With her trial just minutes under way, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) was found not guilty Friday of criminal charges that she had misused her former state office for personal benefit--and then had tried to destroy the evidence.
"They thought the lady would crack," Hutchison said later at a jubilant press conference. "Well, the lady wouldn't crack. The lady stood up and fought. The lady showed she could take the worst that a corruption of the political system could give."
The 50-year-old lawmaker has long maintained that the charges against her were politically motivated.
"The only crime I committed," she said, "was doing a great job as state treasurer and winning an election by a landslide."
The trial came to an abrupt end Friday after Travis County Dist. Atty. Ronnie Earle told the court that he could not proceed without knowing whether key records seized from Hutchison's state treasury office in Austin last June would be allowed into evidence.
District Judge John F. Onion Jr. then ordered the just-seated jury to return a verdict of not guilty on charges that Hutchison had directed state workers to use state equipment and phones to further her 1993 Senate campaign. If convicted on all counts, she could have been sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison.
Hutchison won 67% of the vote in the special election June 5 for the Senate seat once held by Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen.
"It appeared to us that to proceed to trial in this matter, without all of the evidence, with the apparent indications from the judge that he was going to not allow the introduction of that evidence, would not have been in the public's interest," Earle said.
But Hutchison's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said: "The plain fact is that there was no evidence of any nature that Kay did anything wrong."
In bringing the indictment against Hutchison, Earle, a Democrat, had said he hoped to clearly define the code of conduct for state officeholders.
But Hutchison has said all of Earle's actions were politically motivated. "The case was not there and the district attorney knew that," she said. "I'm not sure the district attorney intended to win. He intended to keep me from winning the election" this fall.
Five days after Hutchison's Senate victory, state investigators seized computer records and other evidence in a raid of her treasury office.
Her lawyers maintained that the records were illegally obtained and that a search warrant should have been executed. But Earle contended that he did not need a search warrant because the documents were public records.
In pretrial proceedings earlier this week--while prospective jurors were being questioned--Earle had asked Onion to rule on the admissibility of the records.
The judge declined to rule until a jury was impaneled, ensuring that Hutchison could not be indicted again if the charges were dismissed.
Hutchison said Friday that her office has requested that all records seized during the raid be released to the public.
"The case was not there," she said. "They turned around and ran because they knew the longer they went, the more embarrassing it was going to be."
Earle, appearing grim-faced on the steps of the Tarrant County Justice Center after the aborted trial, said he was "shocked by the speed with which the judge proceeded in the case, and in general we feel that justice has been denied. The prosecutor accused Onion of running a "rocket docket."
Michael Tigar, a University of Texas law professor and one of Hutchison's attorneys, called Earle's reaction "unprofessional. I hope he will stop it right now and take it like a man."
The case had been troubled from the start. An earlier indictment was thrown out when it was discovered that an ineligible member was serving on the grand jury. The case was moved to Ft. Worth after a defense motion citing an atmosphere in Austin too politically charged to guarantee a fair trial.
Onion, former presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals--the state's highest court for criminal matters--was appointed to the case after the original judge recused himself because he had contributed to the Senate campaign of Hutchison's opponent, Robert Krueger.
Hutchison faces a tough general election campaign this fall against one of three prominent Democrats, including former Texas Atty. Gen. Jim Mattox and Rep. Michael A. Andrews (D-Tex.).