Super Tuesday is March 3, and this day marks the deadline in which voters in 14 states can cast their presidential primary ballots. Since President Donald Trump is running largely unopposed, Republicans aren’t looking at a polarizing presidential race like Democrats, but there are still some heated primary races that GOP voters in Texas will have say in.

One of these will determine which judicial candidate the Republican Party of Texas will nominate for the state’s 380th District Court in McKinney. In this race, voters will have a choice between incumbent Judge Ben Smith and his opponent, Plano attorney Melvin Thathiah. 

Both contenders identify as conservative, but this race is one of an especially partisan nature, as Thathiah has been attacking Smith for his perceived lenience in giving a two-year sentence to Margarito Quintero-Rosales, an undocumented immigrant who pleaded guilty to three counts of criminally negligent homicide following a 2016 car crash that killed 36-year-old firefighter Peter Hacking and his children, 4-year-old Ellie Bryant and one-year-old Grayson Hacking. 

“It was only a few years ago in Collin County, when Margarito Quintero Rosales [sic], who was in the US illegally killed a father and his two beautiful young daughters, while driving without a license, coming from a job that he was getting paid for illegally,” said Thathiah’s campaign in a press release. 

Only one of Hacking’s daughters died in the collision. 

This verdict was met with ire from conservatives and was reported by right-leaning news outlets such as Fox News, TheBlaze and Breitbart. Hacking’s widow, Courtney, said in an interview with CBS DFW, “He drove illegally. He was working illegally. And he killed three innocent people. No matter how you look at it, it’s still murder.” 

When asked for comment, Judge Smith’s campaign issued the following statement:

“The opponent is a career criminal defense attorney so we are disturbed he doesn’t understand the most basic elements of Texas’ criminal law, specifically the legally binding sentencing guidelines for negligent homicide. It should be noted that only Judge Ben Smith is working with State Representatives to toughen sentencing guidelines for such offenses. This is one of many reasons that prosecutors and police associations have rallied around Judge Ben Smith. The opponent, at the direction of Democrat operatives assisting his campaign, has done nothing to increase sentencing standards and instead has used this tragedy as a fundraising tool – a despicable act that has outraged Collin County families.”

Plano Cares, a political action committee (PAC), has also been using Quintero-Rosales’s likeness to campaign against Smith. On Jan. 30, 2020, the PAC purchased the domain name, on which a Feb. 6 blog post titled “Grieving Angel Mom and Wife Betrayed by Judge Ben Smith” said, “People close to the case attempted to understand why Ben Smith lacked empathy for the victims of this crime.  As it turns out, the killer’s lawyer is a regular and consistent campaign contributor of Judge Smith’s Campaigns.”

This method of political advertising is by no means unprecedented. In the 1988 presidential election, candidate George H.W. Bush used convicted felon Willie Horton to campaign against opponent Michael Dukakis. While governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis sponsored a weekend furlough program which allowed inmates to leave and return to prison. Horton was a beneficiary of this program, but in addition to not returning, he committed armed robbery, rape and assault. Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater famously said, “By the time we’re finished, [voters are] going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

Thathiah’s campaign has made the Quintero-Rosales verdict a central theme of his fundraising efforts. Per a Facebook post shared by Judge Smith’s official campaign page, Thathiah’s campaign outlined recommended donations with numerical correspondence to details of the case, such as a $24 donation to reflect the two-year sentence. 

“There are more circumstances like [Quintero-Rosales’s verdict] where things should have been looked at with a little more scrutiny,” said Thathiah over the phone.

Updated as of 3/5/2020: Judge Ben Smith has been nominated for McKinney’s 380th District Court.

Garrett Gravley

Garrett Gravley is a Dallas-based writer, journalist and music critic. His work has appeared in the Dallas Observer, D Magazine, and Central Track.