Prosecutor shouts at judge in Cheney hearing

November 22, 2008 6:57:46 AM PST
A county prosecutor who won indictments against Vice President Dick Cheney, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others pounded his fist and shouted at the judge Friday about special treatment for high-profile defendants as a routine motions hearing descended into chaos. Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who is accusing the public officials of culpability in the alleged abuse of prisoners in a federal detention center, asked Presiding Judge Manuel Banales to recuse himself. Guerra has complained about Banales' handling of the case.

Attorneys for the vice president and other defendants leapt to their feet in objection, as Guerra pounded the table and accused Banales of giving the defendants special treatment in allowing motions to quash the indictments to be heard before the defendants were arraigned.

"Now all of a sudden there is urgency," Guerra shouted at Banales. "Eighteen months you kept me indicted through the election."

Charges accusing Guerra of extorting money from a bail bond company and using his office for personal business were dismissed in October, but he had already lost the March Democratic primary.

The defendants in the prisoner abuse case, who were not required to be in court, were all expected to waive arraignment, but the hearing never progressed that far.

"Did you think, judge, my grand jury didn't take this seriously?" Guerra said. "They indicted the vice president."

Banales called a recess to contact the chief justice of the state Supreme Court for suggestions on how to proceed, and ordered Guerra to remain in the courthouse.

"I will not obey that order," Guerra said.

When Banales implied he would take steps to keep Guerra in court, Guerra agreed to stay if the judge asked him respectfully.

Banales adjourned until Wednesday.

Outside the courtroom, defense attorneys suggested Guerra was unstable.

"What came out today was the mental state of the proscutor was exposed to the court," said Tony Canales, co-counsel representing private prison company The GEO Group. Canales was also communicating the proceedings to attorneys for Cheney and Gonzales, who were not represented in court Friday.

But that talk only incited Guerra, who said he's heard "the (district attorney) is loco" before.

"I know exactly what I'm doing," Guerra said.

Unlike the initial hearing last Wednesday when Guerra was absent and media and attorneys for the indicted appeared in equal numbers, curious residents packed the well-worn pews of the Willacy County Courthouse's only courtroom Friday.

Half of the indictments returned Monday are linked to privately run federal detention centers in the sparsely populated southern Texas county. The other half target judges, special prosecutors and the district clerk who played a role in an earlier investigation of Guerra.

Banales appointed a temporary prosecutor to handle the local officials indicted along with Cheney, Gonzales and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. because Guerra has sparred with them for years and would be a witness in their cases.

Lucio, D-Brownsville, said in a statement Friday afternoon that he was disappointed the judge was not able to hear their motions to quash what he called "baseless charges."

It was Guerra's interest in the contracts to build and run a federal detention center that led to some of his biggest successes -- three guilty pleas on bribery charges from former county commissioners in 2005. But he also believes it was the motivation for his own legal battles.

He continued working for more than a year while under indictment on charges of extorting money from a bail bond company and using his office for personal business until Banales dismissed the indictment last month.

Guerra ran the current investigation into alleged prisoner abuse with a siege mentality. He worked it from his home, dubbed it "Operation Goliath" and kept it secret from his staff, he said. He gave all the witnesses biblical pseudonyms -- his was "David" -- and sometimes gave false reasons for witnesses' appearances so as not to raise suspicion in a courthouse he believed to be filled with political enemies. A clerk and a judge who share the building were among those indicted Monday.

The grand jury also charged Lucio with illegally profiting from his position by accepting consulting fees from private prison comapnies.

The GEO Group Corp. was indicted on a murder charge for the death of an inmate at a federal prison.

Cheney's indictment alleges that his personal investment in the Vanguard Group, which invests in private prison companies, gives him culpability in alleged prisoner abuse. Guerra distributed a simple flow chart alleging how Cheney profitted from the prisons.

Other indictments charge two district judges, two special prosecutors and the Willacy County district clerk with abusing their powers in investigating Guerra's office.

          State News Channel | 100 most recent Texas stories
        Slideshow archive | ABC13 wireless | Headlines at a glance


Load Comments