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A call, a text, an apology: How an abortion arrest and a since-dropped murder charge rocked a Texas town

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Calixtro Villarreal’s phone rang on Saturday afternoon, some 48 hours after his client, Lizelle Herrera, was arrested and charged with murder – in what local authorities said was a “voluntary abortion”.

It was Gocha Ramirez, the district attorney for Starr County, Texas, a remote area on the border with Mexico. Herrera should never have been charged, Ramirez told the attorney, according to a person familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private interactions.

The public prosecutor reiterated this feeling in a text that he sent the next day to an acquaintance. “I’m so sorry,” he wrote in the post, which was reviewed by The Washington Post. “I assure you that I never meant to hurt this young woman.”

Texas woman charged with murder after abortion

Ramirez moved to file all charges on Sunday. He did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Herrera. Villarreal declined to comment several times.

Abortion rights advocates in Texas and across the country seized on Herrera’s arrest shortly after his arrest on Thursday, fearing it was tied to a new Texas law banning most abortions and, worse, , pointed to a disturbing future in which women seeking to terminate their pregnancies are treated like criminals.

However, interviews with several people in the South Texas community following the situation closely, as well as statements by leaders of the Texas anti-abortion movement, suggest that it was not part of a broader anti-abortion strategy. , but rather a hasty mistake by a first-term Democrat. district attorney. Herrera’s husband – who filed for divorce the same day as his arrest – is being represented by an attorney from the district attorney’s office, raising questions about a potential conflict of interest.

Still, Herrera’s arrest could ignite a growing state-by-state fight over abortion. The battle escalated to a Supreme Court ruling this summer that could overturn or significantly weaken Roe vs. Wade, the historic precedent that has protected the right to abortion for nearly 50 years. Since the district attorney’s statement that it was a hospital that reported Herrera to law enforcement, her case has raised serious concerns from abortion rights activists, who fear that possible Violations of patient privacy only arouse greater fear among women seeking access to legal abortion.

“There is already such a degree of mistrust and fear around abortion,” especially in Texas, said Blair Cushing, an abortion provider in South Texas.

Texas law explicitly exempts a woman from a criminal homicide charge for terminating her pregnancy. While many details about Herrera’s case remain unclear, even staunch anti-abortion activists have condemned her arrest. Texas Right to Life, the organization that helped draft the Texas abortion ban, said his indictment came as a surprise.

“The Texas Heartbeat Act and other state pro-life policies clearly prohibit criminal prosecutions for pregnant women,” said John Seago, the group’s legislative director, referring to Texas law that allows private citizens to prosecute anyone who helps facilitate an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. “Texas Right to Life opposes prosecutors who step outside the bounds of careful and carefully crafted Texas policies.”

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Cushing said she sees patients every day who buy pills in Mexico for medical abortion — a two-step procedure that involves mifepristone and misoprostol — and then come to her clinic for a checkup. After learning that a woman in their area had been charged with murder for an abortion, Cushing said she expects patients to try to hide the details of their situation – or not come from the all towards her.

In a statement on Sunday, Ramirez acknowledged that the events surrounding the incident had clearly “taken their toll” on Herrera and his family.

“To ignore this fact would be short-sighted,” he said.

A hospital brought the matter to the attention of the sheriff’s office, according to Ramirez’s statement. Rene “Orta” Fuentes, 61, who became sheriff in 2008 after spending nearly three decades in the department, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ross Barrera, a community organizer and former Starr County Republican Party chairman, said abortion is rarely discussed in public forums in the heavily Democratic county. He described Ramirez as a “hardcore democrat” and said he simply misstepped the Herrera case.

“I think his office just failed to do its job,” he said. “I would get my hands on the Bible and say that was not a political statement.”

Ramirez has largely supported Democratic candidates. He supported the Democratic presidential ticket in 2020 on social media. He contributed to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke last year, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis in 2014 and Democrat Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, state campaign records show. and the federal government.

Starr County, in the heart of Texas’ predominantly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley, is a mostly rural region dotted with small towns. Residents of Rio Grande City, the county seat, shop at a single HEB supermarket. People gather at church or in their backyards for carne asada, according to the person familiar with the situation involving Herrera. Since the recent opening of a Panda Express, this person added, it has been “all the rage”.

