The Texas Attorney General’s Office has fired back at a former Starr County District Attorney’s Office employee who claims DNA evidence exonerates her and that prosecutors are unfairly targeting her because she filed a federal lawsuit.
The filing follows several motions to dismiss two charges of illegal voting and one count of providing false information on a voting application against 44-year-old Bernice Garza, who formerly ran the crime victim’s unit for the 229th District Attorney’s Office.
Garza is accused of filling out an early voting ballot under the name of Hortencia Rios, who died in 2007.
According to Garza’s motions to dismiss, an analyst at the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab in Weslaco excluded her DNA from evidence on a carrier envelope used to deliver what the state says is an illegal ballot.
She has maintained that she is being prosecuted in retaliation for filing a federal wrongful termination lawsuit against Starr County District Attorney Omar Escobar, who fired her in April 2018.
Assistant Attorney General Angela S. Goodwin, of the Texas Attorney General’s Office, however, says not so fast.
According to Goodwin, the lack of Garza’s DNA on the carrier envelope doesn’t matter.
“Bernice Garza signed the mail ballot application for the deceased voter as an assistant, and while there is no assistant signature on the carrier (ballot) envelope, the forged signatures of the deceased voter are consistent on both the application for mail ballot that Garza assisted with, and the carrier envelope,” according to the state.
Furthermore, Goodwin argues that Garza’s motion to dismiss ignores the third count she is charged with, alleging Garza solicited, encouraged, directed, aided or attempted to aid another to commit a criminal offense.
In one of the motions to dismiss, Garza also claims that the state did not turn over evidence that points toward a potential suspect in the case because a Texas Attorney General investigator.
According to Garza, a Texas Attorney General investigator told a grand jury that a 40-year-old woman named Hortencia Rios, who is the granddaughter of the deceased Hortencia Rios, may have used her grandmother’s identity to vote.
The defense claims a sentence in that law enforcement official’s file handed over to Garza’s attorneys was redacted.
“To evaluate this possibility as well as the feasibility of a same-name mistake scenario, the State’s investigator located the granddaughter (who lives in Conroe), and interviewed her, as well as other members of the Rios family,” the response to Garza’s motions stated. “All this information, including a recorded interview, were provided in discovery. It is disingenuous for defense counsel to now assert that the State failed to provide this information.”
Furthermore, according to Goodwin, there is no recording of any grand jury testimony and no basis “for such a libelous accusation.”
In regards to the retaliation claim, Goodwin points out a timeline, showing that the Texas Attorney General’s Office took Garza’s DNA on July 26, 2018, while the federal lawsuit was filed Aug. 4, 2018.
Goodwin also takes issue with one of Garza’s attorneys, Martie Garcia Vela, providing comment to The Monitor in its previous story.
“On Monday, September 16, 2019, two days prior to the filing of Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss, Bernice Garza debriefed with the Texas Rangers regarding her knowledge of criminal activity in Starr County,” according to Goodwin. “In consideration of Garza’s cooperation with law enforcement, and to conserve State and judicial resources, the State expressed a willingness to dismiss the case — a fact which further invalidates the Defendant’s claim that she is being maliciously prosecuted.”
Two days later, the state says Garza filed a motion to dismiss alleging prosecutorial misconduct and malicious prosecution.
“The filing of these motions was immediately picked up as news items in local outlets, and on September 28, 2019, one of the Defendant’s defense counsel Martie Garcia Vela, gave an interview to The Monitor news publication, in which she comments on the case and impugns the investigation of the case,” Goodwin says in the response.
Defense attorneys regularly provide comment on filed motions in criminal cases as do prosecutors, should they choose to speak to the media.
The Monitor did not conduct an interview with Garcia, rather it asked her for comment on the motions.
The newspaper has been covering Garza’s case since the Texas Attorney General’s Office sent out a press release publicizing her arrest.
Editor’s note: This story’s headline was changed to reflect the kind of evidence that’s in question.