SAN ANTONIO – The felony public corruption trial of former Bexar County constable Michelle Barrientes Vela was pushed to late August on Friday, days before jury selection in the highly-anticipated case was scheduled to begin.
Attorneys for the one-time Bexar County Precinct 2 constable successfully argued during a 90-minute hearing before Judge Velia Meza that they did not have sufficient time to analyze hours of undercover audio recordings from the case.
The evidence was captured by an audio recording device set up by law enforcement and worn by then-Precinct 2 employee Susan Tristan in the weeks before the Texas Rangers and FBI raided the precinct’s headquarters in the fall of 2019.
A motion filed in the tampering with evidence case late Thursday indicated that Barrientes Vela’s attorneys were not made aware of the recordings by the prosecution until Tuesday and were not able to begin reviewing the files until Wednesday.
Prosecutors also conceded Friday that some of Tristan’s interactions with the lead Texas Ranger and an FBI special agent assigned to the case were probably recorded inadvertently.
Judge Meza denied a motion from the defense to toss out all of the audio evidence gathered by the recording device, but agreed to issue a continuance in the case so that the defense had ample time to review the recordings.
Judge Meza also ordered the prosecution to create a transcription of the audio evidence gathered by Tristan, who has been described as the prosecution’s “star witness.”
“What the judge found is that after three years of the state having this case, they just disclosed and just turned over evidence that’s relevant and that’s pertinent,” said Barrientes Vela’s defense attorney Nico LaHood.
The prosecution argued Friday that the evidence in question had been in the possession of the defense since September, but acknowledged that they themselves had difficulty playing some of the files.
“There are 100 jurors scheduled to appear on Monday morning for this case. Now I’m the one who’s going to have to tell them on Monday ‘there’s no trial today,’” said Meza, before issuing her ruling.
“Either they’re overworked or they’re undertrained. I’m not going to speak to their intent, whether they’re doing this intentionally or recklessly or negligently, but all of it is not good for citizens that are accused in our community,” said LaHood, when asked about the prosecution’s discovery issues.
Barrientes Vela faces two felony counts of tampering with evidence and three misdemeanor counts of official oppression, all related to her nearly three-year tenure as constable. She will go to trial first on the tampering charges.
Prosecutors last year dismissed the most serious charge Barrientes Vela faced -- aggravated perjury.
Her former captain, Marc D. Gracia, still faces his aggravated perjury charge as well as three counts of official oppression.
He is tentatively scheduled to go to trial May 2, Bexar County court records show, but his case will likely be reset.