MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Texas - A Montgomery County judge overturned the conviction of state Rep. Ron Reynolds, who was convicted Friday on six counts of misdemeanor solicitation of professional employment.
Reynolds will now face a new trial. He says he wants it moved out of Montgomery County, alleging race and politics played a part in his prosecution.
"Politically there has been an attack upon me as an African-American, and Democrat elected official. I think there has been selective prosecution in the charges against me, not supported by facts," Reynolds said.
Reynolds was originally charged with 10 counts of barratry, a third-degree felony, along with seven other defendants in a sting operation by the Montgomery County district attorney.
Barratry is the legal term for what's commonly known as ambulance chasing. Reynolds allegedly used a go-between to illegally solicit clients involved in auto accidents for his law practice.
However after a week long trial, the jury chose to find him guilty Friday on the lesser charges of solicitation of professional employment. a Class A misdemeanor that carries a punishment of up to a year in jail, and a $4,000 fine.
Had Reynolds been found guilty of the felony charges, he would have faced up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, would have been forced to give up his legislative seat and the possible loss of his law license.
The decision to overturn the conviction was made on Monday as jurors were preparing to hear the punishment phase of the trial. The only African-American member of the panel told Judge Lisa Michalk that she had learned other lawyers indicted in the case accepted a plea deal, and that she shared that information with the jury.
Prosecutor Kelly Blackburn said other members of the jury denied it, but the judge determined the conviction was flawed and ordered a new trial.
"We plan to proceed on felony charges, we think evidence supports felony charges," Blackburn said. "If that's what the law allows that's what we're going to proceed on."
Reynolds' attorney Vivian King says she believes Reynolds can only be tried now on the misdemeanor charges. Both the defense and prosecution are researching the law on that.
Reynolds says he also plans to ask for a change of venue.
"I have a very strong conviction I didn't get a fair trial, but even bigger I believe it s difficult for African-American to get fair trial in Montgomery County, Texas," Reynolds said.
Reynolds said on the first day of testimony, which was also election day, Nov. 4, he noticed a sign posted in front of the courthouse that accused national black leaders, including President Barack Obama, of being "race-baiters" and "poverty pimps."
"It was not a comfortable environment," King said, pointing out Montgomery County is a strongly Republican county with a African-American population of just under 5 percent. King said the jury was selected from a panel of 72 potential jurors than included only two African Americans.
But Assistant D.A. Blackburn says the prosecution will fight a motion to move the trial.
"I think the jury in the case gave him more than a fair trial, they came back with the lessor and included offense of solicitation instead of barratry. So to say he can't get fair trial in Montgomery County just doesn't hold water," Blackburn said.
A new trial has been scheduled for Jan. 5, 2015, about a week before Reynolds is due in Austin for the beginning of the new legislative session.
Reynolds has faced legal problems in the past. He was charged with barratry in Harris County in 2012. The charge was dropped after it was discovered an investigator with the Harris County district attorney was charged with stealing evidence in another case.
Reynolds' law license was also suspended twice in 2005 before being reinstated by the Texas Bar Association. Reynolds also was fined $10,000 by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to file campaign finance reports.
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