Dec 6, 2022 - World

Prosecution of alleged El Paso Walmart shooter marred by DA controversy

a woman bends down as she places something at a memorial full of candles, balloons, flags and other items outside a Walmart in El Paso

A makeshift memorial for the mass shootings victims in El Paso, Texas, August 2019. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The prosecution of the alleged El Paso Walmart shooter on state murder charges has been marked by the controversy surrounding the district attorney, who has faced allegations of corruption and incompetence and a petition calling for her removal.

The big picture: The alleged shooter faces state and federal trials for allegedly killing 23 people and wounding 22 others in what authorities say was a racially motivated shooting on Aug. 3, 2019.

  • But months of legal troubles involving District Attorney Yvonne Rosales, who will leave office next week, have pulled attention away from victims and their families and prompted questions on what they may mean for what could become the deadliest mass shooting to go to trial in the U.S.

Catch up quick: Patrick Crusius confessed to authorities that he was targeting Mexicans when he drove 10 hours from Allen, Texas, to El Paso to carry out the shooting, according to police.

  • Prosecutors say Crusius posted a racist screed online shortly before the shooting.
  • He has pleaded not guilty.
  • Crusius is also facing a federal hate crimes trial, scheduled to start in January 2024.
  • Rosales drew El Paso Judge Sam Medrano Jr.’s ire when she announced in June that she hoped the state trial, in which she would seek the death penalty for Crusius, would be held next summer, well ahead of the federal trial. A few days later, the judge reprimanded her for not making any trial preparations and issued a gag order to almost all parties involved in the case, including victims' families.

State of play: Last week, Medrano held a hearing to determine whether the family of shooting victim Alexander Gerhard Hoffmann Roth had violated the gag order by allegedly emailing local reporters, El Paso Matters reports.

  • The family, who lives in Juarez, Mexico, claimed they had been intimidated by an attorney connected to Rosales and that, although the email was sent from Hoffmann's widow's phone, she didn't write it. Rosales failed to show up to testify on Wednesday, and Medrano ordered her to attend Thursday or risk arrest.
  • Rosales showed up on Thursday, but invoked her constitutional right not to testify. She sent her resignation letter to Gov. Greg Abbott that day, having announced on Nov. 28 that she was stepping down.
  • Medrano ultimately ruled the family didn't violate the gag order.

Rosales' attorney, Richard Román, tells Axios the gag order bars him from commenting on behalf of his client.

  • But he told El Paso Matters that Rosales "came to the realization that this community needs to heal, the Walmart case needs to be put back on track, and all the other crime victims that aren’t mentioned that are out there deserve a legal system that is continuous, predictable and stable."

What they're saying: "It was just so bizarre to realize that this awful act of domestic terrorism just sort of faded into the background because of political shenanigans or whatever the motivation was for the district attorney," says Robert Moore, founder and CEO of El Paso Matters, who has covered the story at every turn.

  • "I think that's what hurts people in El Paso, and not just the families of the victims," he tells Axios. "Everybody who lived through that in El Paso feels like a victim in some way."

Justin Underwood, the attorney who represented the Hoffmann family in court last week, said the family was manipulated and deceived "into basically being political pawns for a childish district attorney" whose "ego wouldn't allow her to just move on from being basically called out in court."

  • "My clients are still grieving, they don't have any closure yet, (and) there's still two trials," Underwood said.

What's next: The tenure of Rosales, a Democrat, will officially end by Dec. 14, one day before a hearing was scheduled to determine if she should be suspended throughout the removal petition case. Rosales previously called the removal effort frivolous and a political stunt.

  • Abbott, a Republican, will appoint a new DA, who will serve the remainder of Rosales' term, which was set to end in 2024. It's not clear, however, when Abbott will announce the appointment. His spokesperson did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect Rosales was facing a petition to remove her from her district attorney post, not a recall petition.

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