Defendant in federal civil rights case faints on stand; judge declares mistrial

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

April 30, 2013 at 8 p.m.
Updated May 1, 2013 at 12:01 a.m.

A civil rights trial in Victoria's federal court was cut short Tuesday when the Calhoun County Precinct 2 commissioner, the defendant in the case, fainted on the witness stand during a hard line of questioning.

Vern Lyssy, 49, was explaining to jurors why he installed a hidden camera in his right computer speaker in an office he shared with his former employee, Amanda Guillen.

Guillen, of Port Lavaca, is accusing Lyssy of filming her undressing in the office. She undressed in the office because the available, 4-by-6-foot bathroom she shared with eight other men was dirty. She said Lyssy fired her after she complained about the camera.

Lyssy has insisted that he just wanted to deter thieves, especially because he leaves the office doors open whether workers are there during business hours or not.

He was explaining that he chose to conceal the camera that cost about $239 because he suspected someone was moving things on his desk when he wasn't around.

That's when attorney Pete Ferraro, who represents Guillen, suggested hiding the camera had more to do with Lyssy being upset about a Port Lavaca Wave newspaper article, which detailed how much Lyssy spent on his campaign for commissioner.

The reporter could not have gotten such detailed information without visiting either his or the county auditor's office, Lyssy said.

"It did not bother me," Lyssy later testified.

"It bothered you enough to put a hidden camera in your office," Ferraro replied.

"It led to that, yes," Lyssy said.

"Then would you agree that it bothered you?" Ferraro asked.

But Lyssy did not answer despite repeated pleas to do so. Instead, his face turned stark white, he dipped his head down to his chest and closed his eyes.

When lawyers realized he wasn't being unresponsive to the question but rather had fainted, bailiffs ushered the jury from the courtroom and attempted to rouse him.

Lyssy woke in about two minutes but then lapsed back into unconsciousness for another minute.

He has high blood pressure but said he remembered taking his medicine earlier in the day.

This had never happened before, he said.

Lyssy was then taken by ambulance to the Citizens Medical Center. He was admitted there and was in stable condition as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, said Shannon Spree, a hospital spokeswoman.

Federal Judge Gregg Costa declared a mistrial because he believed Lyssy's episode might have prejudiced the jury. He worried that issuing a continuance would conflict with the jurors' schedules.

A new jury will be chosen at 9:30 a.m. July 22.

"This was highly unusual and very concerning," Costa said, encouraging the parties to seek free mitigation during the interim.

Mitigation in the past failed.

During opening statements, Lyssy's and the Calhoun County's attorneys insisted Guillen was fired because she was repeatedly insubordinate.

Attorney Neil Giles, who represents the county, said it all came to a head May 3, 2010. That day, Guillen did not show up to work nor did she explain why. That day, Lyssy also learned from the county auditor that Guillen had not submitted either her or her co-workers time stamps for the past four months, despite being told to do so multiple times.

He fired Guillen the next day.

Lyssy started requiring employees to punch in and out of work when he took office in January 2007 because constituents suggested some employees weren't working while they were technically on the clock.

"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," Giles said.

Guillen, who was pregnant at the time, only got permission to change and use the restroom at her mother's house 2 miles away, not at in the office, Giles added.

No one has ever found any recording of Guillen changing clothing. And Lyssy, who installed three outdoor security cameras prior to this incident, never specified to commissioners that this camera would not be in plain sight when they approved its purchase in January 2010.

"This case is based entirely on circumstantial evidence. We think it's pure speculation and all untrue," Giles said.

Guillen's other attorney John Melton, of Houston, meanwhile, asked jurors to consider the fact that Lyssy never wrote Guillen up for disciplinary problems in the past.

He showed the group photographs Guillen took of the video surveillance April 22, 2010, after she discovered the camera. Those photographs showed the camera pointed at her desk, not at the front door like it was initially supposed to. Photographs of the video surveillance taken April 26, 2010, showed the camera focused on the door after Guillen complained to the county judge and another commissioner.

"If I moved it, I moved it back," Lyssy said on the stand.



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