"Jury tampering, collusion and witness intimidation..." A tale of civil injustice in South Texas

A Valentine's Tale

By Cary Cardwell

On Valentine's Day 2005, a civil trial opened in Crystal City, Texas, that would become notorious in the legal community but receive scant attention outside the state.

Rosanna Garcia et al versus Ford Motor Company et al, Cause No. 03-06-10755-ZCVAJA, matched an impoverished, closely knit community of 8,000 against a corporate mammoth, Ford Motor Company, the nation's No. 2 automaker.

The trial should have been about drunken driving, high speed and the tragic traffic deaths of two teen-agers.  It should have been held under a different judge in another venue. Instead, allegations of improper conduct by officers of the court focused the proceedings on purported shenanigans to deliver millions of dollars to a prominent local family and its attorneys.

The allegations included tales of jury tampering, collusion and witness intimidation. Ford attorneys would call the trial "one of the most bizarre legal proceedings in recent history."  Yet, these reports were never publicly investigated by state police, the State Bar of Texas or the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. The trial ended with the largest non-economic damages ever awarded in Texas to a parent for the wrongful death of a child. The total judgment by the jury was $31 million. The case was later settled for an undisclosed amount, although elements of the lawsuit are still pending.

Drinking and Driving

Crystal City is a farming town located between San Antonio and Mexico. It was the site of a World War II internment camp and a seminal 1967 boycott by Mexican-American students forbidden to speak Spanish in public schools.

On a lighter note, the town is known as "the spinach capital of the world" and the town square features a larger-than-life statue of Popeye the Sailorman representing the area's spinach growers and migrant workers.

The event that gave rise to Rosanna Garcia v. Ford was a fatal traffic accident that occurred on May 31, 2003. Road deaths are not unusual in South Texas, where highways wind through vegetable fields and rural brush country. These highways are mostly two-lane and unlighted, although well-maintained. They are often empty at night. The nearest town is likely to be 30 or 40 miles away.

An illicit South Texas tradition, especially for young people around graduation time, is drinking and driving in pickup trucks and SUVs at night on these highways at high speeds, with frequent disregard for wearing seat belts.

That was the case on the night of May 31, 2003, when two young men and two young women – all 19 years old – were returning to Crystal City after a night of partying.

Saul Guerrero Jr. was driving the 2000 Ford Explorer SUV. Corina Garcia – Cori to friends and family – was sitting in the passenger seat. Behind them were Arturo Guerrero, Saul's cousin, and Diana Alonzo. Later blood tests revealed that Saul Guerrero had an alcohol level much too high to have been driving legally.

At one point, the paved road turns sharply to the left. It is marked by a warning sign at 500 feet before the approach. If a driver misses the curve and proceeds straight ahead, the roadway turns to unpaved gravel and caliche.

Accident investigators concluded that Saul Guerrero made no attempt to turn or slow down at the turn. When his 2000 Ford Explorer hit the gravel, the vehicle began to skid. Guerrero lost control and the Explorer went into a ditch, rolling over two or three times and ejecting all the occupants through the side windows. All four doors remained closed.

Cori and Diana were killed. Saul and Arturo were injured but conscious. They could not find the two women, and Saul carried Arturo two miles looking for help before the two collapsed. Three hours later, about dawn, the men were found and directed rescuers to the accident site.

The death of Cori Garcia was especially poignant. Cori, who was starting college, was related to two prominent Zavala County families. She was the granddaughter of District Judge Ray Perez, a beloved political figure in the area who had retired from his state bench two years earlier but continued to hear cases as a visiting judge. The young college student also was the niece by marriage of Diana Palacios, the city manager and political matriarch of Crystal City, one of seven near-legendary local sisters.

In South Texas, where residents still keep copies of Mexico land grants passed down from great-grandparents, lineage and family are important.  Palacios, a well-connected political and social insider, would be a key player in the events that followed.

Two Dozen Red Roses

A month after the accident, with funerals over, the first stirrings of the civil case that would become Rosanna Garcia v. Ford began in Zavala County.

