Minutes after reporting an 11-1 impasse, a jury of 11 women and one man returned with a not-guilty verdict for sexual assault for former Victoria County constable Jesse Garza.
“I take full responsibility for it,” said Special Prosecutor Tim Poynter.
But the jurors found him guilty of official oppression, which is defined as a public servant’s abuse of power to sexually harass someone.
In the courtroom, Garza let out a loud sigh of relief and was quickly admonished by District Judge Bobby Bell, who had requested no outbursts.
“That really says it all,” said defense attorney Dexter Eaves, adding he considered the verdict “an enormous victory” for Garza.
“As a criminal defense attorney, I kept my client from going to prison, and that is my job,” Eaves said.
Prosecutors chose to abandon the Class A misdemeanor official oppression charge at the start of trial and instead solely sought a conviction for second-degree felony sexual assault. But at Eaves’ request Wednesday, Bell gave jurors the option of convicting Garza for the lesser included charge of official oppression if and only if they found him not guilty of sexual assault first.
At 6:36 p.m., they did precisely that.
Without the inclusion of the lesser official oppression charge, a deadlocked jury would likely have resulted, meaning Garza would still face a pending indictment for sexual assault and most likely another trial from prosecutors, Eaves said.
“It was pretty obvious they had a really tough time coming to a unanimous decision,” Eaves said. “It’s one of the big reasons I asked for a lesser included charge – in case they got hung up.”
Sexual assault carries a prison sentence of two to 20 years and up to $10,000 in fines. Official oppression is punishable with up to one year in state jail and up to a $4,000 fine.
Poynter said he was surprised by the verdict, but he also said he was glad the conviction would mean Garza would never be allowed to serve as a Texas peace officer again. He will not have to register as a sex offender.
Although it was unclear which juror opposed a guilty verdict for the sexual assault charge, the sole man on the jury nodded during closing arguments by Eaves, who is also a former Victoria County district attorney. During Poynter’s arguments, the male juror shook his head as if in disagreement. During some recesses, some of the 11 women glared at the man, and raised voices emanated from the jury room adjacent to the courtroom.
One member of the courtroom’s audience said she overheard a woman from the jury room saying, “What if it was your daughter?”
Eaves and Poynter agreed the jury’s gender makeup was random. Although each side is allowed to strike jurors from the selection process, the first 12 in the pool are selected by random.
“That’s the anomaly of it,” Eaves said. “No sane defense attorney would have chosen 11 ladies, as great as they are. You would like to have a pretty even panel.”
During the 5½ hours of deliberation earlier Thursday, the sequestered jurors sent notes to the judge, asking for help in settling a number of disputes.
They asked for and were granted a rereading of testimony from Garza’s accuser in which she detailed events immediately preceding and following the time in which she claimed to have been sexually assaulted. Poynter said two stops they had made – one to help police at a bar fight in downtown Victoria and one to check on stargazers along a rural roadway – were noted in radio dispatch logs entered into evidence, which jurors specifically requested to review.
During the opposing attorneys’ closing arguments, Eaves and Poynter sparred over two versions of events surrounding Aug. 12, 2017, the night in which Garza’s accuser said he had sexually assaulted her. With only Garza and the woman present together that night, jurors had little more than the contradicting testimonies.
Obtaining a conviction for sexual assault is often a difficult task for prosecutors for precisely that reason, Poynter said.
“When sexual assault occurs, there is usually not a witness,” Poynter said. Eaves agreed.
But Poynter said the woman had never wavered since lodging accusations against Garza. That woman took the stand Tuesday.
“Everything she told you is corroborated in the text messages,” Poynter said. “Everything he told the ranger was a lie.”
She accused him of driving her during an official ride-along in his county-issued patrol vehicle to an isolated county roadway where her cellphone had no reception and then raping her while he was wearing a badge, gun and uniform.
“He targeted a girl who wanted to go into law enforcement,” Poynter said, adding Garza had manipulated the woman’s trust.
Although Garza did not force himself on the woman physically, Poynter said, the former constable coerced the woman into sex through not only his power as a peace officer and elected official but also through an implied threat.
“He must take you home when you ask. He may not keep you in the (truck) and tell you that you are not done yet,” Poynter said. “And you fear for your life. He has communicated a threat to you … He doesn’t have to say, ‘I’m going to kill you.’”
Poynter said one text message in particular from Garza sent the day after the ride-along was proof that she had been raped by coercion.
“You said no that night but you gave into papi,” the message from Garza to the woman reads.
That message and others, the prosecutor said, corroborated her version of events but did not match Garza’s statement.
‘How many times does she have to say no – only one,” Poynter said, adding, “No means no in America. She didn’t give in, she didn’t submit until he isolated her on a back road.”
During his closing argument, Eaves pointed to testimony from a Victoria County sheriff’s investigator who described the reputation of Garza’s accuser as not credible despite knowing her for only a short time.
The text messages, which Eaves said were repugnant, were evidence of sexting and not sexual assault, he said.
“You cannot convict him (just) because he is doing some really stupid things on his iPhone,” Eaves said to jurors.
Eaves also said jurors should believe Garza’s claims that the sex that occurred between Garza and his accuser was consensual.
“He never said, ‘We didn’t have sex,’” Eaves said, adding, “This is our county. We would like to think it’s fair.”
With only “he said, she said” testimony, Eaves pointed out that up-to-date video and audio recording equipment inside Garza’s official patrol pickup would have resolved the case.
“We have outdated equipment in our law enforcement that does not record everything,” he said. “It should have.”
The official opression charge was only possible if jurors found Garza not guilty of sexual assault.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
Jurors had the option of convicting Jesse Garza for sexual assault, a second-degree felony, or official oppression, a Class A misdemeanor.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
Minutes after returning to the jury room with an 11-1 impasse, a jury of 11 women and one man return with a not guilty verdict for sexual assault and guilty verdict for a lesser included charge of official obstruction.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
Jury returns to jury room to continue deliberation after judge reads Allen charge.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
After five-and-a-half hours of deliberation, jurors say they are at an 11-1 impasse in the sex assault trial for former Victoria County constable Jesse Garza. There are 11 women and one man on the jury.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
Jurors also say they are in disagreement about whether accuser had ever visited former constable's home. According to a re-reading of her testimony, she never did.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
According to transcript, accuser said sexual assault was preceded by a fight at a downtown Victoria bar and a stop along a rural roadway to check on stargazers.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
At jurors' request, court reads back accuser's testimony about events on the night in question leading to and directly following alleged sexual assault. Jurors say they are in disagreement.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
It's been almost three and a half hours since jurors began deliberation after a lunch break.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
Jurors are asking the court's help in comparing events mentioned by the constable's accuser with law enforcment radio logs entered into evidence. The accuser mentioned several traffic stops in her testimony Tuesday.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
It's been two hours since jurors returned from lunch, and since then they've asked the court for radio dispatch logs and text messages.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
Special prosecutor tells jury text messages corroborated accuser -- not former constable. Prosecutor pointed to one text in particular as evidence of lack of consent."You said no that night but you gave in to papi," the message from former constable reads.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
Special prosecutor began second half of closing, saying defense attorney's criticism of victim was "victim bashing" and "shameful."— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019
Eaves pointed to testimony from sheriff's investigator who described victim's reputation as not credible. That investigator also admitted he knew victim for short period of time.— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) June 13, 2019