SAN ANTONIO – Jury selection began Monday morning in the highly anticipated public corruption trial of indicted ex-constable Michelle Barrientes Vela.
The former Bexar County Precinct 2 constable, who stepped down in late 2019 after triggering the state’s resign-to-run law, faces two felony counts of tampering with evidence.
The charges were included in a wide-sweeping January 2020 indictment of her and her former captain, Marc D. Garcia, covering her tumultuous 33 months in office.
The indictment, among other allegations regarding her time in office, accuses Barrientes Vela of presenting Rodriguez Park security cash logs that she knew were false.
Prosecutors last year dismissed the most serious charge against Barrientes Vela, aggravated perjury, leaving her to face the tampering charges as well as multiple counts of official oppression.
If Barrientes Vela is convicted on either tampering charge, prosecutors will likely ask Judge Velia Meza to consider the official oppression counts during sentencing, sources familiar with the case have told KSAT Investigates.
Garcia, who was fired from Precinct 2 weeks after his 2020 arrest, is tentatively scheduled to go to trial on Aug. 29.
He is among the nearly 60 people on the witness list, Judge Meza revealed Monday morning, while asking potential jurors if they knew anyone associated with the case.
Barrientes Vela sat alongside her attorneys while potential jurors were questioned about their views on the justice system and were slowly whittled down throughout the day.
Judge Meza said 12 jurors and several alternates will hear evidence in the case.
She has told both sides she wants the guilt-innocence phase of the trial completed by Sept. 1.
Defense attorney Nico LaHood said Barrientes Vela is ready to go to trial.
“I mean, she’s been waiting for this day. We’re prepared. We trust in the process and so we’ll present the evidence and listen to the state’s evidence and get our chance to cross-examine. We’ll let the process play out,” said LaHood said while walking into the justice center Monday morning.
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Proceedings disrupted by COVID, judge recusal, DA discovery issues
Barrientes Vela heads to trial more than two and a half years after first being criminally charged and nearly three years after the Texas Rangers and FBI raided her northwest-side county offices.
The court proceedings were first delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and then by the recusal of Judge Ron Rangel, who handed off the cases of Barrientes Vela and Garcia last year because Barrientes Vela had previously posted a picture on Facebook of her and the judge at a human trafficking conference.
Rangel said at the time of his recusal that he wanted “to guard against even the appearance of a conflict.”
Prosecutors last fall beat back an attempt by Barrientes Vela’s defense team to have Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales thrown off the case after his one-time political consultant was accused of making comments during a radio show that they said prevented the former constable from having her due process rights to a fair trial.
In April, days before the trial was scheduled to begin, it was delayed several more months after her attorneys successfully argued that they did not have sufficient time to analyze hours of undercover audio recordings from the case.
Barrientes Vela’s attorneys were not made aware of the recordings by the prosecution until just days before the scheduled start of her trial, a public hearing revealed.
Last month, Judge Meza barred Barrientes Vela from leaving Bexar County or attending political events by setting special conditions of bond in the former constable’s case.
The conditions set by Judge Meza came days after Barrientes Vela was accused of assaulting a community advocate and harassing a Democratic nominee for the Texas House of Representatives outside a Dallas hotel while all three were in town for the Texas Democratic Convention.
Barrientes Vela, through her attorneys, denied taking part in any assault and a Dallas police officer at the scene noted that no criminal offense occurred and that no physical assault or disturbance was observed in his presence.
Barrientes Vela was among a group of people asked to leave the premises by hotel security.
The ex-constable posted a series of videos to the video hosting site TikTok, claiming that her civil rights were taken away and encouraging people to attend her trial.
Opening arguments in her tampering case could begin as soon as Tuesday. The trial will be streamed on KSAT.com.