Judge denies motion to dismiss Starr illegal voting case

EDINBURG — A motion to dismiss the case against Bernice Garza, a former employee of the 229th District Attorney’s Office who is charged with illegal voting was denied Monday, with the trial expected to begin on Nov. 12.

State District Court Judge Israel Ramon denied Garza’s motion to dismiss, filed on Sept. 24, Garza, which alleged prosecutorial misconduct based on selective and malicious prosecution.

Specifically, her attorneys alleged in the motion that the Attorney General’s office was influenced by her former employer, 229th Judicial District Attorney Omar Escobar, whom she had sued in federal court for wrongful termination. The state, Garza alleged, was targeting her in retaliation for her lawsuit against Escobar.

Garza, 44, was arrested in January for allegedly voting using the identity of a deceased person. She was indicated on two counts of illegal voting and one count of providing false information on a voting application for allegedly voting under the name Hortencia Rios, a woman who died in June 2007.

The motion points out that lab tests of Hortencia Rios’ carrier envelope did not find Garza’s DNA and that of other, similar, illegal voting cases, only hers had been prosecuted.

“ Over twenty thousand documents produced in the discovery phase of this case revealed multiple allegations of voter fraud which resulted in mere pretrial diversion agreements and no other arrests by the Attorney General in Starr County,” the motion stated.

She also alleged that Escobar participated in searching and finding evidence against her without being interviewed or named by the state as a witness, that there was a delay in turning over exculpatory evidence and that there was a misrepresentation of key facts.

“ The evidence in this case demonstrates that the Office of the Attorney General is under the influence of Omar Escobar and the prosecution of Bernice Garza is vindictive,” the motion stated.

However, in a response filed by Assistant Attorney General Angela S. Goodwin, the state denied any prosecutorial misconduct and stated that the DNA evidence does not affect the third count of providing false information.

“ 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,” the AG’s response stated.

Ramon sided with the state, signing an order Tuesday stating there was no evidence of selective prosecution or discrimination, that the case brought by the Texas Attorney General’s Office was not brought maliciously or in bad faith, and that there was no evidence of law enforcement misconduct.”

Garza worked for the 229th District Attorney’s Office in Starr County beginning in 2015 until her termination in April 2018 where she was the coordinator for the Crime Victims Unit.

Garza then filed a federal lawsuit against Escobar in August 2018 alleging wrongful termination. In the lawsuit, she claimed Escobar violated her First Amendment rights by allegedly firing her for working on her sister’s unsuccessful campaign for county judge.

In late April, U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez dismissed the case, finding that Garza was not protected by the First Amendment in her position.

That case is currently on appeal.

The illegal voting case against Garza is scheduled for trial on Nov. 12.