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Demystifying Legal Language Around Perry Indictment

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT
During a press conference at the State Capitol Saturday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry calls the indictment against him a "farce" and an "abuse of power."

Texas Governor Rick Perry is facing accusations he broke the law two times when he threatened to veto state funding for a unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office that investigates public corruption. The story includes a lot of legal terminology, so here’s a decoder.

What is an Indictment?

An indictment is a formal written accusation that charges a person with a crime. In the case of the Governor Perry, the indictment included two criminal charges or counts. Those are two separate alleged violations of the law.

What are the Counts?

The first count alleges Gov. Perry violated part of this section of the Texas penal code that addresses abuse of office. Specifically, section 39.02, which says a public servant commits an offense if he or she intends to benefit or cause harm to another person by misusing government property. In this case, the government property was state money intended for the public corruption unit of the Travis County DA.

That is a first-degree felony, which carries a sentence of five to 99 years, a punishment outlined in this section of the penal code.

The second count alleges Gov. Perry violated part of this section of the Texas penal code that addresses coercion of public servants. Specifically, section 36.03, which says a person commits an offense if he or she tries to influence a public servant to violate that servant’s legal duty. In this case, the public servant was Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg, and the alleged influence was Gov. Perry’s threat to veto state funding unless she quit in the wake of her DWI conviction.

That is a third-degree felony, which carries a sentence of two to 10 years, a punishment outlined in this section of the penal code.

What is a Grand Jury?

A grand jury delivered the indictment against Governor Perry after seeing documents and hearing witnesses presented by special prosecutor Michael McCrum.

In Texas, a grand jury is made up of 12 volunteers who are selected at random from the district the jury convenes in. At least 9 members must vote in favor of an indictment for one to be handed up. 

It is important to note that a grand jury does not make a determination of guilt or innocence. It only decides whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed.

A verdict of guilty or not guilty is delivered by a trial jury, which will hear evidence from both the prosecution and defense.

What is a Special Prosecutor? 

A special prosecutor is a private attorney who is recruited to investigate and prosecute a case instead of the government lawyer. In this instance, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, nor anyone in her office, could try the case without an apparent conflict of interest. 

Michael McCrum, a criminal defense attorney from San Antonio, was named special prosecutor by Republican judge Bert Richardson

“He’s a totally straight arrow in my book,” lawyer Solomon Wisenberg, who spent years working with McCrum, told theTexas Tribune.  "The idea he would be doing it for partisan reasons is total b*****t.”

What’s an Arraignment?

Once someone is indicted, they need to be read the charges formally in court. That’s called an arraignment. At some point after the charges are read, the defendant must respond by entering a plea, usually “guilty” or “not guilty.”

The special prosecutor in the case says he will meet with Governor Perry’s lawyer and a judge on Monday to discuss when an arraignment can occur.

“Anyone charged with felonies has to be booked in,” special prosecutor McCrum told reporters Friday. When asked if that includes a mug shot and fingerprints, he said, “I imagine that’s included in that.”

When Will the Trial Start?

Short answer: We don’t know yet. Governor Perry has made clear he intends to enter a plea of “not guilty” when he is arraigned. That leaves it up to the prosecution to attempt to prove at trial that Perry committed the crimes “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Defense attorneys could try to get the trial over with as quickly as possible, within 90 days, or they could delay the process by requesting the indictment be thrown out or requesting a change of venue. We are likely to get a better idea about their legal strategy next week.

Anything Else?

Please let us know if you have any questions about the process in the comments below and we’ll do our best to answer it. Legal issues can get complicated, and we want to make it as easy to understand as possible.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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