Jury Selection Turns Fiery

It may only be the beginning, but the arguments and strategies are set.

Jury selection began today in the Judge Regina Arditti trial, and the actions that took place in the 41st District Courthouse in Downtown El Paso were worthy of a two-hour episode of the television legal drama “Law and Order.”

Before the bailiff called out for all to rise or any potential juror walked into the courtroom, defense attorneys and prosecutors stood before the bench and presented motions to the judge basically outlining what could and could not be said, what would and would not be discussed, evidence limits, applications for probation and even the possibility of questioning an FBI agent.

These ground rules and the questions asked of the 100 potential jurors, during the nearly four-hour-long selection process, set the stage for a trial that will center on the allegations that Judge Arditti entered into an illegal agreement with convicted Judge Manuel Barraza to hire each other’s relatives.

The hardest hitting allegation involves bribery, which carries a jail term of anywhere from two years to 20 years and a $10,000 fine.  Judge Arditti faces two counts of bribery and four counts of abuse of office. The latter carries a jail sentence of anywhere from two years to 10 years and a $10,000 fine.

The first day of the trial was not without its fireworks. Early on, the judge pointed his finger and admonished defense attorney Stuart Leeds as the defense team jockeyed to use a lectern equipped with a microphone rather than huddle in front of the bench. They argued that the microphone would allow all those present to hear clearly the proceedings.

This early confrontation would not be the last, and the clashes between visiting Judge Steve Smith of Brazos County and the defense team of Leeds and Theresa Caballero would only escalate as the day wore on.

The most volatile of the skirmishes involved a hallway meeting – that never took place – between prosecutors, the judge and the defense team. Judge Smith asked attorneys Caballero and Leeds to join him and the others in the hallway, but they flat out refused.

“We will not go where the court reporter isn’t. That is our only protection,” said Caballero defiantly.

Defense attorneys Caballero and Leeds filed a motion in February asking that Judge Smith be removed from the case, alleging Judge Arditti, who is Hispanic, would not receive a fair trial with Judge Smith on the bench. The two allege that the judge made disparaging comments about Hispanics in an email before a pre-trial hearing.

The banter between the judge and the defense team, and the prosecutors and the defense team continued as attorney Caballero took the lectern and presented a stick figure sketch of what she called the “Two Headed Hydra Monster” to the potential jurors, who immediately laughed out loud. The so-called monster, displayed using an overhead projector, labeled one head Judge Smith and the other the prosecution.

She then went on to present a hypothetical situation, involving an official who employed and paid a secretary $80,000, including trips to Mexico, so she would keep quiet. Prosecutors quickly quashed the made-up scene. District Attorney Jaime Esparza was alleged to have been involved in a similar situation.

Defense attorney Caballero went on to say that it was her job to “zealously defend” her client. We will use “everything legally within (our) power to destroy the government’s case,” she said. We must “know the law, know the case and fight tooth and nail by exposing bad prosecutors and all the enemies of our client.”

The trial is set to continue Tuesday morning with a jury selected during what seemed like a firefight between the defense team and the prosecution, and also the judge.

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