The families of the two young men involved in the accident – Saul Guerrero Jr., the driver, and his cousin, Arturo Guerrero – were approached by Diana Palacios and by South Texas attorney Jesse Gamez about representation in a civil lawsuit against Ford. While lay persons might think the fatal accident was the fault of the driver, neither Saul Guerrero Jr. nor his family had much in the way of assets. They were, in the jargon of personal injury attorneys, "judgment-proof."

If the civil lawsuit were to "have legs," as the saying goes, it needed a "deep pockets" defendant. So the lawsuit contemplated by the four families would blame Ford.

Palacios and Gamez were perfect solicitors to approach these families. Gamez is a native son who has practiced law in the area for 30 years and maintains offices in San Antonio and Crystal City. Palacios, in addition to being the aunt of victim Cori Garcia, was also Gamez's longtime lover and business associate. She has on occasion acted as his legal assistant. Both were hometown success stories. Their families had been acquainted for three generations. Although Gamez repeatedly ducked questions about his love affair with Palacios under oath in the Ford trial, he seemed proud of his relationship with the city manager.

When an attorney for Ford asked Gamez about his romance with Palacios, Gamez replied that he would not call it "intimate." The attorney then asked, "Did you give her two dozen roses Valentine's Day?"

"Two dozen red roses," Gamez corrected him (emphasis added). The lawyer spent many weekends entertaining Palacios in Crystal City, "showing her off to folks," in the words of Palacios' political rival, former Mayor Frank Moreno.

Gamez and Palacios also shared business interests. She was an accomplished businesswoman. She had operated a bail bond business and bought and sold real estate with Gamez. She was also a political dynamo who had been an activist in the Mexican-American civil rights movement of the Sixties and Seventies and later had served on the school board and the tax appraisal board. Her brother-in-law was director of the Health Facilities board that issues revenue bonds against the city's credit, and she is related to three former school board trustees and a mayor pro-tem.

She seemed to know everyone in the area, and everyone recognized her Mercedes as she tooled around the small town.

Perhaps her most important role for Gamez was serving as a legal assistant.

"Case runners" are a tradition in South Texas, where generations of families stretched across both sides of the long border with Mexico grow up together and share business and personal interests. Lawyers are forbidden from hustling business from victims. That is called barratry and attorneys who practice it used to be called ambulance chasers. In South Texas and elsewhere, friends and business associates of lawyers take on the job of contacting potential clients needing help with criminal cases, or personal injury and product liability cases. The local lawyers then refer the difficult or potentially lucrative cases up the ladder to attorneys certified in the required legal specialty.

In the weeks after the accident, Palacios assisted in setting up meetings between Gamez and the families of Arturo Guerrero and Saul Guerrero Jr., meetings in which Gamez purportedly told Saul's family that Ford – not their son – was at fault for the tragedy. The Guerrero families signed contracts with Gamez.

Shortly thereafter, on July 2, 2003, the first petition in the lawsuit that became Rosanna Garcia v. Ford was filed.

The lawsuit also blamed Saul Guerrero Jr., the driver, for the accident. He was sued along with Ford in a move that kept the lawsuit in friendly Crystal City. This was a twist that shocked the Guerrero family. Attorney Jesse Gamez had ended up suing his own client, a key ingredient in the allegations of collusion charging that "the integrity of the process was compromised."

Millions of dollars were at stake. Crystal City buzzed with news of the upcoming trial.

Local residents – mostly Mexican-Americans who work in the area's back-breaking vegetable industry or at jobs obtained through fealty to the county's political machine – had seen the large, expensive cars with out-of-town license plates raising dust on the streets. The normally quiet courthouse was busy with the comings and goings of unfamiliar men and women in expensive suits.

The trial was gossip item No. 1 in local restaurants. Many of the residents of Crystal City knew or were related to the extended families suing Ford. Or they knew Palacios and Gamez.

As the lawsuit matured, and the trial date of Valentine's Day 2005 approached, Palacios would begin to play her most controversial role. She was chosen for the prospective jury panel.

