Each morning a small group of picketers gathers in front of the Comal County Courthouse carrying crude, hand-lettered signs: "Remember the Sauceda Family", "Justice for the Unborn Child" and "Stop Drunk Drivers."
Last October a young Army enlisted man stationed in nearby San Antonio killed Ruben Sauceda, his pregnant wife, Hortencia, and their two children, ages 22 months and 10 months, by plowing into them in his yellow Volkswagen as they were starting to cross a road. A jury placed him on probation and fined him $5,000.
The case has divided this small central Texas community along ethnic lines and given added impetus to the national movement for stricter laws against drunk driving.
Pfc. William D. Savage had been attending Wursfest, an annual celebration in this Germanic community, and the Bexar County medical examiner later testified that blood tests showed Savage was "stumbling drunk" at the time of the accident, with about 10 to 11 beers in his system. The only eyewitness to the accident said he saw the Sauceda family, on foot, step into the highway an instant before being hit.
Last month a jury convicted Savage, 23, of involuntary manslaughter for the death of Ruben Sauceda, but rejected the prosecutor's request for a jail term. The verdict set off a hunger strike among four inmates in the county jail and outraged friends of the Sauceda family, who have formed a group called the Committee for Justice for All. One protest march, which was attended largely by Hispanics, was held last week.
Late today, in a park near the accident site, a memorial mass was held in honor of the family. "The deaths of the five members of the Ruben Sauceda family perpetrated by Pfc. William Savage was an unjust and deliberate act of murder, not an accident," the Rev. Joseph Lawless, a Catholic priest from nearby Seguin, told about 150 mourners, including Ruben Sauceda's parents.
The Committee for Justice for All wants Savage prosecuted for the remaining deaths, but the Comal County district attorney, William L. Schroeder, has refused. As a result, the committee has petitioned State District Court Judge Robert T. Pfeuffer to appoint a special prosecutor.
"There seems to be a double standard of justice," said Ruben Sandoval, a San Antonio attorney working with the committee. He said a Mexican-American man is in jail for four months on a third drunken driving conviction, and argues that Savage's penalty does not fit his crime. "This is what incenses people," Sandoval said.
Hispanics make up about 34 percent of New Braunfels' population of 22,000. "It's got a long history of discrimination," said Jose Garza, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "We have had lawsuits against New Braunfels for years."
Schroeder says there is not a double standard of justice at work, citing a case four years ago in which a Mexican-American man, who was driving while intoxicated, struck and killed an elderly Anglo banker and his wife. Schroeder said the man was given seven years' probation. "So in the case of whether this is a racial situation, absolutely not," Schroeder said. "The juries are dealing with human life, not with the color of skin."
Schroeder said it was "an abundance of caution" that led him to try only one of the four cases, but he says now that the jury has spoken, he will not prosecute Savage on any of the remaining three. "If a few people can't live with that, that's their problem," he said.
Protesters blame Schroeder for Savage's sentence. "We feel the district attorney didn't put his heart into the trial," said Ezequiel Torres, the leader of the picketers in front of the courthouse.
But 29 local lawyers have come to Schroeder's defense, signing a statement saying he "tried the case with zeal," and adding, "To continue prosecuting Savage would be unfair and in complete disregard of the jury's unanimous verdict."
Said one juror, Earl Jahnsen, "We gave that boy everything we ought to give him," adding that if the protesters "don't like it, then they can go straight to hell." Testimony at the trial showed that Savage had no prior arrest record and was considered an exemplary soldier by his superiors. Savage, through others in his unit at Fort Sam Houston, declined comment.
The controversy comes as Texas is considering stiffer penalties for drunken driving. So far this year, 19 states have enacted tougher drunken driving laws, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.