Delta variant derails Weslaco water plant bribery trial again

A spike in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations fueled by the more virulent delta variant has derailed the timeline for the Weslaco water plant bribery trial, which had been slated to begin jury selection in federal court next month.

The postponement — ordered during a status conference held via Zoom Thursday morning — marks the sixth time the trial has been delayed since December 2019, when the case was originally set to go before a jury.

Though some of the delays came as a result of the complexity of the case — which involves evidence that has been described as “voluminous” — the majority of the delays have been due to concerns over how to safely hold a multi-defendant trial amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Thursday’s order was no exception.

“I think that under all the circumstances here and considering the spikes that we have had, the nature of this case, the complexity involved, the number of defendants and expected length of trial… considering all those circumstances, that it is necessary to continue the case. And the court will continue the case,” U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez said after half-an-hour of discussing the issue with prosecutors and defense attorneys.

After consulting with the attorneys further, Alvarez reset the trial to Jan. 10, 2022. Jury selection will begin at 9 a.m. that morning, with opening statements to immediately follow.

The decision came a little more than two months after the courthouse resumed normal operations for the first time in over a year. That happened in June, as COVID-19 cases had been trending downward for months thanks to the availability of vaccines.

Just two months later, however, the more contagious delta variant has led to a resurgence of the virus, with infections skyrocketing nationwide. As a result, McAllen’s three U.S. district judges handed down a joint order last Friday suspending all jury trials for the month of August.

Though previous delays in the Weslaco water plant trial have been met with unanimous agreement over the need to tread cautiously in light of the virus’ health risks, that consensus had clearly fractured Thursday.

Alvarez herself expressed personal reluctance to again delay a trial that has remained stalled for two years.

“I don’t want this to be the case that remains with me for the rest of my judicial career, and so I would very much like to have this case move forward,” Alvarez said.

As for the three defendants — former Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar, Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, and Daniel J. Garcia, an attorney and Rio Grande City school board trustee — they were divided.

So, too, were federal prosecutors.

Both the government and Garcia, via his attorneys, argued to have the trial timeline continue as planned, with jury selection Sept. 8 and opening statements Sept. 13.

The attorneys for Cuellar and Quintanilla, however, lobbied for a postponement — in part out of a hope that coronavirus infections will have dwindled enough to allow for in-person witness testimony without the need for masks.

And therein lay the crux of arguments on both sides — how moving forward or delaying trial could potentially impinge upon or preserve the defendants’ constitutional rights in various ways.

“Our concern is just being able to act and behave as officers of the court, and be able to present the evidence in an appropriate way to a jury where they’re not gonna be restrained by restrictions and/or seating, and/or visibility of exhibits,” said Carlos A. Garcia, the attorney representing Cuellar.

Furthermore, at least one witness who lives out of state has already expressed reluctance to travel as COVID-19 continues to spike in the Rio Grande Valley, Garcia said before requesting the trial be postponed to December at the earliest.

However, his colleagues representing Daniel Garcia and Quintanilla expressed their concern over allowing the coronavirus to impact the trial at all — from how the jury is selected to how witnesses testify.

“We’re opposed to limiting the jury selection, the type of jurors that are gonna be called,” said Oscar Vega, one of the attorneys representing Daniel Garcia.

Vega was referring to the possibility of the jury pool being shrunken due to people being excused from service out of fear of catching the virus. Vega said he would challenge any juror who attempted to ask for such an excuse.

Meanwhile, Jaime Peña, the attorney representing Quintanilla, also wanted the trial to proceed in September — but not if the court’s mask requirements remain in place. Currently, everyone must wear a facemask inside the courtroom, regardless of vaccination status.

“I tried a case a couple of months ago in Judge (Randy) Crane’s court, and the wearing of masks by attorneys and witnesses is impractical in an actual trial,” Peña said.

It was a concern shared by prosecutors, who wondered how the mask mandate would impact a defendant’s right to confront his accusers.

“It’s a little bit more of a novel issue in regards to any potential confrontation issue, but we just want to take the time to look at some of the case law,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. before asking to have until the end of the day to further research the issue.

“Why do you need ‘til the end of the day? You could have looked into those issues before now,” Alvarez said, denying the request.

The attorneys also expressed concern over allowing witnesses to testify virtually, whether a socially-distanced jury would fully be able to observe the proceedings, and how the virus could force a cap on the number of observers in the courtroom.

In response, Alvarez repeatedly stressed that certain accommodations would have to be considered no matter when the trial occurs, and that those decisions would necessarily have to be considered at the time of the trial itself.

Additionally, defendants’ families and members of the media would be given priority in observing the trial, Alvarez said.

“I can’t guarantee you anything right now as far as what conditions I would have to impose when we do go forward,” the judge said.

The parties will get their next opportunity to gauge the status of the pandemic Nov. 4, when they will meet for another status conference to confirm whether it will be safe to proceed with trial in January.