Gamez's gift of roses was made the day jury selection in the Ford trial began, a day that Gamez also took Palacios to lunch and talked to her by phone more than a dozen times. When questioning of the prospective jurors began, Palacios said not a word about her relationships with the plaintiffs, the families of the victims or the attorneys when jurors were polled about whether they could be fair and impartial.

Palacios would be picked to serve on the jury, even though presiding Judge Amado Abascal and lawyers for the plaintiffs including Gamez knew about her relationships with the victims and with Gamez.

Ford's attorneys would later call the case "the embodiment of incurable juror bias."   

"Ms. Palacios's professional relationship with Jesse Gamez has poisoned this case," one of Saul Guerrero's appeals lawyers argues in his request for a new trial.

With her red roses from Gamez still fresh, Palacios, the ultimate insider, took her place as one of the 12 jurors.

"It should have been fair. But it was not fair," juror Alfredo "Freddie" Belmares told a researcher for the Center for Individual Freedom in an interview in August 2005. "Before we started deliberating, everybody was saying that the plaintiffs were going to win. Before we saw the evidence, I knew by the way they were talking, I knew it was a done deal."

Lay of the Land

For three decades, South Texas has earned a reputation friendly to plaintiffs' lawyers. The nation's first $100 million personal injury verdict came from nearby Eagle Pass in the 1974 explosion of a propane truck that killed 17.

The public school strike that began in 1967 is as well-known to Texas Latinos as Little Rock is to African-Americans. La Raza Unida, the political party, even succeeded in placing a candidate for governor on the 1972 Texas ballot. That generation's children now run Crystal City. Diana Palacios, for example, was a high school cheerleader and a protestor during the school strike.

Since then, year-round growing seasons and cheap air transport to and from Latin America, the Caribbean and even Asia have hurt the South Texas produce market, and some of the one-time migrant field workers now struggle with the effects of mechanization. There is a Wal-Mart – the town's only large employer other than Del Monte and the government.

Underlying much of South Texas' enterprise is the public sector and the remnants of a patron system of civil government that helped many a Democrat, including Lyndon Baines Johnson, win statewide or congressional offices throughout most of the 20th Century.

Back then, the patrons were usually white Anglos; men like George Parr, the "Duke of Duval County," a rancher and a political kingmaker who spoke fluent Spanish and kept a pocket full of ready cash for any of his "family" of political workers. Anyone who needed a job got one from the Duke or his brother, Archer Parr, as long as they made their annual pilgrimage to the back of the tax office and swore their fealty to voting a straight Democrat ticket in November.

While best known in Duval County, the patron system extended through all the counties of South Texas including Zavala.  As the 20th Century came to a close and Republicans began to take over state government in Texas, Anglo political bosses were replaced by Hispanics. That was the case in Crystal City. Diana Palacios had come up through that system.

"I think people are scared (of her)," said former Mayor Frank Moreno. "Everybody who works for a public entity is afraid they'll lose their jobs" if they oppose her.

"Gamez puts up lots of campaign money," Moreno added, explaining the political workings of Crystal City. "He wines and dines local folks in San Antonio, takes them to Spurs games."

Enter the Gunslinger

Another power group that hangs its hats alongside the politicians in South Texas is the plaintiff trial lawyers.

Pat Maloney Sr., a brilliantly loquacious Irish-American, was one of the first personal injury attorneys to recognize the potential of South Texas as a friendly venue. It was Maloney who won the $100 million in the Eagle Pass propane case. Jesse Gamez, who had graduated from San Antonio's St. Mary's University School of Law, had cut his teeth more than three decades ago working in Maloney's firm in a 19th Century stone and mahogany bank building in downtown San Antonio.

The place was a laboratory for trial lawyer politics. Maloney historically had poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in PAC money into the campaign coffers of judicial candidates who fit his views of the law.  

For Gamez and Palacios and the victims' families, the suit against Ford that began on Valentine's Day could result in a monetary jackpot.

