More heated testimony as Mission election contest rolls on

EDINBURG — Judge J. Bonner Dorsey at one point called Tuesday’s court proceedings “absolutely crazy” as the attorneys for Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña and former Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas continuously interrupted and argued with one other during the second day of testimony in the Mission election contest.

The proceedings trudged along with the testimony of each witness peppered with objections and bickering between the two parties.

The first witness called by Ricardo “Rick” Salinas, representing his father Beto Salinas, was Samuel Deckard, who on Monday was undecided on whether he wanted to testify after the judge warned him that testifying to committing a crime could later be used against him. On Tuesday morning, however, he was certain he wanted to proceed.

After objections from Gilberto Hinojosa, the attorney for O’Caña, the judge allowed Decker to testify about messages he received from a man named Benji Tijerina who allegedly offered him and his family money to vote during the May elections and the June runoff elections.

Deckard described how he was driven to a polling place where he was instructed to request assistance. He said he continued to be coached on who to vote for and that he understood that he wouldn’t get paid if he didn’t vote for O’Caña.

When it came time for Hinojosa to cross examine Deckard, the attorney questioned him on his drug use and criminal history.

Salinas’ immediately objected to the questions but the judge allowed Hinojosa to continue. Upon questioning, Deckard said he had been convicted of burglary of a habitation twice, possession of marijuana and possession of a controlled substance.

Hinojosa also asked Deckard why he came forward about being paid for his votes to which Deckard said he felt it wasn’t right. However, Hinojosa noted Deckard essentially asked to be paid more money in the runoff than in the May election

“So the first time that you took the money to go vote as you allege you did, you didn’t feel guilty about it, right?” Hinojosa said, “because you wanted them to pay you more the second time around.”

In response to Hinojosa, Deckard testified that his father worked for the Salinas campaign and it was after talking to his father that he decided to reach out to Salinas about getting paid to vote.

Following the afternoon recess, Salinas called a women named Miriam Gonzalez who said she and her husband accepted money in exchange for votes for O’Caña. She also said her in-laws told her they had been paid for their votes too.

When Hinojosa questioned her, he suggested she had previously made a statement that she did not accept the money but Gonzalez denied that.

But then Hinojosa began to question her mental state, asking if she was aware of someone saying she had mental problems. Gonzalez, and the judge himself, were visibly surprised by the question to which Salinas immediately objected.

“Did they tell you that they believe there’s something wrong with you mentally?” Hinojosa asked.

“No,” she said with a nervous laugh. “What?”

Hinojosa pressed on, asking her if she was bipolar or schizophrenic. She said no.

Soon after the judge stopped the line of questioning, Gonzalez was excused.

The next witness was a woman, Carmen Ochoa, who testified about meeting Esmeralda Lara, a woman whose name came up during the first day of testimony as having delivered an absentee on behalf of another voter.

Ochoa said she ran into Lara at an assisted-living apartment complex for elderly people where Ochoa was heading to the office to pay her uncle’s rent. It was there, Ochoa said, that she saw Lara carrying a stack of ballots.

She estimated that Lara was carrying about 200 ballots, but in a previous statement she had written that she saw Lara with about 20 to 40 ballots.

Ochoa held out her hands to show the height of the stack of ballots she alleged Lara was carrying that day. Rick Salinas obtained a ruler and measured it was about a 5.5-inch stack.

However, her written statement resulted in other questions as Hinojosa appeared skeptical that Ochoa had written it herself. The statement was written entirely in English yet Ochoa was testifying with the help of a Spanish interpreter.

Hinojosa even read parts of her statement back to her but Ochoa was unable to fully understand. She told Hinojosa that she had written the statement with the help of a dictionary.

A prior written statement was also a major issue with the next witness, Emeterio Gutierrez, 82, who testified that Lara came to his house, asked him to sign a ballot and then took the ballot with her.

He testified that he didn’t get a chance to fill out the ballot because Lara simply told him to sign his name.

However, in his written statement, Gutierrez said he had wanted to vote for Beto Salinas and that he had selected Salinas on the ballot. When asked about the discrepancy, Gutierrez said he was referring to a previous election.

“I think we have a very clear conflict in what the witness has testified to and (the) statement that he’s given under oath,” the judge said. “There’s no question about that and I don’t see any reason to explore it any more.”

The last witness on Tuesday was Victoria Salinas who said two women came to her home and told her to call them once she and her husband received their absentee ballots in the mail.

When the ballots came in, she said her daughter called the women who returned to her house a few days later.

She testified that she filled out her ballot when the women were there and then gave it to them. She said she wasn’t certain if the envelopes containing the ballots were sealed when the women took them.