El Paso District Attorney Yvonne Rosales resigned on Monday after less than two years in office, ending a turbulent tenure that saw her facing a trial to remove her from office.
The resignation is effective on Dec. 14, the day before a hearing that could have led to her temporary suspension from her job until the conclusion of the removal effort. A jury trial had been set for March 2023 on whether to remove Rosales from office for alleged incompetency and official misconduct.
Rosales’ attorney provided state District Judge Tryon Lewis with a copy of her resignation letter, addressed to Gov. Greg Abbott, during a Monday status hearing in the removal case. Lewis, of Odessa, was selected by Stephen Ables, the presiding judge of the West Texas region, to preside over the case.
“I think Ms. Rosales made the right decision today,” said defense attorney Omar Carmona, who filed a petition on Aug. 24 to remove Rosales from office.
“I think that this was overdue,” Carmona continued. “I am hoping that she does keep her word and resigns 5 p.m. on the 14th of December.”
Abbott will appoint a replacement to serve out the remainder of Rosales’ term, which runs through the end of 2024.
Rosales was not present for the hearing. Her attorney, Richard Román, said she would submit her resignation letter to the governor by 5 p.m. MT Monday.
If Rosales fails to resign by Dec. 14, she has agreed — through her attorney — to an order that would remove her from office the following day.
“My client came to the realization that this community needs to heal, the Walmart case needs to be put back on track, and all the other crime victims that aren’t mentioned that are out there deserve a legal system that is continuous, predictable and stable,” Román told El Paso Matters. “And while this was not fun for anybody, I’m pleased that we were able to get it resolved and the healing can start.”
Attempts by Rosales’ previous attorneys to negotiate her resignation had been “unsuccessful,” Román said. About half of the resignation agreement had been finalized ahead of the hearing, he said; the remainder was nailed out by attorneys in the courthouse hallways, stairwells and the judge’s chambers in the hour after the hearing was to begin.
El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal, who had been assigned to prosecute the removal case, expressed confidence in brief remarks made to media that Rosales would comply with the terms of the resignation agreement.
“I appreciate that DA Rosales’ decision to resign was a difficult one,” Bernal said in a prepared statement released later Monday. “It is time, however, that we all focus on ways in which we can work together to improve and repair the criminal justice system in El Paso and ensure a smooth transition to the next DA administration.”
Critics in the courtroom
Carmona was one of a handful of Rosales’ detractors who filled the courtroom Monday. Also present was retired El Paso County Magistrate Judge Penny Hamilton, who criticized Rosales’ dismantling of the District Attorney’s Office’s specialized domestic violence unit, which was seen as part of longtime District Attorney Jaime Esparza’s legacy.
Another spectator was former prosecutor James Montoya, who Rosales beat by about 1,000 votes in the July 2020 Democratic primary runoff election after Esparza stepped down after nearly three decades in office. No Republicans ran for the seat, which Rosales initially sought in 2016, narrowly losing to Esparza in that year’s Democratic primary runoff.
Montoya, who now works for the El Paso County Public Defender’s Office, had been the lead prosecutor on the 2019 Walmart mass shooting case under Esparza. The case has seen a rotating list of prosecutors — including those brought in from out of town — many of whom have since resigned.
In the months before Rosales assumed office in January 2021, she notified dozens of District Attorney’s Office employees, including several attorneys, that they would not be retained, a common practice during transitions in prosecutors. Chronic staffing shortages after the mass terminations, and disruptions caused by the pandemic, plagued the office throughout Rosales’ tenure, leading several judges to take the unprecedented step of criticizing the office for being unprepared to try cases.
In July 2022, District Judge Sam Medrano Jr. rebuked Rosales for “grandstanding” in her handling of the Walmart case, and issued a gag order preventing all parties from making public comments outside of court proceedings.
Rosales absent from court
Judge Lewis had asked that Rosales attend Monday’s hearing, which had been set to hear a request from her former attorneys that they be removed from the case because of an unspecified “conflict” with Rosales. Román, a former 346th District Court judge, entered a notice of appearance on her behalf Monday morning.
But Rosales did not attend and instead participated by phone, answering brief questions from the county attorney on whether she was aware of the resignation letter and other details of Monday’s hearing. She answered “yes” to each of the three questions.
Román said Rosales couldn’t attend because of “medical issues,” but he didn’t elaborate.
“I know that she’s also facing other issues that she has in a couple days from now, so I’m not surprised at all that she didn’t show up,” Carmona said, “but at least we did walk out here today with an agreement from her … that she is going to resign.”
Those issues include a Wednesday hearing in the Walmart case to determine whether an August email purporting to be from the family of a Ciudad Juárez man killed in the attack violated the gag order.
Questions quickly arose about the creation of the email, which was sent to local media and which criticized Judge Medrano and a former prosecutor in the case. The email recipients were all on a news release distribution list maintained by the District Attorney’s Office, an El Paso Matters investigation found.
A court-appointed lawyer who is representing the victim’s family has reported that the email was created by a private attorney who has represented Rosales, Roger Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a municipal court judge in Vinton and is alleged to have threatened the family.
The hearing regarding the emails has been delayed numerous times, most recently in mid-October.
Interim replacement named
Rosales has appointed First Assistant District Attorney George Al-Hanna to fill in for her until the governor appoints a replacement.
Carmona said he has “no confidence” in Al-Hanna, who previously worked in private practice with Rosales, but noted that Al-Hanna’s appointment is temporary.
“I want El Paso to know definitely brighter days are ahead for the criminal justice system,” Carmona said.
It will, Carmona said, take time for the system to recover from Rosales’ mismanagement.
“This is not going to be done overnight,” he said. “This is gonna be an all-hands-on-deck type of situation. The private defense bar, the public defender’s office, the DA’s office, the judges, court staff — it’s going to be all-hands-on-deck. We have to resolve the (case) backlog, un-filed cases and deal with a lot of other things that this administration has left El Paso in a worse situation than we were prior to when she was elected.”
Román said he did not know of Rosales’ plans once her resignation takes effect.
Carmona said Rosales’ tenure illustrates the importance of El Paso voters making informed decisions at the ballot box, whether for district attorney or any other position.
“Citizens need to do their homework and really research these candidates,” he said. “But I’m confident that we will have a good pool of candidates coming up that will run for DA.”
The Democratic and Republican primary elections for the seat will be in March 2024. The next elected district attorney for El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties would take office in January 2025.