After nearly a full day of jury selection and two days of testimony, an eight woman, four man Gaines County jury delivered a guilty verdict on a charge of Lewd Conduct with a Minor in the case State of Texas’ case against Rigoberto Marquez Mena on Wednesday at the 106th District Court in Seminole.
With his Thursday morning sentencing, Mena, 42, received 16 years in the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice System, with 632 days credit for time served.
Despite an abundance of testimony from law enforcement officials from Martin and Midland counties, children’s advocates specializing in child sexual abuse, the mother of the victim, and even Wednesday’s compelling testimony from the now 12-year-old victim herself, at least one or more jurors found such hearsay evidence to be insufficient to justify a guilty verdict on count one of the indictment, the more serious charge of Continuous Sexual Abuse of a Child.
Rigoberto Marquez Mena, 42
(Gaines Co. LEC Photo)
Given that, a secret cell phone video recording of a 2014 conversation with Mena by the child’s mother took on greater significance as possibly the single piece of evidence that made a conviction on the lesser charge possible. In the video, Mena admits to enough to fulfill the legal definition of lewd conduct, while denying certain elements of the more serious charges of continuing abuse that were later testified to by the child and corroborated by law enforcement officials and child advocates. Mena had made the same confession to a Martin County Deputy Sheriff in Stanton before being placed under arrest. He later recanted it on the witness stand.
Due to the nature of the crime, the names of both the minor victim and her mother have been withheld by the Seminole Sentinel, in the interests of the child’s privacy.
The unique characteristic of the case was that, while much of the abuse was believed to have occurred in Stanton, and most of those involved in the case, including Mena, were residing in that area when charges were filed, police investigations had revealed that the child and her younger brother allegedly suffered abuse during a period of time when the mother was either commuting to Seminole in her nursing job, or occupying a rented apartment here with Mena and her two children.
With the case assigned to the 106th District Court docket instead of the 118th District in Stanton, Assistant D.A. Robert Bond built his case primarily around testimony relating to that period of time in Seminole between 2011 and 2012 in support of the more serious Continuous Abuse charge. Jurors were advised that any evidence or testimony that originated in Martin or Midland Counties, and the alleged abuse of the younger male child, could be considered in support of the body of evidence from Seminole.
With the mistrial on the first count of the indictment, retired Judge James Rex, sitting in for the absent 106th District Judge Carter Schildknecht, indicated that the state is free to seek a retrial on the Continuous Sexual Abuse charge. Conviction of that charge could result in 25 to 99 years imprisonment.
With jury selection continuing from mid-morning to 4:00 p.m. on Monday during the Voir dire portion of the case, the newly seated jury had time to hear the testimony of Mena’s former wife, the mother of the two alleged child victims. The woman testified that it was a movie about child molestation that she watched in June, 2014 that led her to make inquiries to her daughter and now 9-year-old son. After some prompting, according to her testimony, the children told their mother of sexual abuse that had occurred in both Stanton and Seminole, and she immediately called the Martin County Sheriff’s office.
Explaining that she then called her husband, the woman testified that “Rigo” had appeared at her home and admitted to some lesser aspects of the abuse to her, in Spanish, in a conversation that she had secretly recorded. Mena was assigned a translator throughout the trial, and the content of the video would later be translated into English for the jury.
Defense Attorney Arthur Aguilar began a lengthy cross examination of the woman as Court resumed on Tuesday morning. She explained that her own physical abuse at the hands of a previous husband was the reason that the daughter had remained silent in the years since the alleged sexual abuse began in 2011.
With no physical evidence to rely on, Bond attempted to build a case with testimony from Martin and Midland County law enforcement officers, as well as a Seminole babysitter and Lois Hughes, a Big Spring forensic nurse, specializing in minor victims of abuse. Hughes, who examined the victim, explained that in most cases of such abuse, there is no visible evidence on the victim’s body. Her testimony was backed up one Wednesday by Michael Margolis, a forensic interviewer who had counseled the child at the Midland Child Advocacy Center shortly after the charges were filed against her stepfather.
The cell phone video was then entered into evidence. In the secretly recorded conversation, Mena admitted to touching the children inappropriately, but denied the more intrusive instances of abuse that had been reported by the daughter. In the conversation, he told the mother that he wished to confess to the police. He was arrested later that day.
Wednesday began with the dismissal of one juror who, after the testimony of the Seminole babysitter, realized that she once had worked with the woman. As an extra precaution, Judge Rex allowed the woman to be excused. That lessened the chances of even a passive relationship potentially becoming an issue on appeal.
With an alternate juror moving to the jury box, the Court heard testimony from the now 12-year-old girl, who testified that she had suffered continued abuse from Mena since the second grade. She described sexual behavior that became even more invasive after the family returned from Seminole to Stanton. She also testified that she had withheld the information from her mother to avoid turmoil in the family.
Later in the day, Mena, against the advice of his attorney, took the stand and, still using a translator, told the jury that despite his confession to law enforcement, he had only confessed to some inappropriate conduct to his wife in an effort to get her to agree to family counseling. He told the jury that everything that his former stepdaughter had testified to was untrue.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Arthur Aguilar attempted to cast doubts on the child’s testimony to the jury, while prosecutor Bond continued to emphasize the continuous and repetitive nature of the alleged abuse that he believed occurred in Seminole, in an attempt to get a guilty verdict on both counts. He emphasized to the jury that, in the absence of physical evidence, the integrity of those who testified on the child’s behalf was paramount.
After two hours of deliberation on Wednesday, the jury foreman sent a note to Judge Rex that the jury had reached an impasse on count one, but were unanimous in their guilty verdict on the second count.
By Sam Holbrooks