By MARTHA McCLAIN
Special to the PRESS
It wasn’t like a John Grisham courthouse thriller, but the recent jury sentencing trial of Ronnie Huerta was fascinating in its own merit.
Huerta confessed to driving the motorcycle that struck and killed pedestrian Elizabeth Sweeten in March 2018. He had been drinking and under the influence of marijuana at the time. He pled guilty to a manslaughter charge in the case.
A jury in the 138th district court gave him 11 years in the Texas Department of Corrections.
Realistically, he will probably serve only half of the sentence before he is released. But, if he really is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life due to the injuries received during that fatal event, he will be paying for his actions until his dying day.
Elizabeth was a reporter for the Port Isabel-South Padre Press while I was editor. And, she became editor after I left there. We worked with Betty Wells, Leticia Martinez Keplinger, Jeff Keplinger and others who came and went over the years.
As a witness for the prosecution in the trial, and someone who knew Elizabeth and her family since elementary school, the trial was nerve-racking. Called to testify on Thursday, but not put on the stand until late morning Thursday, Betty Wells, I and representatives from Pelican Station where she worked—who were also called to testify—had many hours to watch the courthouse’s proceedings, overhear attorneys talking to their clients in the coffee shop, and watch the theatrics of lawyers and defendants.
We learned that although Huerta had pled guilty, the jury had no knowledge of the facts of the case, so it had to be played-out by both the prosecution and defense.
On two other occasions, the state had brought the case for jury selection. Prosecuting attorney Sarah Pemelton informed us that the jury had “busted.” That is, lawyers picking the jury had too many people in the jury pool stricken from the list, leaving an insufficient number of candidates to serve on the jury.
Elizabeth would have been mortified at the attention she received from the entire saga. Her picture was projected onto one wall of the courtroom for all, especially the jury to see.
Elizabeth was a very colorful person: strong, independent, opinionated, generous to a fault, and quite intelligent. Others called her Liz…for me, it was always Elizabeth, her God-given name.
She was a friend, in addition to being a quality journalist. She came to the Laguna Madre Area in the mid-1970s when the Island was booming. I hired her as a staff reporter during a time when Friday afternoon “tree-topping” ceremonies were commonplace on South Padre. During that time, newspapers were also booming. I was fortunate to have Elizabeth on staff. We hired her away from the Edinburg Daily Review where she was, believe it or not, society editor.
Elizabeth’s forte was straight news, and she wrote her stories as she saw them. Whether it was covering the Water District, Navigation District or School District, she was unbiased, relied on facts and hunted-down the truth…and almost always found it, much to the dismay of some politicians.
Her ability to write as a journalist, although never formally trained, was remarkable. She really could have been a renowned novelist, screenwriter or virtually anything she desired. She was an avid reader and loved the works of philosopher Nietzsche, among others.
But for those who knew Elizabeth, knew she was stubborn and rather set in her ways.
As I was also, Elizabeth was raised in Mission, Texas, attended St. Paul’s Catholic School and graduated from Mission High School. That’s how I knew of her special aptitudes. She attended one semester at Ball State College in Indiana, before deciding she couldn’t afford it, she said. I always felt there was more to that story… She returned to the Valley, and eventually the Edinburg newspaper.
Elizabeth lived life on her terms. I recall her saying during her 20s while she was at the PRESS, that she did not expect to live to become 30. Well, she did live past 30…in fact, she doubled that, and at 61, left this world in a tragic way.
Elizabeth left an impression on everyone at the PRESS and at other places she worked, and on many in the Laguna Madre Area as well. Her strength and resolve will be sorely missed.
So, was justice served?
When it was all said and done, in God’s plan for us all, what the jury decided was probably as just as anyone can expect on this earth.
I am left with a hollow, sad feeling. But, surprisingly, I also feel for Ronnie Huerta who make a tragic mistake, for his family who is living with the result of his actions, and for the people Elizabeth left behind.
I am grateful for our justice system that at least tried their best to make justice happen.
Events such as this leave us to wonder about our own mortality and what waits beyond. I hope to see Elizabeth again one day.