Even more surprising, the jury held Parole Board Chair Rissie Owens personally liable, while Judge Sam Sparks fined the state's attorney for prejudicial comments in court. Reports Mike Ward from the Austin Statesman ("Jury says state officials violated parolees right to hearing," Oct. 9):
An Austin federal jury on Thursday found that two top state parole officials violated the constitutional rights of an ex-convict who was denied a required hearing for 576 days.It's pretty darn rare, and quite astonishing, for parole board chair Rissie Owens to be held personally liable in such a case - that implies that she was acting outside the legal strictures of her official capacity when she violated the plaintiff's rights. Owens' attorneys argued she shouldn't be liable because she was following the advice of TDCJ attorneys, but Sparks didn't care because he'd already ordered hearings in the same case on two different occasions and Owens defied him. Thus TDCJ's legal advice did not shield her from personal liability because they were advising her to ignore an order from the federal court.
Jurors also held Board of Pardon and Paroles Chairman Rissie Owens liable for $21,250 in damages and awarded Curtis Ray Graham attorney's fees that are expected to top $100,000.
The verdict came after an unusually contentious trial presided over by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, who in August had declared a mistrial in the case and who earlier this week fined an assistant attorney general for disregarding his warnings about making prejudicial comments in front of jurors.
Graham sued the parole board after he was classified as a sex offender even though he was never convicted of a sex crime. He was arrested on aggravated rape charges in the 1980s, and parole officials used that as a basis for classifying him as a sex offender five years after he had been released on parole.
Graham alleged he was never allowed to review evidence against him before the parole board made its decision in December 2007, despite several federal court orders requiring such hearings.
It is rare for ex-convicts in Texas to win such legal challenges in state or federal courts. It is almost unheard of for parole officials to be held liable for official omissions. State parole director Stuart Jenkins, a second defendant in the high-profile case, was not held liable.
At a time when several similar lawsuits are pending against state parole officials, attorneys have argued that a win by Graham could force new hearings in perhaps thousands of parole cases in which offenders were classified as sex offenders without proper hearings. Such a finding can bring more stringent limitations on their freedom.
"This should send a message to the parole board that their arrogance not to change their policy won't work any longer, that constitutional rights matter in how they do their business," said William Habern, a noted parole-law attorney from Riverside who represents Graham.
Owens and her attorneys left the courtroom after the verdict without commenting. Jenkins declined to comment, as did his attorneys.
That also tells us something about the attitudes of legal counsel at TDCJ, doesn't it? They advised Owens to take a course of action so blatantly unconstitutional and in violation of federal court orders that she came to be held individually liable! Yikes!
With thousands more ex-cons similarly situated, I'm betting the parole board changes its policies ASAP rather than Rissie Owens risking similar verdicts that could potentially rack up millions of dollars if they all came out like this case.
It'll be easy enough to initiate hearings going forward when future inmates are up for parole, but what happens with all those who've already been released and assigned sex offender registration but were never convicted of a sex crime? It seems like those rulings now have to be revisited. What a mountainous logistical and practical mess!
Congrats to attorney Bill Habern and his team on a significant win, and a sound legal ass kicking.