BY BERENICE GARCIA AND MARK REAGAN | STAFF WRITERS
EDINBURG — “Judge, I’m not guilty.”
So said former Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina to each charge of a 12-count indictment charging him once with engaging in organized voter fraud and 11 times with illegal voting.
The trial, which is expected to last more than a week with more than 20 witnesses being called, officially started with opening arguments Tuesday afternoon.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys painted a roadmap for the jury on the case over whether Molina cheated during the 2017 city of Edinburg election where he was elected mayor by 1,240 votes.
Prosecutor Michael Garza told jurors that witness testimony, voter registration cards, change of address forms and some photos will be entered into evidence.
However, Garza said that much of the evidence will come from witnesses in the case, which the prosecutor said is one “about lying and cheating.”
Garza alleged during openings that witnesses will testify that they were friends with Molina and his wife, Dalia, who also has a voter fraud case and has pleaded not guilty.
He said that these friends will testify that they would see Molina at parties where he would talk to them about changing their address and a paid campaigner will testify that she changed their addresses to an apartment owned by Molina.
The prosecutor said Molina leveraged his friendships with multiple people to pressure them to change their addresses to Edinburg so they could vote for him.
Garza also promised to call Molina’s former business partner Julio Carranza to the stand.
Carranza is also facing voter fraud charges and has pleaded not guilty.
The prosecutor said Carranza would tell jurors how he held mixers at his business where he and Molina pressured people to change their addresses to Edinburg so they could vote in the election.
Garza underscored the importance of the jurors’ common sense and how that, together with the evidence, would help them make a decision that would affect all of them.
“After all, your vote is your voice and lying and cheating has no place in our Democratic process,” Garza said.
Molina’s defense team, however, painted a much different picture for jurors starting with defense attorney Carlos A. Garcia providing jurors a biography of Molina, one of humble beginnings.
Showing pictures of Molina’s childhood house, Garcia walked jurors through Molina’s life from him joining the Army as an infantry man and serving in Bosnia to his time with the Edinburg Police Department, which is where, Garcia said, he became interested in politics.
The attorney told jurors how Molina served as security for city council meetings and said he saw friends and family repeatedly rejected for various things they sought on technicalities because they were not well-connected or related to someone in power.
“People weren’t treated the same, he learned,” Garcia said.
The attorney also said the same of Molina, telling jurors that the Molinas had to work for everything and they didn’t earn what they have due to who they were related to or who they were friends with.
Garcia also told jurors how when Molina first looked into running for city council, he took a training class to be a volunteer deputy registrar through the Hidalgo County Elections Department.
“It’s the first time he realizes that residency is a choice,” Garcia said.
He adds that during the election process, going through the voter rolls, he saw that a man from Alamo voted in an Edinburg election.
When Garcia began raising this, Garza objected which set off the stage for at least 10 objections during the openings. The judge even had to hold a hearing outside the presence of the jury to settle the disagreement between the two sides.
The majority of this conflict happened when defense attorney Jaime Pena took over opening arguments and began trying to tell jurors about a change to an election law in 2021, after the alleged illegal acts took place.
The jurors were out of the courtroom during the discussion and the details of the specific law weren’t immediately revealed in court on Tuesday afternoon.
Pena also went more in depth about residency requirements, telling jurors that there’s been a lot of litigation about residency and how it’s defined and told them this will continue to remain a theme during the trial.
He also said that Molina will be using a “mistake of law defense,” which means he relied on reasonable authorities when he told people they could change their address to vote in Edinburg elections and that he had no intent to break any election laws.
Following opening statements, Belinda Sagredo, a deputy registrar with the Hidalgo County elections department and one of the people who conducts the training for volunteer deputy registrars, was the first witness to take the stand for the state.
Under direct questioning from Garza, Sagredo went over the process by which people vote in their precinct, the ways people can register to vote, how people can change their address on their voter registration card, and the qualifications needed to be a volunteer deputy registrar.
She also identified the Molinas on a list of volunteer deputy registrars, explained how voter registration cards given to the deputies are signed by the deputies and have their identification number.
During cross-examination by the defense, Pena asked Sagredo to explain the training process for deputy registrars.
He asked if the volunteers are told to look to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office for additional guidance if they have questions to which Sagredo said the website and phone number to that office is provided to them.
She added that the presentation they make during their training is prepared by the state and the elections department often seeks guidance from the secretary of state’s office when they have questions of their own.
“Let’s say, if we have a question, it’s suggested that we call and we talk to one of their attorneys so they can guide us to see exactly how we’re going to interpret the law,” Sagredo said.
Asked if she’d ever called with a question about residence, Sagredo said she had.
Sagredo then talked about the information available when obtaining a person’s voter history and began discussing voter rolls shortly before the court recessed for the day.
The defense will continue cross-examining Sagredo when the trial resumes Wednesday morning.