WACO, Texas – After a gunfight between rival motorcycle gangs outside a crowded restaurant left nine dead, police rounded up everyone on the scene wearing biker vests. Now, as 174 people sit in jail on organized crime charges, legal experts say that prosecutors face a difficult challenge and that many of those arrested could end up going free.
"They have bitten off more than they can chew," said Robert Draskovich, a Las Vegas criminal defense lawyer who represents bikers. "Prosecutors often overreach and charge too many people, but I've never seen it to this extent."
To prove the current charges, which have capital murder as the underlying crime, prosecutors must show each defendant took part in the shootout. Although the law allows for broad interpretation of participation, experts say the case is muddled by Texas' strong self-defense and gun rights, as well as issues with witness cooperation and credibility.
The McLennan County district attorney's office won't say how its 26 prosecutors plan to tackle the case, which could involve seeking the death penalty. But experts predicted they will divide the defendants into groups, offer plea deals to the less culpable suspects and try only the ones against whom they have the best evidence.
"It's definitely doable, but it's just going to take up a lot of court time and a lot of extra, over-and-above work," said Jack Choate, training director for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and a former county prosecutor.
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna also can enlist the help of prosecutors and investigators from the state attorney general's office, other counties and the federal government, Choate said.
At least 75 of the suspects have requested a public defender, but there are only 29 lawyers in McLennan County approved to defend first-degree felonies for the indigent, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald.
State District Judge Matt Johnson told the newspaper that for the first time in his career, he has asked for help from nearby counties.