Grand jury ended amid controversy

January 22, 2008 5:22:33 PM PST
The legal scuffle between a grand jury and a Texas Supreme Court justice took another bizarre turn Tuesday when a judge ruled that improperly filed paperwork invalidated any indictments issued by the panel. District Judge Jim Wallace ruled that an order extending the panel's term was not properly drafted, agreeing with a motion filed by the attorney representing Justice David Medina.

The grand jury's term was to have ended Nov. 2, but the term was extended to February at the district attorney's request. The judge's decision nullified indictments issued by the grand jury against Medina and his wife, as well as 30 others on unrelated mortgage fraud.

The twelve-member jury indicted Medina last Thursday on charges of tampering with evidence, and his wife, Francisca, on an arson charge in connection with a June 28 fire at their home in the Houston suburb of Spring.

But the next day, the Harris County District Attorney's office, which first brought the case to the grand jury, dropped the charges, angering members of the panel who said the move was politically motivated.

The judge's ruling on Tuesday left the Medinas relieved and happy, and members of the grand jury in outraged disbelief.

"It's been a roller coaster for them. Obviously, they're very pleased," defense attorney Terry Yates said of the Medinas. "We hope this is a final chapter in this case and that it effectively ends the prosecution of David Medina."

But assistant district attorney Vic Wisner said Friday that authorities were still investigating the fire and the Medina's role in it.

A call to District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal's office was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Grand jury foreman Robert Ryan, however, said he was stunned by the judge's decision, and said the paperwork extending the panel's term was a "boiler-plate" order routinely issued by the district attorney's office.

"That just shows you the sheer incompetence of the District Attorney's Office of Harris County, Texas," said Ryan, who has served on five grand juries.

Rosenthal dropped out of his re-election campaign but has refused calls for his resignation after the embarrassing release of dozens of pornographic, racist and political e-mails on his office computer.

Ryan said several of his fellow grand jurors had contacted him Tuesday, expressing outrage over the decision. "We're just some dumb hicks from Mayberry trying to do the Lord's work," Ryan said.

Rosenthal's office said Friday there was insufficient evidence to support the charges against Medina, a fellow Republican.

Ryan and assistant grand jury foreman Jeffrey Dorrell were so angered by Rosenthal's stance on the case that they told the media the district attorney's office had pressured the panel not to indict Medina.

At the time, Ryan said he planned to reconvene the panel this week to reconsider the indictment.

Yates, in turn, said the two grand jurors had violated grand jury secrecy laws, and filed a motion seeking contempt of court charges against Ryan and Dorrell.

The case stems from a fire that destroyed the Medinas' home, and damaged two other houses, causing nearly $1 million in damages.

The fire marshal's office has said the fire at the Medinas' home in Spring, north of Houston, was not electrical or accidental. A dog detected an accelerant at the scene.

Investigators became suspicious after discovering a mortgage company sued in June 2006 to foreclose on the $300,000 home. The lawsuit, filed after the family missed payments for five months, was settled in December 2006.

Yates has acknowledged the family had financial problems. They owed nearly $1,900 in fees to a homeowners association and let the insurance policy on the house lapse, meaning losses from the fire were not covered.

Medina was appointed by the governor to the state's highest civil court in 2004 and elected to a full term two years later.

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