But first, the plaintiffs needed their Popeye, their larger-than-life combatant.

They found their man in Mikal Watts of Corpus Christi. Watts is the latest incarnation of the Texas gunslinger-litigator.  He was only 38 years old (he turned 40 on July 17) when the Ford trial began, but he already carried a portfolio heavy with press clippings.

The young man had built his reputation notch by notch since graduating with honors from the University of Texas law school in 1989 at age 21.

Several of those notches had Ford's name attached. Ford executives in Dearborn, Michigan, probably had a bump in blood pressure when they heard Watts' name. Perhaps the unforgivable act on his part was not just winning, but enjoying it too publicly.

In 2001, Watts negotiated a large settlement with Ford on the eve of trial in the first post-recall tire-tread separation case. Taking that much money was one thing, but Watts insisted that representatives of Ford pay a personal visit of apology to his quadriplegic client.

For Watts, it was the kind of signature moment that makes a public reputation. Sure enough, in December 2001, at the end of the year in which Ford was humbled, Texas Lawyer magazine named him "Impact Player of the Year." He was running down trails blazed by plaintiff attorneys such as Maloney and Joe Jamail of Houston, known for his $10.5 billion verdict in Pennzoil v. Texaco. Like those men, Watts had a reputation of playing hardball and knowing his way around the political backrooms of the state's judiciary.

Watts seems to enjoy bare-knuckle contests, and does not mind putting his own money into the political pot, just as the large defense firms do. In Corpus Christi, Watts had engaged in a bitter public feud with State Rep. Jamie Capelo, who during the 2003 legislative session had been active in supporting caps on non-economic damages.

In an e-mail sent to his firm's employees, Watts wrote, "Jaime Capelo is our enemy." Watts placed $100,000 into a political action committee named the Good Government PAC in 2004 to purchase advertising against Capelo. He also contributed hundreds of thousands to the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, and gave $350,000 in 2004 to Texans for Insurance Reform, a consumer group. Currently, he is one of a small number of backers providing most of the financing for the Texas gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Chris Bell.

When the Ford trial came up on the docket in 2005, Watts was there representing the families of the two deceased girls.

Is Justice Blind?

The trial was held in the Crystal City courtroom of 365th District Judge Amado Abascal III, whose district covers three counties including Zavala in South Texas.

Although he may not have known it at the time of trial, Abascal was under federal investigation as part of a probe of alleged financial misdeeds at the Kickapoo tribe's Lucky Eagle casino outside Eagle Pass. The investigation had yielded numerous indictments, and Abascal was caught up in its wake for allegedly accepting $15,000 from the casino manager and falsely reporting it as political contributions on his election campaign report. He was eventually indicted on Oct. 28, 2005, after the Ford verdict had gone to an appellate court, was suspended from his bench by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and is awaiting trial.

If Abascal were aware of the probe, he may have been thumbing his nose at the judicial establishment with some of his actions in the Ford trial. The judge and his attorney, Roy Minton of Austin,  have argued the indictment was at most a paperwork violation. Crystal City voters seemed to agree when they re-elected Abascal to his bench in the 2006 primary.

Abascal had held his bench for 16 years at the time of the trial, and for three decades has been an intimate player in the South Texas political scene. Two district judges have jurisdiction in Zavala County, and Abascal's "partner" on the other bench was until recently Judge Ray Perez, the grandfather of victim Cori Garcia. Nevertheless, Abascal declined to recuse himself. When the prospective jurors including Palacios were questioned by the lawyers, only one man mentioned knowing the parties or the attorneys in the case; he was excused. Palacios remained silent.

It was not just Palacios and the plaintiffs' attorneys who should have spoken up. Judge Abascal, too, was arguably obliged as an officer of the court to have revealed Palacios' omission of the truth. Several sections of Vernon's Texas Statutes and Codes deal with conflicts of interest and the obligation of lawyers, including judges, to practice "candor" toward the court.

