When Yvonne Rosales launched her 2020 campaign to become El Paso District Attorney, it was as an agent of change, touting new leadership after the decades-long tenure of previous DA Jaime Esparza.
The DA’s office certainly has changed since Rosales took charge in 2021, but perhaps not in ways she imagined. The new DA’s freshman term has been marked by turmoil over hundreds of dropped criminal cases, a subsequent recall effort and mounting questions over her handling of El Paso’s highest profile case: the prosecution of the city’s accused Walmart shooter, who took the lives of 23 people in 2019.
Aaron Montes, reporter and producer at El Paso NPR member station KTEP, recently joined Texas Standard to discuss Rosales and the DA’s office. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Yvonne Rosales came into office after the retirement of El Paso’s previous DA, who served for decades. And that turnover – and court slowdowns due to COVID – have been blamed for her rocky start. But Rosales’ critics say something else is at work. Tell us about the dismissal of something like, almost, a thousand criminal cases?
Aaron Montes: These case dismissals started happening about mid-August. And by law, prosecutors have about 180 days to screen and files cases. And public defenders were noticing that that wasn’t happening. Some of those, they hadn’t seen activity for thousands of days. They included things like criminal trespassing, mischief, graffiti. But we saw some really serious cases, including impeding breath (strangulation) charges. So the DA’s office has said they’ve refiled some of those. But a lot of critics here would say that it shouldn’t have happened.
That incident’s been cited as one reason for the recall effort against Rosales. Apparently, the attorney that initiated the recall effort, Oscar Carmona, was really upset with the DA’s handling of a case involving a client of his.
Sure. You’re talking about a capital murder case that Mr. Carmona was working on. That case got dismissed because the judge cited prosecutorial vindictiveness. Essentially what happened was Carmona and another attorney were trying to exercise this person’s right to a speedy trial. And one of Ms. Rosales’ senior prosecutors, Curtis Cox, was asking for more time. And when he wasn’t given that, he started pursuing the death penalty. And the judge overseeing that case dismissed it because she saw that that was not kosher.
Looming in the background is the prosecution of the accused Walmart shooter. Rosales has clashed with the judge overseeing this case, Sam Medrano, and this has taken this case down some unusual paths. I believe the judge has issued a gag order surrounding this case. What prompted it?
Before this hearing in July, I was working on a story with the Dallas Morning News’ Alfredo Corchado about it; just an update on the case. And we got a statement from Ms. Rosales saying she was hoping that the case would be tried next summer. And that’s when a status hearing in July got scheduled. And Medrano was essentially stern about her saying that, because she hadn’t filed anything in the case, she hadn’t spoken with him or with the defense attorneys about whether that’d be possible.
It appears that Rosales was trying to remove Judge Medrano from the Walmart case and had some assistance from a municipal judge in a neighboring village who has no formal connection to the DA’s office. What’s that about?
I believe you’re speaking about a man named Roger Rodriguez. He was appointed to be a municipal judge in the village of Vinton. We’re not sure about what his official capacity is, but, what we do know is that a former prosecutor named John Briggs says he was present for an official meeting with the victims and families of victims of the shooting during a meeting after the July 1st hearing. And Rosales denies this, but Briggs says that Rodriguez was brought in and treated as a member of her staff, and that he started stoking the families to file grievances against Judge Medrano.
So what is Rosales saying amidst all of this?
Well, she says that there is this political conspiracy to remove her from office and that anyone who had dealt with Jaime Esparza in the past is part of that conspiracy.
That’s the previous DA you’re referring to there?
Yes. And that there is a complete effort to remove her from office because of her gender and because of policy points that she has made.
Where does the recall effort stand?
Right at the moment? We’re waiting. The county attorney’s response, on whether or not she’ll be prosecuting the petition to remove her from office – she has until November to make that decision. If she agrees to, there will be a trial. If if she decides not to, then it ends right there.