The highest reaches of the Texas judicial system were consumed Friday by a real-life legal thriller that could be titled "The Runaway Grand Jury."
A grand jury indicted a Texas Supreme Court justice Thursday on arson-related charges. But on Friday the district attorney's office that brought the case to the grand jury in the first place dropped the charges, angering members of the panel and drawing allegations of political backscratching.
Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who is himself embroiled in a scandal involving inappropriate e-mails found on his office computer, said there was insufficient evidence to support the charges against Justice David Medina, a fellow Republican.
But the move outraged the grand jury foreman, who threatened to reconvene the panel and issue the charges again.
"One could speculate it was political pressure. I could see no other reason," foreman Robert Ryan said Friday. "It depends on who your friends are."
Ryan told the Houston Chronicle: "If this was David Medina, comma, truck driver, comma, Baytown, Texas, he would have been indicted three months ago."
Wife accused in suspicious fire
Medina was appointed by the governor to the state's highest civil court in 2004 and elected to a full term two years later.
His wife, Francisca, was accused of setting a fire last summer that destroyed the couple's suburban Houston house and damaged a neighbor's residence. Her husband was charged with evidence tampering in the June 28 blaze, which caused nearly $1 million in damages.
Vic Wisner, the assistant prosecutor handling the case, denied accusations of cronyism and special treatment. He said his embattled boss was getting a raw deal and insisted the Supreme Court justice and his wife weren't off the hook.
"I can assure you there was no influence in any way, shape or form," Wisner said. "And also, with the criticism of Mr. Rosenthal, he was just acting on information received from me. If anyone deserves any criticism in this case, it should be me and not him."
'They're all upset' by grand jury
One defense attorney not connected to the case found Friday's events ironic.
"I wish I had a dollar for every single time the DAs have said, 'Well, we'll just let the grand jury hear the facts of the case and let them decide and whatever they decide that's what we'll do,'" said Katherine Scardino, a Houston defense attorney. "Now it's obviously something they don't want, so they're all upset about it."
John Parras, on Francisca Medina's legal team, said the dismissal was not unusual and that Rosenthal was "just exercising his discretion."
"It was a runaway grand jury indicting on no evidence," he said. "With everything going on in the county with regards to the district attorney, people are reading more into this than the story warrants."
Last week, Rosenthal was forced off the GOP ballot for re-election after dozens of messages from his office e-mail account were disclosed as part of an unrelated case. The e-mail file included pornography, racist humor, love notes to his secretary and campaign-related files on a county-owned computer, a possible violation of election laws. Rosenthal was left embarrassed, under state investigation and ostracized by the county GOP hierarchy intent on damage control.
Wisner said the investigation of the Medina case would continue.
"To give you an analogy, we're only about six months into a 10-year statute of limitations on the arson, which is like about three minutes into a football game," he said.
The justice and his wife have denied any wrongdoing. Neither was at the brief hearing Friday.
"I can't speak for the actions of the grand jury, but I'm very disappointed by their decision," he said later in the day. "I do not know Mr. Rosenthal personally, and I have no other connection with him on any professional level."
Medina spared scrutiny by commission
The Supreme Court is Texas' highest civil court. The last stop for criminal cases is the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Medina's lawyer, Terry Yates, said the only possible improprieties are by Ryan and another grand juror who also publicly blasted the district attorney's office.
"They're acting way out of bounds," said Yates, who was seeking contempt of court charges against the pair for violating grand jury secrecy laws. "There's no politics. That's what the grand jury is trying to imply."
The dismissal spares Medina scrutiny by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, which can suspend a judge who is under indictment.
The fire marshal's office has said the fire at the Medinas' home in Spring, north of Houston, was not electrical or accidental. A dog detected an accelerant at the scene.
Investigators became suspicious after discovering a mortgage company sued in June 2006 to foreclose on the $300,000 home. The lawsuit, filed after the family missed payments for five months, was settled in December 2006.
Yates has acknowledged the family had financial problems. They owed nearly $1,900 in fees to a homeowners association and also let the insurance policy on the house lapse, meaning losses from the fire were not covered.