"The judge knew the Garcia and the Perez families," juror Juanita Alcala said in an August 2005 interview with CFIF. "I didn't think this was a fair trial. I was surprised they had it here."

A Theory of the Case

To a layman, the deaths of Cori Garcia and Diana Alonso would seem to have been the fault of the drunken driver and the failure of the occupants to wear their seat belts. If any party were to be sued, it would seem logical for the families of the dead women and the injured passenger, Arturo Guerrero, to sue the driver, Saul Guerrero Jr. But Saul Guerrero Jr. had no assets. That left Ford as the only party with significant assets.

Plaintiff attorney Mikal Watts would blame the injuries and death on Ford Motor Company. He argued that the glass used for the side windows of the truck was unsafe because it broke and came out of its seal too easily, allowing passengers without seat belts to be ejected from the vehicle and maimed or killed.

The type of glass used in the side windows of the 2000 Ford Explorer, tempered but not laminated glass, was used in 99 percent of the vehicles available in the United States that model year. The question of which type of glass provides the most "cost effective" product to prevent ejections during rollovers had been studied by the auto industry as early as 1971. In the year 2000 models, laminated side glass was available only in a few high-dollar foreign cars, including some models of Mercedes, Audi and BMW.

In the plaintiffs' theory, Ford was negligent in the year 2000 models. At the time the Crystal City case went to trial, Mikal Watts' law firm had 30-odd personal injury cases against Ford in South Texas. The stakes were high for all sides.

Conflicts of Interest?

As the trial date approached, the status of Saul Guerrero Jr. was murky. Guerrero, the driver, had been sued by his own lawyer as a defendant with Ford. To maintain joint and several liability against Ford, the plaintiffs had to sue Saul Jr. But that put Jesse Gamez in a bind. Gamez had signed a contract with Saul Jr.'s father to represent his son. The canon of ethics prohibits a lawyer from representing opposing parties in the same lawsuit. So Gamez referred Saul's case to a San Antonio attorney, who had a difficult time meeting with his client and was unable to file motions on his behalf. That attorney eventually withdrew from the case, or tried to, in the weeks prior to trial. Saul Jr. was apparently unreachable.

Meanwhile, no one had met deadlines on Guerrero's behalf for filing motions and naming expert witnesses to pursue what the Guerrero family believed to be the son's civil lawsuit against Ford. Mikal Watts, the main plaintiffs' attorney, did not want Saul Jr., the drunken driver, mixed in with the other plaintiffs. Their interests were not identical. Watts' major expert witness had said his testimony about the side window glass would not help Guerrero's claims.

As the proceedings began on Valentine's Day and as a jury was being chosen, Saul Guerrero Jr. reappeared publicly in South Texas. In a series of separate meetings with attorneys for both the plaintiffs and the defendants, the two Guerreros, father and son, attempted to do some good for themselves monetarily. In the process, they posed some potential large problems for the plaintiffs.

Somebody had to represent Guerrero Jr. in the courtroom. If he was not represented, Ford attorneys would be able to try "an empty chair," in the phraseology of chief plaintiff's lawyer Mikal Watts. In other words, Ford would be able to pile all the blame for the accident on Saul Jr., who would not have a lawyer there to stand up for him and object. So, in order to keep the wheels turning, Watts brought his longtime friend and fellow Corpus Christi attorney Guy Allison from a nearby cattle auction to court to represent Saul Jr.

Watts and Allison met with Saul and his father to discuss this change of attorneys on February 17. What happened at that meeting is the subject of a dispute that is laid out in the court record. What everyone agrees on is this: money was discussed. So was the subject of representation of Saul Jr. at trial. Watts and Allison told the Guerreros at dinner that Allison had stepped in to represent junior at the defense table.

Watts would later testify that the Guerreros had tried to "extort" one-quarter of any monetary judgment from the plaintiffs at that meeting. Allison testified that he only offered to gather up $11,000 to $12,000 to help Guerrero with his medical bills. Saul Jr. testified that after the meeting he still thought he was suing Ford, and still thought that San Antonio lawyer Jesse Gamez was his attorney in that endeavor. Despite his objections, Judge Abascal allowed Allison to represent Saul Guerrero Jr. at the defense table. Watts had succeeded in blocking Ford from an "empty chair" defense.

