EL PASO, Texas -- A man accused of taking part in an ambush-style murder of a former Army soldier more than five years ago was supposed to go before a jury in October.
Now, Tristan Chilton will have to wait longer for his capital murder trial to occur. And his attorney is concerned about the latest delay.
Wednesday morning, Judge Marcos Lizarraga of the 168th District Court granted the prosecution’s request for a continuance.
Assistant District Attorney Rene Flores requested the delay in going to trial due to his departure from the DA’s office. The case will be transferred to a newly hired attorney.
Flores announced his departure from the District Attorney's office during the last hearing in Chilton’s case Sept. 14. Flores’ last day is Sept. 23. His departure comes amid a flurry of controversies surrounding District Attorney Yvonne Rosales, from other attorney departures under her tenure, to her handling of the Walmart mass shooting case, to the hundreds of case dismissals due to lack of indictment in a timely manner by her office. In August, an El Paso defense lawyer filed a petition to remove Rosales from office.
Chilton is accused of killing Tyler Croke while Croke showered at a friend's east side apartment on May 5, 2017. Chilton is one of five murder suspects. Two other perpetrators, Stephanie Fernandez and Zachary Johnston, are currently serving life terms in prison. Johnston's latest appeal of his sentence in August was denied.
Croke's family lives in Virginia. His mother told ABC-7 during an online interview Wednesday she was relieved the judge granted the delay.
"I don't think at this point in time the DA's office is competent to handle a capital murder case," Kjersten Croke said. "I sent them emails and I requested verbally for a special prosecutor to be appointed to the case; however, they've either ignored my request or flat-out told me no."
After granting the motion, Judge Lizárraga asked Flores when he anticipated the state would be ready to try the case against Chilton.
“I think that (the new prosecutor) is going to need some time,” Flores said. “I know the incoming attorney has some experience, but I think he will need a month to prepare for this case. Maybe they will be ready by late this year or early next year.”
Leonard Morales, Chilton’s defense attorney, implied to the judge the timeline was overly optimistic.
As Morales stood next to his client, who was shackled and wearing the county jail’s orange and white-striped jumpsuit, Morales took the moment to express his frustration with the prolonged process of going to trial.
“That’s been my concern- how this case has been handled,” Morales said. “Unfortunately, Mr. Flores has to be the fourth or fifth DA I have dealt with in this case. We hadn’t sat down to negotiate this case.
“My other concern is whoever is going to take over this case, I hope it’s not a rookie straight out of law school,” Morales continued. “I know I don’t have control over it. If we need to go to trial we go to trial. I’m not afraid of trying cases. But at the end of the day, we need to have certainty about the end of the road. And it’s been bumpy.”
Kjersten Croke told ABC-7 she has similar concerns, but for different reasons than Morales.
"My biggest fear is that they will offer a light plea bargain to them, so (they get) a light sentence," she said. "The nature of the crime was so brutal. These three defendants-- they're brutal murderers and they should never walk the streets free."
Morales told the judge he believed that, due to his own felony caseload, this particular case wouldn’t go to trial until summer 2023.
Lizarraga told the attorneys they would try to set a date in October. The status hearing is set for Oct. 13, when the court had originally planned to be holding a trial for Chilton.