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Advocate editorial board opinion: Justice took a long time coming for city officials

By By the Advocate Editorial Board
April 15, 2011 at 7:02 p.m.
Updated April 15, 2011 at 11:16 p.m.


TIMELINE

OCT. 25, 2007: Grand jury indicts former Sheriff Michael Ratcliff, the district attorney's chief of staff, on aggravated sexual assault charges.

OCT. 29, 2007: DA Steve Tyler takes Ralph Buentello, David Smith and Bruce Ure before same grand jury.

MAY 2008: Tyler-led grand jury indicts Will Armstrong, Buentello, Smith and Ure on several charges, including allegedly conspiring against him and interfering with the Ratcliff investigation.

SEPTEMBER 2008: Judge dismisses all charges against Armstrong.

APRIL 2009: Judge removes Tyler from Ure, Smith and Buentello cases. Judge dismisses all charges against Ure.

JULY 2010: Judge appoints San Antonio's Terry McDonald as special prosecutor.

WEDNESDAY: McDonald drops the remaining cases against Ure and Buentello, saying the charges were unjustified.

We expect our district attorney to stand for justice.

When he instead engages in a personal vendetta, the system breaks down, causing innocent people and the public to suffer. Sadly, we can draw no other conclusion from last week's end to the long saga known as "Law and Disorder," Victoria District Attorney Steve Tyler's political feud with city officials who dared to challenge him.

An outside special prosecutor, who was in a good position to impartially judge the mess, tossed out the remaining cases a Tyler-led grand jury had brought against the city officials. In doing so, the prosecutor found no reason to think the cases even should have been filed in the first place.

Since Tyler called the city officials before a grand jury in 2007, the public has been waiting to see any evidence he had against them. After all of this time, the answer remains the same: Zip. Zero. Zilch.

What we know is the city officials had concerns about Tyler's handling of the criminal investigation of his former chief of staff, Michael Ratcliff. They raised questions about whether Tyler should have hired Ratcliff, who was under investigation for sexually assaulting an underage inmate in his custody while he served as Victoria County sheriff. They wanted to know whether Tyler was attempting to sweep the investigation under the rug. They talked to this newspaper about their concerns.

Outraged by the city officials' involvement, Tyler went after them with a vengeance.

What resulted cost the public dearly, but even worse was the personal price paid by the four city officials, who had to live under the cloud of indictments for three years.

"The last three years have been very embarrassing and very disturbing to my life and my family," said David Smith, one of the four indicted officials.

They likely will never fully get their reputations back. Unfortunately, many people not closely following the complicated legal drama are quick to assume any indicted public officials must be guilty. Even when all of the facts point otherwise, some assume guilt by implication.

That's why a district attorney and grand jury bear a heavy burden before handing up an indictment. Usually, the system works, but it's not set up to prevent petty politics by the district attorney.

Even despite these shenanigans, the system eventually worked. The cases are closed, thanks to wise rulings by a judge and the special prosecutor.

Let's hope Victoria can move forward. While the cases remained pending and clouded in the public's view, Tyler won re-election last year. Since then, we hear he has made some effort to mend fences with the Victoria police department, whose police chief was among those wrongly indicted.

If the district attorney sticks to prosecutions rather than politics, justice will be served.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.

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