Ford later called this musical chairs game a "sham arrangement between Allison and plaintiff's counsel," meaning Watts.

The Jurors' Tales

Judge Abascal had another problem remaining. It was several days into the trial before Ford challenged Diana Palacios' presence on the jury. San Antonio Express-News reporter John MacCormack had reported on the gift of roses from Gamez to Palacios. All copies of the newspaper in the area were bought up as soon as they were delivered that morning, but the publishing company was happy to bring another run of the edition down to newsstands. Abascal finally excused Palacios from the jury on Feb. 22, but by then, the damage may already have been done.

After the trial ended, two jurors signed affidavits for Ford saying that Palacios improperly talked about giving money to the victims' families throughout her time on the jury. One was Juanita Alcala, a cashier at Wal-Mart, and the other was Jose Alfredo "Freddie" Belmares, a father of three and an auto and diesel mechanic.

"Freddie" Belmares, 40, was a native of Crystal City and a son of migrant workers. He was the only juror who voted during both tallies that Ford was not responsible for the deaths and injuries that summer night in 2003.

"This case I thought was very important," he told a researcher for CFIF in August 2005, "because of the magnitude of the case, the scope of it. Knowing cars inside and out, I thought this could be very important for the future, for the safety of automobiles. So I took a very keen interest in it. I tried to be very open-minded about this thing."

Belmares has survived stomach cancer and has a 50 percent disability rating. Last summer, he was struggling to support his fiancée Esmeralda and his three children in their modest rental home.  The town was shunning the family.

During an hour-long interview, Belmares was non-committal in the beginning. But by the end, he talked openly about why he signed one affidavit for Ford after the trial saying the jury deliberations were not fair and a later one for the Mikal Watts team recanting what he told the automaker.

Asked about his initial allegations that Palacios "was trying to influence the jury before she left," Belmares confirmed, "Yeah, I did say that." Does he still think it's true? "Yeah, I do," he said, adding the only reason he recanted "was to be left alone. I didn't want to mess with it anymore."

The shunning of Belmares in Crystal City extended beyond dirty looks.

Although he had attended high school there, and worked on the cars and trucks of numerous town residents, his position on the Ford trial made him a pariah.

His '92 Dodge Dakota pickup with NASCAR #1 on the back window had several pounds of sugar poured into the gas tank after Belmares left it overnight in the parking lot of a pizza restaurant. Two weeks after that, he had driven his '97 Mercury Mystique to a local bar and was enjoying a beer when someone told him his tire was flat.

"They were all flat," he said. "Of course I knew (the reason). You can't get four flat tires at once. I was there by myself; nobody saw anything."

Belmares did not call the city police. In the words of Belmares: "What good would it do? Who's the boss? The city manager." Diana Palacios.

Belmares is considering taking his family and beginning a new life elsewhere. He knows he won't be missed in Crystal City. The 4 a.m. knocks on the door and the cars that drive by in the middle of the night are incidents he can do without.

"I am not scared, but I am scared for my family," he said.

Of his fellow jurors, Belmares said: "They made me feel like an outsider.  I felt pretty bad about it. I still get dirty looks."

Belmares suspects that the shunning rose to vandalism after he spoke openly around town about why he voted with the defendant Ford.

"Just because somebody (Ford) has a lot of money doesn't mean they're guilty automatically, just because they can afford to give money. And by the evidence that we saw Ford was not guilty, and I still think that today," he said.

Although the jury was not sequestered during trial and was instructed not to discuss the case before the presentation of evidence and the testimony of witnesses ended, Belmares said some jurors talked about the trial during breaks when they were together in the jury room.

"I was upset while it (the trial) was going on because you're judging somebody before you know all the details," he said. "I felt bad about the other jurors because, being proud of this town (and) from here, I felt people from here were more open-minded. So I felt letdown a little bit."

