Starr County assures payment for defense in capital murder case

EDINBURG — Starr County will pay the defense costs for Jesus Angel Rebollar, the man charged in the 2016 deaths of a Rio Grande City man and his 3-year-old son.

Visiting state District Judge Jose Longoria ordered the county pay $35,000 that has been currently billed to them in attorney’s and experts’ fees no later than June 3, and further ordered that an additional $150,000 be deposited into a trust by June 10. Those funds will be dispersed by the court to pay future fees.

Longoria made the order at the conclusion of a status hearing Thursday during which Starr County Judge Eloy Vera was called to testify by O. Rene Flores, Rebollar’s defense attorney.

Vera testified during the hearing that the county would be willing to pay the costs.

Rebollar is charged with capital murder stemming from the 2016 shooting of Hector Garcia Jr. and his 3-year-old son.

Flores was appointed to represent Rebollar in November 2016 and submitted a bill to the county for those two-and-half years of work in April.

However, in a letter to the two district court judges in Starr County, Vera wrote the county was not “in a financial position to pay these legal costs” and urged them to appoint the Starr County Regional Public Defender’s Office — an office of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid — for indigent defendants because they cannot afford to pay for their own attorney.

During a May 15 hearing, Flores submitted an oral motion requesting the entire case be dismissed if the county did not pay the fees, arguing the refusal to pay created a conflict of interest that pitted Rebollar’s right to a defense against Flores’ own financial interest.

Following that May 15 hearing, Longoria issued the order to have Starr County pay the $35,000 and place $150,000 in a trust by Thursday.

The judge also ordered Vera and 229th District Attorney Omar Escobar to appear in court Thursday as well.

In support of his request for the additional $150,000, Flores cited a March report published in The Monitor about Vera’s State of the County address. During his speech, Vera stated the county had $750,000 in a rainy-day fund.

The county, however, did not make the ordered payment, and during Thursday’s hearing, Flores questioned Vera over why the county did not meet the deadline.

Vera testified that the Starr County Commissioners Court, which is the governing body that would have to approve the payment, held off on addressing the issue during a meeting because 229th District Attorney Omar Escobar informed him that the order was pending another motion — one to recuse Longoria from the case.

That motion was the subject of a hearing on Wednesday and was denied by 370th District Judge Noe Gonzalez.

With Judge Longoria continuing to preside over the case, Vera complied with his order to appear in court Thursday, during which he fielded questions about the county’s finances.

Flores asked Vera about the letter he wrote to the district court judges in which he requested the public defender’s office be appointed for indigent cases, leading Vera to explain the difference between the public defender’s office and private attorneys who are court-appointed to represent indigent clients.

The county has a public defender grant that is partly funded by the state, which manages the public defender’s office. Vera said the county pays approximately $350,000 to the state which matches that amount.

However, turning the case over to the public defender’s office is and was not feasible as the office has a conflict of interest in the Rebollar case, Flores said.

Flores said he spoke with Abner Burnett, director of TRLA, who informed him of the conflict of interest which already existed when it came time to appoint an attorney for Rebollar in 2016. Flores did not specify what the nature of the conflict.

Funding for court-appointed, private attorneys, on the other hand, come from the budgets of the county’s two district courts. Vera estimated that one court budgeted approximately $50,000 to $60,000 for court-appointed attorneys while the other budgeted approximately $40,000.

Vera said he did not know how much of those funds is currently available for the Rebollar case.

Vera later testified that part of the problem with paying the fees is that some of the $35,000 currently billed should have come from previous years’ budgets, given that the bill is for work and expenses accrued since November 2016, when Flores was appointed to Rebollar’s case.

“A lot of this payment should have come out from our ‘16-’17 budget, and then some from ‘17-’18, and then some from ‘18-’19, and now this current year,” Vera said while being questioned by Escobar. “Now it’s all lumped into this year — that’s what put the strain on this year’s budget.”

Flores pressed Vera about the $750,000 available in the county’s rainy-day fund, of which Vera said was set aside for emergency expenses that arose from weather-related events or other causes.

However, Vera assured that, if ordered, the county would pay as soon as the county auditor and treasurer could issue the checks. Vera estimated that could be done by Monday.

Judge Longoria gave the county until that day to pay the billed amount but gave the county until June 10 to deposit the $150,000 into the registry of the court. The court will disburse money from that fund to pay future expenses. Any remaining funds will be returned to the county.

Another status hearing and jury selection is scheduled for June 12 while the trial is currently set for June 17.