The controversy surrounding the district attorney’s office has been the focus of the news media in recent weeks. For the most part, the public has heard one side of the controversy. The fault for this lies on the district attorney’s unwillingness to be transparent about the controversy. El Paso News, like other El Paso news outlets, has been trying to get the district attorney’s office to respond to questions and provide information. The office and the attorney’s associated with Yvonne Rosales have been unresponsive to the news media. The reason for their unresponsiveness is unknown, although there is some speculation as to why.

The lack of information coming from the district attorney’s office has left an informational vacuum that is being used by Rosales’ opponents for political purposes. Removing Rosales from office makes room for another to assume the role of the district attorney. Most of the information that is known about the controversy has come from Omar Carmona, who filed the petition to remove Rosales from office and court filings. The latest is the Justin Underwood report to the court and the transcripts of recordings between magistrate judge Roger Rodriguez and members of the Hoffmann family that suggest a criminal conspiracy centered around Rosales’ office.

The audio transcripts and the report suggest that Rosales’ office conspired to violate the judge’s so-called gag order through an email that was sent to the news media in the Walmart case. Who sent the email is central to the controversy. The email raises several important questions that are central to the issues surrounding the district attorney’s office and the controversy over it.

The Gag Order

The first question is the so-called gag order. Gag orders “typically forbid individuals from talking about, publishing, or disseminating” information about the court proceedings. There is no question that the Walmart case is the community’s most important criminal case. Because of that the community has an inherent interest in the case.

Judges are given wide powers in prohibiting public discussions about the cases before them. However, orders prohibiting discussing the case threatens the community’s inherent First Amendment right to access their courts. They also can “function as prior restraint on speech,” and, thus can be “presumptively unconstitutional.”

This raises two questions about the gag order.

The first question about the gag order is if it meets the constitutional requirements that limit the public’s right to know what is happening in their courtroom. The El Paso news media, including us, are remise in not challenging the judge’s order to keep the public in the dark.

The second issue with the gag order is whether the Hoffmann’s are subject to the gag order in the first place. From the public records, the Hoffmann family are not witnesses to the murders and thus cannot testify at the trial as to the crime. At best, the Hoffmann family is can provide impact statements to how the murder of their loved one has affected them. These could be used to help administer the punishment.

Thus, the question is, are the Hoffmann’s part of the gag order, and if so, is it proper to silence the victims?

The answer to that question can only be known if the judge’s gag order is constitutional and whether the Hoffmann family can be silenced. This is important because the Underwood report suggests that Yvonne Rosales, or her office, may have conspired with Roger Rodriguez to have the Hoffmann family violate the judge’s order prohibiting them from speaking to the news media. It is the judge’s order that has become central to the controversy. Thus, the question is whether the judge’s order is valid is important to understanding the controversy.

This leads us to what role has Roger Rodriguez played in the controversy.

What Is Roger Rodriguez’ Role?

Roger Rodriguez is a Vinton Village municipal judge who is implicated in the Underwood report as conspiring to violate the gag order. El Paso News has reached out Rodriguez and he has not responded to our request for comment.

How Rodriguez is connected to Rosales remains unknown and his unwillingness to come forward leaves the Underwood tapes as the community’s only knowledge about his actions in relation to the judge’s gag order. The tapes provide only one-side of the controversy. Thus, the important question is what is Rodriguez’ official capacity in Rosales’ office?

According to a source with first-hand knowledge, Rodriguez is an unpaid “liaison between the DA’s Office and the Governor’s Office.”

What his unpaid “liaison” position entails remains unclear. However, part of confusion lies in the number of pending Walmart cases.

Three Cases Or More

There are at least three pending cases involving the Walmart murders. The first two are the criminal cases against Patrick Crusius. They are a federal case and state case for the Walmart murders. Yvonne Rosales leads the state case and it is the case that is central to the controversy.

The Underwood tapes suggest that Rodriguez is somehow involved in a civil case against Walmart, but this remains unconfirmed. Online records show three civil cases involving Walmart and Crusius. Two of the cases are marked as disposed and a third is listed as inactive. At least 20 families filed a civil case against Walmart on August 30, 2019. That case is on hold because the judges on both criminal cases have prevented evidence to be released.

El Paso News spoke to a prominent defense attorney about the judge’s gag order. The attorney, who spoke to us only to provide background information, says that it is unclear if the judge’s gag order applies to the Hoffmann’s because no one “has challenged” the judge’s order. The defense attorney said that although the Hoffmann’s may not be witnesses to the murders, their testimony can be used in the punishment phase should the prosecutors fail to deliver a death penalty verdict. The Hoffmann’s testimony could determine the length of sentence that the jury delivers should it be necessary.

However, without challenging the judge’s gag order, it stands, the attorney told us.

These questions and more remain unanswered because the district attorney refuses to engage with the news media. The reasons as to why she refuses are unknown. If Yvonne Rosales chooses to continue to remain silent, it leaves the community with only one side of the story, the narrative that may remove her from office.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.