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Legal Dispute Leaves Poor Defendants in Limbo

In rural Val Verde County, defendants who are too poor to afford their own lawyers have waited years for resolution of their cases. As a new legal battle between their lawyers and the county begins, their day in court remains elusive.

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Felix Garza lost a day and a half of wages and drove six hours in order to be at the Val Verde County courthouse on Friday. It was at least the eighth time in five years he has made the trip only to learn there was no progress on his case. 

Garza, who is facing drug-related charges from a 2006 arrest, is one of 39 indigent defendants in Val Verde County who have been in legal limbo for years, caught in the crossfire of a feud between the county and their state-appointed lawyers. In the latest volley in the years-long dispute, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid will file a lawsuit on Friday against the county, seeking payment for years' worth of legal services. 

“It’s just having the doubt over my head of them calling me one day to give me some [prison] time after I have built my family up,” said Garza, who now works in West Texas as a supervisor on a power line crew and owns his own home. “There’s no telling what could happen.”

Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid was the first state-funded public defender’s office to open when the nonprofit started operations in Del Rio in 2006. It continues to operate multiple offices in Central and Southwest Texas. The Val Verde county commissioners got a three-year grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to help pay for public defenders and signed a contract with the legal aid group.

Until lawmakers passed the Texas Fair Defense Act in 2001 and created the commission, there were no statewide requirements for counties to provide lawyers for poor people who were charged with crimes. The 2001 law created those requirements and provided funding to help counties pay for public defenders for the first time.

But when Val Verde County’s contract with TRLA ended in the fall of 2009, the county commissioners decided not to renew, and the office was shuttered after a long and acrimonious fight.

Val Verde County Judge Laura Allen declined to comment for this story, citing the TRLA’s lawsuit.

The commissioners have told the Del Rio News Herald that TRLA had not submitted monthly invoices and that the county couldn’t pay without them.

TRLA disputes the commissioners’ claims and has since produced the invoices. The group says the county owes about $400,000 in legal fees. But the county has still not paid, and on Monday the commissioners decided against paying TRLA $300,000 to settle the issue. Commissioners who opposed the settlement did not respond to requests for comment. 

Despite the ongoing disagreement, TRLA has continued to represent its 39 existing clients without payment from the county. But James McDermott, head of TRLA’s public defender program, said the group’s lawyers have run up against another hurdle: Val Verde County District Attorney Fred Hernandez.

In 2009, Hernandez closed his files to TRLA, refusing to allow the lawyers access to their clients’ files. McDermott said he suspects they have been shut out because of their refusal to accept plea bargains that the district attorney has offered.

“The DA didn’t like us because we fought our cases, and he thought by closing our files he could run us out of town,” McDermott said.

Hernandez did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

As the battle continues, TRLA’s 39 clients keep going to hearings and docket calls and are told time and again that their cases are still stalled. Often it means more missed days at work and additional child-care costs for defendants who are already scraping by.

Even worse for many, it means a black cloud hangs over their names and reputations in this small town.

Viola Martinez waited seven years to finally be acquitted after she was charged with assaulting a police officer. Martinez, a supervisor at the local jail, said that because of the ordeal, she was unable to apply for other jobs, including one that would have doubled her income.

“I was never going to give up because I was innocent,” Martinez said. “I lost days at work because I couldn't concentrate — days in bed. I cried wondering what the outcome would be.”

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