McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna can continue to direct the prosecution of 154 bikers indicted in the May 2015 Twin Peaks shootout, a judge ruled Thursday.
Matt Johnson, judge of 54th State District Court, denied a motion from bikers Matthew Clendennen and Ray Nelson that claimed Reyna should be disqualified from their cases because he has a financial interest in seeing that they are convicted and because he overstepped his authority when advising police about the mass arrests of 177 bikers.
Reyna did not return a phone message left at his office Thursday.
Attorneys for Reyna and the bikers filed briefs outlining their arguments Wednesday afternoon, and Johnson wasted no time making a ruling.
More than 17 months after the shootout at Twin Peaks left nine bikers dead and about 20 others injured, there still are no trial dates set for any of the defendants as prosecutors and defense attorneys wait for analysis of evidence gathered at the chaotic crime scene.
Waco attorney Brandon Luce, a former prosecutor who represented the state at the disqualification hearing, said there is a substantial burden to prove an elected district attorney should be removed from a case, and the judge made the proper ruling.
“Judge Johnson looked at the existing law and the facts of this case and made the appropriate decision,” Luce said. “He was patient and allowed both sides to elicit testimony that they felt was relevant, and in the end, he agreed with the prosecution’s analysis and ruled accordingly.”
Dallas attorney Clint Broden, who represents Clendennen, a Hewitt resident and a former Scimitar biker group member, said Thursday he is disappointed in the ruling.
“Based on the hearing that was held, it was clear that Mr. Reyna organized these arrests over the objections of the various assistant police chiefs on the scene and has made himself a necessary witness in the case,” Broden said. “It is also clear from the testimony that he has potential for a great deal of civil liability in these civil rights cases which gives him a vested interest in pursuing these cases.
“We think that is consistent with the testimony from the hearing and we are disappointed in the ruling.”
On Wednesday, Broden said “we believe the law and the facts clearly support the disqualification of the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office.”
Broden charged that Reyna substituted his judgment for those of Assistant Chief Robert Lanning, Sgt. J.R. Price and two other assistant chiefs on the scene, who testified that they considered many of the bikers witnesses who could be questioned and released.
“This morass is not a problem of Matthew Clendennen’s making,” Broden’s brief states. “This is a problem of Abel Reyna’s making. In an act of political opportunism, Reyna chose to assert himself and his assistants as potential witnesses by advocating for the arrest of 177 motorcyclists and drafting the arrest warrant affidavits with no input from the affiant.”
Broden’s motion also sought Reyna’s disqualification because he is a defendant in at least 15 civil rights lawsuits filed in an Austin federal court by bikers alleging they were arrested without probable cause and detained under identical, excessive $1 million bonds.
“In the end, it is anticipated that Mr. Reyna will ultimately be held jointly and severally liable to Mr. Clendennen for a significant money judgment unless Reyna is somehow able to secure Mr. Clendennen’s conviction in this case,” Broden wrote in his brief. “Simply put, Reyna’s career and financial well-being are in jeopardy because of his flagrant disregard of well-settled constitutional law. Nevertheless, if Reyna is somehow able to obtain a conviction in this case, he reduces his personal financial exposure for the false arrest he wanted, advocated and recommended.”
Tom Brandt, Reyna’s attorney, argued at two hearings on the motion that if Reyna is disqualified, it would set a dangerous precedent by which every criminal defendant could sue the prosecutor handling his case to get him removed, crippling the nation’s criminal justice system.
Reyna argued at a hearing last week that several of the bikers who are suing him were not indicted by his office and still have not been indicted, even after they sued him.
Michael Jarrett, Reyna’s first assistant, testified last week that it is not unusual for prosecutors to be called to crime scenes to assist police with legal questions and other matters.