While Starr County residents tend to vote Democrats top to bottom, many are socially conservative, especially when it comes to abortion. The area is saturated with staunch Catholics who always raise an eyebrow to discuss who got pregnant “out of wedlock”, the person familiar with the situation said.

Few details are publicly known about Herrera, the 26-year-old woman at the center of an incident that has drawn national attention. She was released from police custody after advocacy efforts by abortion rights groups led by women of color.

Her husband, Ismael Herrera, filed for divorce on April 7, the same day she was arrested, according to court documents. They married in 2015, when she was 19, and stopped living together on or around January 1, records show. The separation occurred less than a week before the “voluntary abortion” described in her indictment. The couple have two sons, records show.

The attorney who filed the motion, Judith Solis, did not respond to requests for comment. Solis is one of five prosecutors who work in the Starr County District Attorney’s Office.

Court officials referred questions about the prosecutor who presented Herrera’s case to the grand jury to Ramirez. He could not be immediately reached on Wednesday morning. But attorneys say prosecutors in that office are licensed to practice civil litigation.

Melisandra Mendoza, an attorney who previously worked in the district attorney’s office, said if Solis didn’t make Herrera’s arrest an issue in the divorce, there might not be a conflict of interest. However, she said she would not have taken the divorce case. “I probably would have walked away from this case,” she said.

Ismael Herrera also could not be reached by The Post. He spoke briefly in Spanish to a local TV reporter on Monday, saying, “Listen now, I have no words. … He was a son. A boy.”

Ramirez, the 68-year-old district attorney, won the 2020 Democratic primary and did not face a Republican challenger in the general election. Much of his campaign has focused on advocating for children’s rights. On April 1, a week before Herrera’s arrest, his office posted a Facebook post declaring April “Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month” in the 229th Judicial District.

The district attorney’s office chose to take this case to a grand jury to seek a murder indictment.

Within the Starr County legal community, Ramirez’s decision to bring the case is widely viewed as “gross negligence,” said a community attorney who, like others interviewed for this story, said spoke on condition of anonymity to frankly discuss sensitive topics.

When Abner Burnett, one of Starr County’s public defenders, first heard of the arrest, he didn’t know what law the district attorney’s office might use, as the Texas criminal code clearly exempts a pregnant woman on this type of murder charge.

“At first I thought maybe someone had slipped me a new law and was trying it out,” Burnett said.

Lawyers from the national abortion rights community rushed to offer financial and legal support to Herrera over the weekend, according to the person familiar with the situation. But Herrera and his family decided to retain Villarreal, a 54-year-old lawyer known for quoting scripture.

Its law firm’s website describes it as “a Christian organization that believes in the teachings of the Lord and the impact that only Jesus Christ can have on individuals.” The website adds, “With this in mind, our intention is to use our wisdom and experience that the Lord has provided to serve our customers with the utmost respect and care. It is an honor to serve our customers, because it is a service rendered to God.

In a small legal community where most attorneys know each other, court records show 19 federal cases in which Villarreal and Ramirez represented co-defendants. Villarreal publicly declared their support for Ramirez in two Facebook posts leading up to his election in March 2020.

“They are friends,” said a person familiar with the situation. “They go back a long way.”

Many abortion rights advocates across the country have called for legal action against Ramirez and others responsible for Herrera’s arrest. Local Starr County practitioners have also signaled their support for legal action.

If Burnett, the public defender, was in Villarreal’s position, he said, he would sue County for what he did to Herrera “in a minute”.

“It’s wrong, not only did they arrest her and charge her with a crime that didn’t exist, but they also exposed her to a kind of public light that she didn’t deserve,” Burnett said. “They should have been a lot more careful before doing that.”

As soon as Cushing, the abortionist, heard the news about Herrera, she said she immediately thought of the women she was seeing in the Rio Grande Valley.

When his patients travel to Mexico for abortion pills, they often receive incorrect instructions on how to take them, Cushing said. Sometimes the fake diet fails to terminate the pregnancy, she said, and sometimes it can endanger a patient’s health.

Cushing worked hard to earn those patients’ trust, she said. Now, she added, she will have to work even harder.

Nate Jones contributed to this report.