Starr County murder case faces dismissal over attorney’s fees

O. Rene Flores, right, is seen during a murder trial in the 332nd state District Court on Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Edinburg. Flores, who was appointed in November 2016 to represent a defendant in a Starr County murder trial, has yet to receive payment for his services and made an oral motion during a May 15 hearing to dismiss the case for violating his client’s right to effective assistance of counsel, according to court transcripts.

The case against Jesus Angel Rebollar, who’s charged with capital murder in the 2016 death of a Rio Grande City man and his 3-year-old son, is facing possible dismissal after Starr County officials indicated they cannot pay the defense attorney.

Defense attorney O. Rene Flores, who was appointed in November 2016 to represent Rebollar, has yet to receive payment for his services and made an oral motion during a May 15 hearing to dismiss the case for violating his client’s right to effective assistance of counsel, according to court transcripts.

Jesus Angel Rebollar, 18, was indicted on two charges of capital murder.

“They have now tortuously interfered with my attorney-client relationship with my client,” Flores said during the hearing, arguing for the dismissal.

Rebollar’s charges stem from the Nov. 6, 2016 shooting of Hector Garcia Jr., 41, and Julian Garcia, 3, who investigators with the Starr County Sheriff’s Office said were gunned down by several individuals in a truck. Rebollar is the only individual who has been arrested in connection with the shooting.

During the hearing, Flores referred to a letter sent from the lead prosecutor on the case, Assistant District Attorney Gilberto Hernandez-Solano, to the judge and the defense attorneys.

In the letter, Hernandez-Solano stated he spoke with both Starr County courts —the 229th and 381st state district courts — and determined the attorney’s fees would come out of their budgets.

“I have been informed that the county is (in) no position to cover these and the projected costs,” Hernandez-Solano wrote in the letter dated May 1. “It is my understanding the County of Starr intends to request that TRLA (Public Defender’s Office) be appointed to represent Jesus Rebollar.”

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera also sent an email that day to the state district judges of the those two courts.

“Recently a bill was tendered to the County of Starr for appointed legal services in excess of $35 Thousand,” Vera wrote in reference to Rebollar’s case.

“It is my understanding that this is only a partial bill and that several more bills of an undetermined and unlimited nature will follow,” Vera continued. “As the Chief Financial Officer of Starr County, I can represent to you that the County of Starr is not in a financial position to pay these legal costs. In fact, there is currently no budget for these charges.”

He further stated that the claims for legal services would likely be denied by the commissioners court and asked the judges to appoint the Starr County Regional Public Defender’s Office/Texas RioGrande Legal Aid to represent indigent defendants.

In this particular case, visiting state District Judge Jose Longoria noted Rebollar was the only one who can dismiss his attorney.

He also reminded the prosecutors he had continuously told them to notify people in the county that it was going to be an expensive case.

“And for the county to tell me that they’re not going to order — follow my orders and comply, I guarantee you that they’re going to,” Longoria said during the hearing. “Or they will be held in contempt of this court and fined on a daily basis if they don’t comply.”

The approximately $35,000 that is being billed to the county only amounts to the costs already incurred and is not the final sum to be paid to Flores or his co-counsel, Hector Hernandez, who was also appointed to the case.

Judge Longoria further ordered that an additional $150,000 be placed into a trust account for the court to disburse as it sees fit for further attorneys fees and further expert fees.

Assistant District Attorney Alexandria Barrera, who was also present at the May 15 hearing, indicated the Starr County commissioners would be meeting May 29 and make a decision on whether to approve payment to the defense attorneys.

Judge Longoria agreed to take the motion to dismiss under advisement pending the decision by the Starr County commissioners.

“At that time the judge is going to make a decision; if things don’t work out, consider very seriously dismissing the case,” Longoria said, adding that he would order Vera and District Attorney Omar Escobar to appear in court.

“By the 30th at 3:00 o’clock I want to know whether the county is going to comply with the order of placing $150,000 in a trust account, which will be a — for the Court to disburse payment out of that and make a full accounting to the county as to how and where the monies are going,” Longoria said.

Escobar, however, said Wednesday that the county was waiting for a written order from the court and there were currently for the commissioners to meet on May 29, after all.

“We have requested a written order from the court and he hasn’t tendered a written order,” Escobar said. “I want those written orders, I want to see if he’s really going to put them in writing.”

Flores, however, said he fully expects the judge to enter written orders soon.

“If Mr. Escobar is waiting for a ‘formal, written order’ from the court, I suspect he’ll be getting a copy of it very soon,” Flores said.

The district attorney said the judge’s threat to dismiss the case if the county didn’t pay was “highly improper” and doing so would be unprecedented.

“That has never happened in the state of Texas, ever,” Escobar said. “There would be no authority to do that.”

Flores, however, reiterated that the situation was a violation of his client’s right to counsel.

“It is unfortunate for Jesus Angel Rebollar to be confronted with these violations of his rights,” Flores said. “It is more unfortunate that our system of justice grew to these lengths to validate and recognize that an accused is innocent unless proven guilty and entitled to a defense.”

“Once in a while someone has to fight back,” he added.

Vera, the Starr County judge, said the issue was not necessarily that the county could not pay but that it has a public defender grant funded by the county and the state equally.

“What I have been told is that they do have a public defender who is certified to defend a capital murder charge,” Vera said of the Starr County TRLA office. “That being the case, our thing is well then the public defender should be the one leading that, not us.”

Vera added, “We’re just trying to save taxpayers’ money since we have that other option.”

It’s unclear why the public defender’s office was not appointed to defend Rebollar.

However, given that Flores can only be dismissed by his client or the judge, it does not appear that simply replacing Flores with the public defender’s office is a viable option at this point.

The problem remains that the money for the case was not budgeted, according to Vera, and the question of whether the county could pay is still up in the air.

“I would have to go back in the budget and see what is there and what’s available,” Vera said. “So I can’t answer if we can or we cannot.”

As for what action the county commissioners will take on the matter, he said they will follow the advisement of the county’s legal counsel being the county attorney and the district attorney.

“If they say we need to pay, then I guess we’ll look for the money,” Vera said.

The story has been updated to reflect the defense co-counsel is Hector Hernandez.

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