A defense attorney in the federal Weslaco water plant bribery case has requested a 90-day continuance to the trial which had been slated to begin jury selection early next month.
Attorney Carlos A. Garcia — who is representing former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar in the government’s conspiracy case against Cuellar, Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla and Daniel J. Garcia, an attorney from Rio Grande City — submitted the request Monday, citing the continued COVID-19 pandemic.
The attorney noted a series of special orders handed down jointly by the three judges of the McAllen Division of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, as well as those of Chief Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, which have governed the reduced operations of the region’s federal courts since the pandemic struck.
Carlos Garcia argues that the size of the case — its three defendants and their associated defense attorneys, as well as the number of government attorneys, witnesses, court staff and members of the jury who would need to be present in the courtroom at one time make it not only unfeasible but unsafe to hold trial while the pandemic continues.
“The present health risks posed by a criminal jury trial warrant a continuance of the trial date and exclusion of all time until the trial date from Speedy Trial calculation under the ends-of-justice provision… based on the specific circumstances of this case,” the motion reads, in part.
The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 guarantees a defendant’s right to have their case brought to trial within 70 days of an indictment being handed up by a grand jury.
However, there are some exceptions that allow a court to delay proceedings if doing so would serve the ends of justice because “taking such action (would) outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial,” the act reads, in part.
U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez has already used exceptions to grant two significant delays in the case, which became public last April.
The first came in late May 2019, when Alvarez granted the government’s motion to declare the case “complex.” The second came in June of this year, when both federal prosecutors and defense attorneys jointly filed to delay a July trial date just as COVID-19 was raging through the Rio Grande Valley, making the region one of the worst pandemic hotspots in the nation.
Then, as now, both sides are in agreement with the request to delay proceedings for another 90 days.
To that end, the judge has scheduled a status conference for next Tuesday morning to discuss the matter.
And in other developments, on Thursday, Alvarez approved a request by attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez to withdraw as defense counsel for Daniel Garcia.
Though Ramirez’s request was filed under seal, in January he is set to be sworn into office as the 229th Judicial District Attorney after winning the March Democratic Primary against incumbent Omar Escobar Jr. and facing no Republican challenger in the general election.
The 229th Judicial District serves Starr, Duval and Jim Hogg counties.
Daniel Garcia will continue to be represented by another of his attorneys, Clay S. Conrad.