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Fifth Circuit Upholds Former Texas State Judge’s Bribery-Related Convictions

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of a former Texas state judge on two counts of wire fraud and one count of making false statements related to bribes he received while in office.

After he was elected but before being sworn in as a state district judge, Manuel Barraza met with Diana Rivas Valencia, who was facing drug charges in another state court in El Paso. Rivas had asked to see Barraza because she was unhappy with her court-appointed attorney and wanted him replaced. Barraza suggested that he could “get rid of the charges” once he took office. “In exchange, Barraza wanted money and a ‘buffet’ of women.”

Rivas contacted the FBI, which recruited her sister, Sarai Valencia, to assist with the investigation. Valencia and an undercover FBI agent, posing as the woman who would provide sexual gratification, met with Barraza several times. Barraza outlined his plan to replace Rivas’ court-appointed attorney with someone he trusted after getting the case transferred to his court.

After receiving $1,300, Barraza filed a judicial order to transfer the case. However, a court coordinator stopped the transfer after noticing that Rivas had formerly been Barraza’s client when he was a criminal defense attorney. Barraza continued seeking money and sex to have the case dismissed, receiving an additional $3,800. The transaction was videotaped.

When the FBI interviewed Barraza he denied having met with Rivas after he became a judge. He was then arrested for wire fraud and making a false statement. A federal jury convicted him in February 2010, and he was sentenced to concurrent terms of 60 months in federal prison and three years of supervised release. Barraza appealed.

The Fifth Circuit made short work of Barraza’s claims that he was prejudiced by a juror’s improper statement (her own experience with workplace sexual harassment), by the government withholding impeachment evidence, by a witness’ prejudicial comment on the stand and by the prosecution’s allegedly unconstitutional theory of the case, essentially holding that such claims were not error or were harmless.

The appellate court also found the evidence against Barraza to be sufficient and the district court’s application of the Sentencing Guidelines, in which the offense level was increased because Barraza was a public official, to be proper. “None of Barraza’s several challenges require a new trial, reversal of his conviction, or resentencing,” the Fifth Circuit concluded. See: United States v. Barraza, 655 F.3d 375 (5th Cir. 2011), cert. denied.

Additional source: El Paso Times

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Related legal case

United States v. Barraza