CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The family of Frederick Rice wants answers as to how and why a murder trial that began last week was dismissed just days after it began due to a violation that rose to the level of a "Brady" violation.
Jared Naranjo had been charged in the July 2020 killing of Rice. The dismissal in the 148th District Court means that Naranjo cannot be tried again.
"They said (Nueces County District Attorney's Office) 'well we did our due diligence,' but they did not," said Angela Scales, Rice's mother. "They did not do their jobs to make sure my son had justice. All I wanted was to go through the trial, let the jury determine whether or not he was going to be found guilty or not."
At issue was a cell phone collected at the crime scene in July of 2020. Before Rice was transported to the hospital, having been shot once in the jugular and his side, the Corpus Christi Police Department secured a phone from Rice's person, according to Scales.
Both Scales and CCPD confirmed to KRIS 6 News that the pin code to that phone was obtained shortly thereafter and CCPD gained access to the phone.
"We had turned over some digital forensic evidence to our digital technician. The evidence was downloaded," said CCPD Deputy Chief James Lerma. "There was a miscommunication between our technician and our detective where there was some evidence that had been downloaded. Our detective didn't know it had been downloaded yet so conveyed that to the prosecutor during you know, there was a couple of things. So that was one of them. The other one was, you know, during intake, we turned the case over to the prosecution it wasn't caught then, and then once again, during case preparation for the trial, it wasn't caught there as well."
"So there's a couple of missteps on our half," Lerma added. "And on the DA side that, you know, we're definitely going to address so going forward it hopefully doesn't happen again. You know, for us, you know, our detectives work on behalf of the victim, the family, and the community. And we're definitely disappointed that this case was dismissed as I'm sure the family is as well."
In statements to other news media on Friday, Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez said the case had been dismissed because during trial, new evidence was discovered that corroborated a self-defense claim.
Following this statement by Gonzalez, Scales said she was angry. She says following the dismissal, the DA's office told her if they had known of this evidence from the beginning they would still have charged Naranjo.
We reached out to Naranjo's attorney, Chris Gale, but he declined to be interviewed.
KRIS 6 News reached out to Gonzalez on Friday for an interview, which he agreed to, but then did not show up to that scheduled interview. He initially said he was confused by the time, but then did not show up at the new time. He also did not return text messages or phone calls.
According to the dismissal, however, the DA's office filed for dismissal for cause because of the following:
During the course of trial, information or evidence in the form of a phone dump was made available for the first time by a witness although it existed for over a year. The information was not disclosed to the State and rose to the level of Brady.
Eric Perkins, a defense attorney who has litigated many murder and capital murder trials, says that prosecutors don't get to decide which evidence to turn over to the defense.
"So one of the things that we demand and we're entitled to receive from a law enforcement agency and from the DA's office by extension is anything that is considered exculpatory or mitigating so that it comes about as a result of Supreme Court case from 1963 Brady vs. Maryland, which had the holding in it that it's a due process violation for a defendant to not be provided with all evidence, not just the evidence that the prosecution thinks is important," Perkins said. "So they are not allowed to make the decision."
CCPD's Lerma says he is unaware of any such incident occurring in the 22 years he has been with the department and that the police department and DA's office would be meeting to review the incident to ensure something like it never happened again.
Perkins says as a defense attorney, he has had issues trying to obtain evidence from the district attorney's office. Once a trial begins withholding evidence, whether intentional or not, it is a Brady violation, he says.
"A lot of times that is a function of leadership," Perkins said. "An office has to be dedicated, first and foremost, to integrity. You have to want the fact of your cases to be that. The cases are being properly tried that there isn't a lingering doubt about whether or not justice is being done in the courts. And you can't have that in an environment, which is not, does not have integrity as its first and foremost goal."
"It ruins everything because now we don't know whether or not that what the outcome of the case would have been whether or not a guilty person goes free or an innocent person would have been convicted is no longer the issue because the case is over with," Perkins added. "And it's not it's no longer an issue whether winning or losing. Its justice hasn't been done. And justice didn't get done because somebody didn't do their job correctly."
Scales says the family had hoped to find answers through the trial and are now left without closure. Rice leaves behind a common-law wife and two children ages eight and sixteen.
"He's (my grandson) so angry," she said. "You know, this is the time we're supposed to trust God. But he's like, 'I don't trust God, I don't believe in God. He let this happen.'"
"There needs to be an investigation done," Scales added. "There needs to be some changes done. Because my fear is if this has happened to my son in his trial where else has this happened? Who else's family has been affected because of them not doing their job?"