U.S. District Judge Ron Clark didn’t buy into the claims of racism and bias argued by defense attorney Dick DeGuerin that Calvin Walker of Walker’s Electric couldn’t receive a fair and impartial criminal trial in the Beaumont division of the Eastern District of Texas and ordered the case remain here rather than be transferred to Lufkin or to Houston.
DeGuerin argued during a four-hour hearing that Beaumont had too many union members and a problem with racism that would prevent his client – a non-union, minority electrical contractor – from getting a fair trial. He provided testimony from witnesses including the current and former heads of the NAACP, a former TV reporter now working for the Beaumont Independent School District, a black community activist who chaired the pro-BISD Best Education System in Texas (B.E.S.T.) committee, and others.
Walker is accused of defrauding BISD and has been charged with 37 counts in a felony indictment that was released earlier this year. The counts include charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, interstate transportation of funds by fraud, money laundering and fraud upon programs receiving federal funds.
The case was originally scheduled for trial this past summer but that date was later changed and last week, after the hearing, DeGuerin indicated to reporters he believes the case will again be postponed.
A Rule 21(a) transfer will be granted where the evidence shows that “so great a prejudice against the defendant exists in the transferring district that the defendant cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial there,” Clark wrote in the opening of his ruling. “While there has been publicity about the case, Mr. Walker’s own expert stated that use of a juror questionnaire and careful voir dire would allow a fair trial. Mr. Walker’s counsel indicated that this procedure in the Beaumont Division was preferable to employing the same procedure in the Lufkin Division, which, for the most part, is outside the ambit of the Beaumont Division’s media outlets.”The judge also stated it is not the intent of federal law regarding venue changes to provide to a defendant a venue he believes would provide him with a forum that would be a convenience to him, provide a favorable jury pool or one that would be of an inconvenience to the prosecution. He said DeGuerin did not meet the necessary burden of proof to grant the venue change.
As part of his ruling, Judge Clark took issue with a survey DeGuerin had commissioned claiming most of the people in Southeast Texas had already made up their minds about his client’s guilt. The judge found that not to be the case, even in the most basic reading of the survey.
“There are several problems with Mr. (Lee) Vache’s (pollster who conducted two telephone surveys) statistical methodology. The first is a built-in bias, namely that responders are only those who are willing to talk about a particular subject,” Clark wrote in a 10-page ruling. The callers conducting the telephone survey ended calls with people who had not heard of Walker or his issues with BISD.
“Even taking Mr. Vache’s results at face value, they do not necessarily support the thesis that Mr. Walker cannot receive a fair and impartial trial in the Beaumont Division,” Clark continued. “For example, in the Beaumont-only poll, all of the poll participants whose responses were reported had heard of Mr. Walker. More than half of those polled (51.8 percent) had no opinion, or thought Mr. Walker was not guilty, while less than half of those polled (48.1 percent) thought that he was guilty.”Judge Clark also made mention of the high profile Enron corruption case where a venue change was denied and later upheld as proper by an appeals court.If the trial date is not rescheduled as suggested by DeGuerin, it would begin in Dec. 6.
An indictment is not an indication of guilt but only that there is enough evidence, as viewed by a grand jury, to move forward with legal proceedings in a complete criminal trial.
The most recent filing in the case, which occurred the day after the venue ruling, is a request by the defense to disqualify the experts prosecutors are planning to call in order to present their evidence in the case against Walker. A hearing is expected on this in the next week or so.