Texas Youth prison abuse case ends in acquittal

By Betsy Blaney

Associated Press

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) -- The second criminal trial stemming from a sex abuse scandal at a West Texas juvenile prison that upended the state agency overseeing young offenders ended in an acquittal for the facility's former principal.

After two weeks of testimony and about six hours of deliberations, jurors late Monday acquitted John Paul Hernandez on 14 counts in 11 indictments that alleged he sexually abused five inmates at in 2004 and 2005.

"Six years I've been waiting to hear those words," Hernandez said. "I've already served a six-year punishment and finally a weight has been lifted."

The allegations of abuse and subsequent investigations at the Texas Youth Commission's West Texas State School in Pyote prompted the resignations or firings of several top officials with agency responsible for overseeing the state's juvenile prison system. Lawmakers eventually ordered an overhaul of the system.

Prosecutors declined to comment after the verdict. A call to Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the Texas Attorney General's Office, was not immediately returned early Tuesday.

Jurors also declined to comment as they filed out of the deliberation room.

After years of court motions and alleged inaction by a local district attorney, state prosecutors had one target left in their case: Hernandez. Another former administrator, Ray Brookins, was sentenced last April to 10 years in prison for sexually abusing different young men at the prison.

The state's attorney general's office took over the prosecution of both former officials after the Ward County district attorney was accused of not acting quickly.

All of Hernandez's accusers testified against him, telling jurors that Hernandez talked to them about pornography and fetishes before fondling them and performing oral sex.

"I'm elated," said Albert G. Valadez, Hernandez's attorney, who hugged his client once jurors left the courtroom after the verdicts were announced. "We're very happy that this jury in Lubbock paid as close attention to the testimony as they did."

Members of Hernandez's family had attended the whole trial and cried and hugged one another after hearing the outcome.

Hernandez took the stand in his own defense last week and denied the inmates' allegations, saying the young men lied in their statements to Texas Rangers investigators. Valadez has said the former inmates made up the allegations so they'd be released from the facility, which closed last summer.

A former corrections officer at the prison testified that she heard two inmates -- one of them an accuser in the case -- talking about fabricating allegations of sexual abuse so they could go home.

Valadez told jurors in his closing argument that prosecutors had no physical evidence -- no DNA, no fingerprints, no crime scene photos and no witnesses.

Prosecutor Lisa Tanner told jurors that Hernandez was the one with "a clear-cut, obvious motive to lie."

A report from Texas Rangers investigators in 2005 said Brookins and Hernandez summoned young male inmates from their dorms late at night or pulled them from classrooms. The report stated that for at least two years the teens went with the men to ballfields, darkened conference rooms, and offices for sex.

The initial investigator, Texas Ranger Brian, after he respected the jury's decision.

"Our job is to get it to the trial and we did," he said.

Hernandez and Brookins were allowed to quietly resign amid the Rangers' investigation.

Published: Wed, Feb 23, 2011


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