State seeks to drop illegal voting case in Starr

State prosecutors are seeking to drop their case against Bernice Garza, a former employee of the district attorney’s office in Starr County who was charged with illegal voting.

Assistant Attorney General Angela S. Goodwin filed a motion Wednesday morning to dismiss the case, noting that Garza had been cooperative with law enforcement and “in the interest of justice.”

That state cited the Code of Criminal Procedures, which states that the primary duty of prosecutors, not to convict, but to see that justice is done.

“Although the State believes there is sufficient evidence to convict the Defendant for engaging in the criminal act of fraudulently submitting an application for ballot by mail for a deceased voter, the State requests to dismiss this case in the interest of justice, and in deference to the Defendant’s previous cooperation with law enforcement.”

Garza, 44, was arrested in January for allegedly casting a vote under the name of Hortencia Rios, a woman who died in 2007. Garza was indicted on two counts of illegal voting and one count of providing false information on a voting application.

Her defense attorneys had previously filed a motion to dismiss the case in September though state District Judge Israel Ramon denied the motion on Oct. 28.

In that motion, the defense pointed 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 — arguing that the case was retribution for Garza suing 229th District Attorney Omar Escobar in federal court for unlawful termination.

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. She filed a federal lawsuit against Escobar in August 2018 accused Escobar of violating 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.

In response, to the defense’s motion to dismiss, the state denied any prosecutorial misconduct and stated that the DNA evidence did not affect the third count of providing false information.

Ramon, the judge, ruled in the state’s favor, signing an order 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.

A trial was scheduled for Nov. 12 but that will almost surely not go forward as planned given the state’s new motion.

As of Wednesday afternoon, though, the order officially dismissing the case had not been signed by the judge.