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Grand jury indicts judge; D.A. vetoes it

The arson case against a Texas Supreme Court justice is dropped.

January 19, 2008|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — The day after a grand jury indicted a Texas Supreme Court justice on arson-related charges, the district attorney here had the case dismissed, arguing there was insufficient evidence to move forward.

The unusual action Friday by Harris County Dist. Atty. Chuck Rosenthal in the case against Justice David Medina and his wife outraged two members of the grand jury, who called it a blatant example of politics trumping justice.

Both Medina and Rosenthal are Republicans. Medina -- whose home in suburban Spring, Texas, was destroyed in a blaze the local fire marshal deemed suspicious -- was formerly the general counsel to Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

"This is not right. This is a miscarriage of justice," the grand jury foreman, Robert Ryan, told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday after the district attorney announced he would have the charges dismissed. "If this was 'David Medina, truck driver, Baytown, Texas,' he would have been indicted three months ago."

After a Harris County judge on Friday dismissed the charges against Medina, who is a former Harris County judge, Assistant Dist. Atty. Vic Wisner told reporters that prosecutors would continue to investigate the alleged arson but did not think charges were warranted yet.

"None of us felt this was a hard decision," Wisner said. "My conscience is clear. I slept well last night."

Medina, 49, has maintained his innocence from the outset. "We are innocent," the grim-faced justice told reporters Friday. "We had nothing to do with this fire."

The June 28 blaze not only burned down Medina's 5,000-square-foot home, but a neighbor's house as well. A third house was damaged. In all, the fire caused roughly $1 million in damage.

The Harris County fire marshal's office in October announced that the incident was being treated as a possible arson. A dog working with investigators had detected an accelerant at the fire scene. Officials also learned that the Medinas had been having financial problems and that a mortgage company had filed to foreclose on their home.

Medina was not home at the time of the fire. His wife, Francisca, was charged with setting it.

The justice was charged with fabricating a letter that he turned over to investigators as evidence. That crime, a felony, would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The Medinas hired separate defense attorneys.

After learning that Rosenthal planned to have charges against Medina and his wife dismissed, two members of the grand jury broke the panel's code of silence and blasted the prosecution's handling of the case.

"I've just never seen anything like the vigor with which these two defendants were defended by the Harris County district attorney's office," the assistant foreman, Jeffrey Dorrell, told the Chronicle. "It was theater of the absurd. We knew before we handed the indictment down that the district attorney was going to refuse to prosecute."

The criticism was just the latest blow for Rosenthal, who was forced by local Republicans not to run for reelection after a lawsuit uncovered romantic e-mails between the married prosecutor and his assistant.

Subsequently, e-mails containing sexually explicit material and racist jokes also surfaced, prompting calls from critics in both political parties for Rosenthal to resign.

Meanwhile, the grand jurors' outspokenness prompted David Medina's lawyer, Terry Yates, to pursue charges against them Friday. He argued before a judge that they broke the law intended to keep grand jury proceedings secret by speaking out to the media, and demanded a hearing to decide whether they should be held in contempt.

If found guilty, the two jurors could serve up to 30 days in jail.

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miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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