Jury awards $335K verdict against former DA

January 25, 2010 1:42:24 PM PST
A former south Texas district attorney and two other public officials won a $335,000 verdict Friday against another former DA after successfully arguing that he violated their civil rights by having them arrested in 2007. The verdict in federal court in Brownsville culminates a years-long feud that U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen said after the trial did not serve anyone.

On one side was former Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who lost the verdict. On the other was Gustavo Garza, who held the same job at one time but who was acting as an appointed special prosecutor investigating Guerra on various allegations, including that Guerra was abusing the grand jury process, when the arrests were made.

Co-plaintiffs Raymondville Police Chief Uvaldo Zamora and former Willacy County Sheriff's Chief Deputy David Martinez will share in the compensatory and punitive damage awards. The total hit to Guerra was expected to rise with the awarding of attorneys' fees, but after the trial he made it clear it was not over.

"I don't think that this verdict is going to stand," said Guerra, adding that he would file motions to overturn it and request a new trial.

Other lawsuits also await, including one in Hanen's court in which Guerra is suing Garza and several others. Hanen urged both sides to try to reach at least an "uneasy peace."

"It doesn't serve you all and it doesn't serve the people of Willacy County by having you at each other's throats," Hanen said after releasing the jury, which deliberated for nearly three hours before returning the unanimous verdict.

Garza was appointed special prosecutor to investigate allegations that Guerra was trying to use the grand jury process to get even with his enemies. Guerra was never charged with abusing the grand jury process, but he was indicted on several other charges, including extorting a bail bond company and using his office for personal business. Those indictments were later dismissed.

During the investigation, Guerra had Garza, Zamora and Martinez arrested. Garza and Zamora were accused of obstruction and retaliation for interfering with a grand jury in the course of their investigation. Martinez was accused of giving a false statement during the investigation into Guerra.

In their lawsuit, Garza, Zamora and Martinez alleged that Guerra fabricated the affidavits that convinced a justice of the peace to issue the arrest warrants against them.

At the heart of the case is a long-running feud between Guerra and seemingly every other public official in Willacy County. Guerra conceded that he did not get along with his government counterparts, over the years having sought indictments against many of them. The reason for the friction was his unwillingness to turn a blind eye to official corruption, he said.

Horacio Barrera, Garza's attorney, called Guerra egomaniacal, somewhat delusional and paranoid.

"This case is about (Guerra) retaliating and getting even," Barrera said.

In one of his final moves as district attorney in 2008, Guerra got indictments against a number of people, including a state senator, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and then-Vice President Dick Cheney, alleging responsibility for prisoner abuse in a south Texas federal detention center. The indictments were later dismissed.

During this week's trial, Guerra served as his own attorney and as a witness. He told the jury he had no regrets about getting the warrants against Garza, Zamora and Martinez. He also cautioned jurors that ruling against him would send a message to district attorneys around the state that they should not go after the powerbrokers in their counties.

"I love my little county," he said. "That's why I did what I did."

After the trial, Guerra noted that his successes usually come on appeal, not in front of a jury. "I'm not surprised (at the verdict) because my character doesn't play well with the average juror," he said.