Second bite at fajita trial?

BROWNSVILLE — A former Cameron County employee sentenced to 50 years in prison for stealing $1.2 million worth of fajitas wants a new trial.

Attorneys Ed Stapleton and Sara Stapleton-Barrera filed a motion for a new trial based on ineffective assistance and an illegal basis for the sentence May 11 on behalf of Gilberto Escamilla, 53, who pleaded guilty to the charges and received the five-decade sentence April 20.

The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office Special Investigations Unit arrested Escamilla last year after a driver from Labatt Food Service in Harlingen called the Darrel B. Hester Juvenile Detention Center’s kitchen to let employees know their 800-pound delivery of fajitas arrived.

Escamilla was in charge of that kitchen, and fajitas are not on the menu for the minor inmates incarcerated at the facility.

The total value of the fajitas, which were stolen during a nine-year period, was $1,251,578. That figure does not include the brisket, pork chops, sausage and various types of chicken Escamilla also admitted to stealing, court testimony revealed.

Escamilla claims his sentence was illegal because of a statement made by visiting state District Judge J. Manuel Bañales during his sentencing.

“The trial judge stated an illegal basis for his sentencing decision that is the criminal offense brought ‘dishonor’ to the name of former Judge Darrel Hester,” the motion states.

Furthermore, Escamilla’s attorneys did not object when Bañales made the comment during the sentencing hearing.

“Trial counsel was ineffective because trial counsel failed to object when the judge stated an illegal basis for assessing punishment that is, the ‘dishonor brought to the name of Darrel Hester,’” the motion states.

During the sentencing hearing, Bañales, who said he personally knew Hester, told Escamilla that he brought dishonor on the man because now every time anyone hears the name Darrel Hester, they will think of Escamilla’s fajita theft.

However, during the sentencing hearing, Bañales also said he handed down the stiff sentence because Escamilla did great harm to Cameron County.

“You abused the system. You abused those employees there. You abused every taxpayer,” Bañales said.

Escamilla also claims that he received ineffective assistance because he wasn’t adequately informed of the right to a jury trial or sentencing by a jury; that his attorneys didn’t adequately investigate the choice between a judge and jury; that his attorneys didn’t investigate mitigating evidence or present any at trial; and that they were ineffective for electing a judge for punishment instead of a jury.

Lastly, Escamilla claims that “trial counsel was ineffective for failure to enter into a plea of not guilty and trial on guilt or innocence before the jury, because counsel was deprived of any possibility of a finding of not guilty and also the potential benefit during sentencing of residual doubt.”

In the motion, Escamilla asks for a hearing on the motion and to “be restored to the position he was in before the trial in this case.”

Escamilla is being held at the Cameron County Carrizales-Rucker Detention Center while his request for a new trial works its way through the court system.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. June 8.