A federal judge hearing civil rights lawsuits filed against McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna and others by bikers arrested after the Twin Peaks shootout suggested the bikers’ criminal cases can’t proceed until Reyna is replaced because of a conflict of interest.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks made several references during a pretrial conference in Austin that seemed to question whether Reyna, as a defendant in the civil cases, has a financial interest at stake and should be disqualified from prosecuting criminal cases against the bikers.
Fifteen bikers arrested along with more than 160 others after the deadly May 17, 2015, brawl at Twin Peaks have filed lawsuits in Sparks’ court claiming they unlawfully were arrested and jailed under $1 million bonds with no justification or evidence of wrongdoing.
Eight of the 15 plaintiffs are not among the 154 bikers who have been indicted on identical engaging in organized criminal activity charges, and three of them contend in their lawsuits that they hadn’t arrived in Waco yet when the shootout occurred.
Besides Reyna, the civil lawsuits name former Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman, Waco Detective Manuel Chavez and an unknown state trooper as defendants.
Sparks scheduled the status conference after attorneys for the defendants filed motions to stay all proceedings in the civil cases until disposition of the criminal cases, to move the cases from Austin to Waco and, subsequently, to dismiss the suits.
Sparks has not ruled on the motions. While the hearing did not pertain to calls for Reyna to disqualify himself, Sparks initiated the discussion by calling the dilemma a “Catch-22” situation.
“That’s the reason I called this little powwow,” Sparks said, according to a transcript of the June 3 hearing. “Here, we’ve got lawsuits wherein the chief of police, policemen and the district attorney are sued, which would normally mean that I can’t do anything in this case until the criminal case is over. And I noticed in the paper where they’re seeking to disqualify the district attorney, but that won’t eliminate the problem.
“So the criminal case won’t be able to proceed because the defendants have a personal interest. I can’t proceed because of the criminal case. So if y’all have any novel way of trying to break up this logjam, I’ll be glad to listen to you, but I don’t see anything until the — somebody comes in outside of Waco to prosecute these cases.”
Neither Reyna nor Tom Brandt, the attorney who represented him at the hearing, returned phone calls from the Tribune-Herald seeking comment for this story.
Later, the judge asked the lawyers, “Now, is it the theory that the special prosecutor will take over entirely the prosecution?”
Brandt said he doesn’t think so, explaining to the judge that Reyna is being represented by one of his former assistants, Brandon Luce, at a hearing that begins Monday in Waco’s 54th State District Court in which two bikers are seeking to disqualify Reyna from prosecuting the cases.
Reyna is opposing the motions.
Sparks recounted a story in which famed Texas trial lawyer Richard “Racehorse” Haynes disqualified a district attorney in his court because the DA was being sued in civil court.
“So he had a pecuniary interest,” Sparks said. “But these people (Reyna, Stroman and Chavez) have a substantial interest. They’re being sued in their personal as well as official capacities.”
As the discussion progressed, Sparks, speaking of Reyna and whether he would be subject to giving a deposition in the civil case with the criminal cases pending, said, “His problem is he’s got an interest in the litigation. He’s being sued over here for it.”
Dallas attorney Don Tittle, who represents the 15 bikers in Sparks’ court and who likely will file additional suits on behalf of other bikers, argued against staying the civil suits, saying a number of his clients are not facing pending indictments and it could take years before all the criminal cases are resolved.
“I’ve never seen a civil case allowed to be tried when the criminal case is pending, particularly when it’s a criminal case that’s had a lot of publicity. And this one has had sufficient publicity,” Sparks said.
Waco attorney Charles Olson, who represents Stroman and Chavez, argued that the law is clear that criminal cases take precedence over civil cases.
“It’s been a year, and y’all don’t even know who is going to prosecute these cases, which is inexcusable,” Sparks said.
Brandt told the judge that all of the “150-something” cases Reyna’s office presented to the grand jury were indicted.
“Makes one wonder why they indicted 150 people,” the judge said. “I don’t need a comment on that. It’s just so far from all of the experiences I’ve had. It’s just staggering to think of the problems.”
Olson said this week he doesn’t recall any comments from Sparks at the hearing that indicated how the judge felt about Reyna being disqualified.
“We talked about a lot of different things,” Olson said. “You have to ask Judge Sparks. I didn’t really read anything like that into it. We talked about a lot of issues.”
Tittle also declined to comment directly on the judge’s comments.
“If you are asking me personally, unless the county has already told Reyna that they will pay for any jury verdicts against him, then he clearly and without a doubt has a direct financial interest in virtually every (Twin Peaks) case he is prosecuting,” Tittle said.
The motions to disqualify Reyna pending in Waco’s 54th State District Court were filed by Dallas attorney Clint Broden on behalf of bikers Matthew Clendennen and Burton George Bergman and by Houston attorney Abigail Anastasio, who represents biker Ray Nelson. They allege Reyna should be disqualified because he crossed the line between prosecutor and police officer.
Broden’s motion alleges that Reyna “interjected himself and his staff” shortly after the shootout and “countermanded the decision by the (Waco police) upper chain of command in an act of political opportunism.”
Records filed in the case show Waco police officials had already interviewed, identified and photographed a busload of bikers detained that afternoon and decided to send them home when Reyna and two of his top assistants arrived at the Waco Convention Center, where bikers were being held.
From that point on, almost every biker was jailed under $1 million bonds after Reyna gave orders to arrest anyone with ties to rival biker groups the Bandidos or Cossacks, the motions allege.
Tittle said DAs have immunity from civil lawsuits and it is difficult to disqualify them as long as they remain in their roles as state advocates and prosecute criminal cases in court. Otherwise, any criminal defendant could seek to disqualify a prosecutor merely by filing a civil lawsuit.
“The difference here is that immunity is lost when a prosecutor steps into the role of the police, which is basically what Reyna did here, and that is virtually indisputable,” Tittle said. Broden said Reyna has “painted himself into a corner” and now must risk taking the cases to trial for his own financial interests.
“It would be inappropriate and presumptuous to comment on the remarks by the federal judge overseeing the civil rights litigation,” Broden said. “Nevertheless, although it has been reported that Mr. Reyna has called the recusal motion ‘silly,’ I think it would be obvious to any fair-minded individual that a district attorney who could ultimately be held individually liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, should not be in charge of the prosecution.
“Mr. Reyna filed these wrongful charges based on his own political and monetary self-interests and he owes it to the defendants and the citizens of McLennan County to step aside and let a fair-minded and independent prosecutor take over the case,” Broden said.
Anastasio said she is surprised Reyna hasn’t already sought a special prosecutor to handle the Twin Peaks cases.
“I wasn’t in the courtroom when Judge Sparks made those statements. However, I was most certainly made aware of them,” Anastasio said. “Sparks is a well-respected jurist, and that’s very telling. Reyna’s involvement in the case inherently violates my client’s constitutional rights, and I haven’t met a single person who does not agree. It’s common sense. With Reyna and his subordinates on the case, my client cannot receive a fair trial.”