that status is tenuous, and Salinas wonders how much more he'll have to endure and why the questions couldn't have been resolved by the last grand jury.
"Enough is enough," he says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.