Belmares said the jury was not officially told the reason that Palacios was removed from the panel when it happened. But after the trial, he heard "bits and pieces" of gossip about her "dating" one of the lawyers.

Juanita Alcala, 46, who is also the daughter of migrant workers, thought Palacios might be doing more than that. Palacios had two cell phones, one that the city provided her as city manager, and the other that Gamez had given her. It was suspected that Palacios may have given the cell phone she received from Gamez to Cynna Martinez, another juror who was Palacios' niece. Martinez then could have called Palacios during breaks in the trial without detection.

Alcala said that juror Martinez usually emerged from the rest room saying that her aunt Diana "thought they should do this or that." Martinez did not have a cell phone in her own name, and she denied speaking to her aunt while she was on the jury. No improper contact between jurors and outsiders has been proven.

Alcala has worked in Crystal City all her life. After 21 years as a teacher's aide at local schools, she retired three years ago and took a job as a cashier at Wal-Mart. She lives with her mother in a modest home. It was the Ford trial that made her uncomfortable for the first time in her town. Alcala said she was disturbed by Diana Palacios' behavior as a juror, beginning with jury selection when the city manager failed to identify herself as Jesse Gamez's personal and business partner, or as Cori Garcia's aunt.

"I knew she was related," Alcala said. "She knew all the Garcias."

Alcala said her mother became alarmed about their safety after the trial when the attorneys and their investigators began visiting the jurors' homes and businesses and pressing them to sign affidavits. One representative even approached Alcala at work at Wal-Mart. Like Belmares, she said she signed his affidavit recanting her statements to Ford without reading it because she was tired of being hassled.

"Everything I said that first time (to Ford) was true," she said last August in an interview with a CFIF researcher.

Although Alcala joined Belmares in the first jury vote that Ford was not to blame, she voted with everyone except Belmares on the second and last vote.

"The majority was for [the plaintiffs]," Alcala said. "I didn't think we had a chance against all of them."

The jury awarded the families a record amount of wrongful death damages -- $31 million, 90 percent of it against Ford.

Who's Watching the Courts?

What emerges from interviews months after the pressure and bustle of the trial is a portrait of a small town ostracizing those who wouldn't go along with putting serious money in the pockets of one of its respected, prominent families.

But who is policing the behavior of judges, lawyers and jurors?

Solely on the basis of the public record, the Crystal City case represents a clear lack of public action by the administrative and law enforcement arms of local, state and national governments.

"There's been no request by local police to investigate," said Texas Ranger Roger Millican last year, explaining why the Rangers had not checked on the situation. Normally, the Rangers respond to local requests for law enforcement assistance. But as Freddie Belmares told CFIF, the police work for Diana Palacios.

It's not that the events in Crystal City went unreported. The San Antonio Express-News faithfully reported the trial, as did the Zavala County Sentinel.

In Texas, the Rangers are charged as state police with assisting local police investigations, and they have been responsible in the past for a good share of prosecutions targeting political wrongdoing in South Texas. But not in the Crystal City case.

Judge Abascal was suspended from his bench because of the unrelated federal indictment, not because of action relating to his handling of the Ford trial.

Although Ford attorneys initially filed requests for new trials and appeals based on the allegations of impropriety, by the end of 2005, Ford had settled the case for an unannounced amount before further appeals could be heard. The automaker was also well on its way to settling many of the other lawsuits brought by Mikal Watts in South Texas arising from the issue of side window glass. Because Ford dismissed its appeal, to date the issue of liability for side window glass has not been ruled on by an appellate court in Texas. But the change of standards for the glass has been made nationally.

As for Saul Guerrero Jr., the driver, he secured new attorneys to try to win a new trial against Ford Motor Company. The outcome of that attempt is still pending.

A Note about the Research:

All the factual information concerning this case was taken from publicly available records. No confidential sources were used.

Among the records used were:

* Cary Cardwell is a writer living in San Antonio, Texas.

October 12, 2006
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