Hate crime prosecution significant for Muslims
July 15, 2017 at 8:57 p.m.
Updated July 16, 2017 at 6 a.m.
The looming prosecution of Marq Vincent Perez may send a message that American Muslims have equal protection under the law.
"Muslims in Texas and the U.S. want to see the system work to protect them," said Corey Saylor, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Oftentimes, Muslims are concerned that authorities will look the other way. This case, so far, is not at all (that)."
So far in 2017, the council has noted 85 incidents in which U.S. mosques were the targets of prejudice, making this year on track to surpass 2015, the year with the most anti-mosque incidents since 2001, Saylor said.
Perez, 25, of Victoria, was indicted on federal hate crime and arson charges June 22, more than four months after fire destroyed the Victoria Islamic Center. A week later, he pleaded not guilty to those charges at an arraignment in Corpus Christi.
The case is currently set in Victoria, and a trial, if it occurs, should happen at the federal courthouse in Victoria.
Perez faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in a federal prison and up to $750,000 in fines.
Road to trial
Perez could appear before a jury by early 2018, said Victoria criminal defense attorney Micah Hatley, who spoke speculatively.
Before Perez can have his day in court, the prosecution and defense first must agree upon deadlines, how information and evidence will be shared and who will serve as expert witnesses among other details through a series of pretrial hearings, Hatley said.
"Due to the substantial evidence, it could take some time to go through it and make decisions," Hatley said. "It's also a high-profile case, so you want to make decisions with a lot of thought."
The first pretrial hearing is set for 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building in Victoria.
At that hearing, a trial date is likely to be set, although a trial still could be delayed by unexpected circumstances, Hatley said.
But Victoria criminal defense attorney Alex Hernandez said despite the uncertainty inherent to criminal court procedure, federal courts tend to have more structure than state district courts.
"Federal judges are wanting to move the caseload faster and with more efficiency," Hernandez said.
Pleas and deals
Perez's initial plea of not guilty is hardly uncommon, Hatley said.
"At this stage of the case, almost 100 percent of people charged with crimes are going to be pleading not guilty at their arraignment hearings," he said. "You can always change your plea to guilty."
If Perez decides to change his plea, he will need to do so before a deadline, which will likely be set by a judge at a pretrial conference, he said.
Plea deals, which may be common in state district court, are almost unheard of at the federal level, Hatley said.
When it comes to federal sentencing, which is conducted by a judge rather than a jury, pleading guilty can make a lesser sentence more likely, he said.
As such, the vast majority of federal cases end with guilty pleas, said Victoria criminal defense attorney Eddie Wilkinson.
Informants and evidence
While investigators and prosecutors mostly have kept silent about what kind of evidence they plan to use, some details have come out through court documents and hearings.
The prosecution and defense must pore over an abundance of information, which includes a 26-page report about the cause of the fire, thousands of Perez's online communications and more than 10,000 pages of documents, according to court documents.
At a March hearing to determine Perez's bond, a special agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified investigators learned details from confidential informants and Perez's Facebook communications. According to that special agent's testimony, those informants were with Perez on the night of the fire as well as on a previous burglary at the mosque.
But testimony from confidential informants, Wilkinson said, can present problems for prosecutors - especially when they may have participated in the crime in question.
"If the witness made a deal, the jury needs to know that," he said. "What if they are not talking truthfully and just trying to get out of the crime itself?"
Jurors and justice
Finding jurors who have not been exposed to news reports about the case may be difficult "unless they have been in a closet somewhere," Hernandez said.
As long as jurors can make a decision based on the evidence and testimony presented in trial, exposure to media should not exclude them, Wilkinson said.
"Generally, jurors are going to say 'Yeah, I can be fair,'" he said.
Jurors will be selected not only from Victoria County but also from neighboring counties, including Refugio, DeWitt, Jackson, Calhoun, Goliad and Lavaca counties, Hernandez said.
And unlike in state district courts, a judge will conduct interviews and select jurors rather than leave the task to attorneys, he said.
That selection process and other court procedures serve a vital purpose, Hatley said.
However complicated and cryptic the process may seem, it is to uphold justice not only for the victims of the fire but also for the defendant.
"There's a process," Hatley said. "Even for someone considered the bad guy, there has to be a fair trial."