Friday, January 01, 2010

Biggest Texas criminal justice stories of 2009

At the beginning of the new year, it's worth taking a moment to recall some of the biggest Texas criminal justice stories of 2009. It's a partial list, cut short by babysitting duties this morning, so let me know in the comments what I missed.

Sharon Keller on the dock: The Commission on Judicial Conduct ordered a fact finding hearing to determine whether Presiding Judge Sharon Keller deserves to be removed from the bench for rejecting a last-minute death penalty appeal on bureaucratic grounds ("We close at 5") without notifying the duty judge whose job it was to evaluate it. The results should be reported in 2010.

Asset forfeiture shakedown: The East Texas town of Tenaha made national headlines for using asset forfeiture laws to shake down passing motorists of whatever they happened to be carrying with them in exchange for not filing trumped up criminal charges. Legislation to remedy those abuses died as a result of the end-of-session voter ID meldtown in the Texas House of Representatives.

No more juvie LWOP: The Texas Legislature abolished life without parole for juveniles, setting the max sentence for juvenile offenses at 40 years.

"Zero tolerance" on contraband fails spectacularly: TDCJ spent most of the year combating contraband - especially cell phones - at Texas prison units, only to have an inmate successfully smuggle a gun onto a prison medical transport and escape from custody. (He was recaptured without incident a week later.) TYC's Ombudsman, a former judge from Dallas, was indited for intentionally sneaking contraband including a weapon onto a TYC facility. Federal legislation to allow cell phone jamming was filed by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and passed the US Senate.

Death sentences decline: Only nine new additions to death row in 2009; none of them from Houston, notably, despite its long-time reputation as the nation's death penalty capital. Twenty-four men exited through the execution chamber.

Sex Parte: In the Charles Dean Hood case, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a judge and prosecutor sleeping together during a capital murder trial isn't enough to force a mistrial if they successfully conceal their misconduct for a long enough period of time. Likely this ruling was more personal favor than policy decision: the judge involved, Verla Sue Holland, was appointed after the case by Gov. George W. Bush elected in 1996 and served with 8 of the 9 current CCA members as a Court of Criminal Appeals Judge.

Juarez at war: El Paso's sister city has all but turned into a war zone, with cartels fighting both one another, for access to the bridge, and also the Mexican military, which has been occupying the city for the last two years under what amounts to martial law.

Timothy Cole's posthumous exoneration: Tim Cole died in prison before his name was finally cleared, even though the real offender had claimed credit for the rape he was convicted for in correspondence to Lubbock prosecutors from prison. DNA testing finally confirmed the real offender's story, and soon-to-be-retiring Travis County District Judge Charlie Baird presided over the state's first ever posthumous exoneration hearing. In the aftermath, the Legislature improved its compensation package for the falsely convicted in legislation bearing Cole's name. The Lege also created an advisory panel named after Cole that will evaluate potential innocence reforms for the 2011 session.

Innocence legislation needlessly dies: This is how I spent my spring, working at the time as Policy Director for the Innocence Project of Texas. Several bills proposed to prevent future false convictions - including eyewitness ID reforms, requiring policies on recording interrogations, and lowering barriers to accessing the courts for writ procedures - all died an ignominious death when the Texas House melted down in an unrelated debate over voter ID. In particular, the Criminal Justice Integrity Unit established by the Court of Criminal Appeals had said the eyewitness ID legislation should have been the highest priority for preventing future false convictions: However, it wasn't a high enough priority for partisans to put aside their differences and allow the bill to proceed.

Politics prevents arson reconsideration: A discussion that should have been about faulty arson science morphed into a pointless death penalty debate. Days before the Forensic Science Commission was to receive a commissioned report on shoddy arson science used to convict Todd Willingham (who was executed in 2004), Gov. Perry ousted Chairman Sam Bassett and appointed Williamson County DA John Bradley in his stead, who promptly canceled the meeting and shut down all the commission's ongoing activities. Bassett was one of the Dallas News' "Texan of the Year" finalists.

Dog scent lineups: DNA exonerations and an Innocence Project of Texas report demonstrated erroneous "scent lineups" run by Deputy Keith Pikett of the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Department are unreliable, and dog experts say he fails to use best practices. The Court of Criminal Appeals recently accepted a case to evaluate whether Pikett's dogs' testimony is acceptable as evidence.

DPS leadership in transition: After long-time Col. Tommy Davis retired under duress in the wake of the Governor's mansion fire, his replacement Stanley Clark resigned abruptly over allegations of sexual harassment. He was replaced with Gov. Perry's homeland security advisor Steve McCraw, solidifying the Governor's grip on the historically independent department.

Assigning 'Condition X': Federal District Judge Sam Sparks ruled that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles violated parolees due process rights when it labeled them sex offenders without due process, even when the offense for which they were convicted was not a sex crime. Sparks said of parole board chair Risssie Owens, "Her inattention is mystifying, and it shows her to be some combination ... of 'indecisive, insensitive, inattentive, incompetent, stupid, (or) weak-kneed.'"


Anonymous said...


Thanks for another year of great writing! It has been much appreciated. :~)

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year Grits! All your work has been much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah, and Jeff Blackburn, aka Mr. Innocence, attempted to rip off an innocent man with an unethical claim for a million dollars of the money due him from the State following exoneration. Did you miss that one?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I didn't miss it, 2:11, I just disagree with your biased interpretation.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks 1:10, 1:43, and everybody else for reading, btw.

Anonymous said...

Biggest crime recently is the firing of Mike (the strange one) Leach as Tech's football coach. NOT!!! Glad the goofy idiot savant turd is gone. Carry on, I'll be in the area all day.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't know, Plato. You may not like him, but I thought Leach got screwed. The whole thing was trial by media. All the guy did was win games and graduate his players. Gerald Myers is going to tolerate Bob Knight and Leach gets sacked for this?

I hope he goes to A&M or another Big 12 school and comes back to whip Tech's tail year in and year out. I also suspect he'll win his salary back in court.

Anonymous said...

Risssie Owens may "be some combination ... of 'indecisive, insensitive, inattentive, incompetent, stupid, (or) weak-kneed'" but she is one hot chick.

Anonymous said...

The stories all say that Judge Holland was appointed by then Governor Bush to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

I thought that Judge Holland was elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals in the 1996 general election over Bob Perkins for the seat of retiring Judge Sam Houston Clinton.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:06, you're right. I doublechecked and the fact-bite about the appointment was wrong. I'll correct it in the post.

Anonymous said...

Although I think I intuitively understand what Grits is talking about, could I possibly get a definition of a "boutique crime"?

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year!!!
Bexar County Adult Probation Chief Fitzgerald is gone as of the 4 of January, 2010. Incoming Chief Jarvis Anderson will be a welcome relief to officers whom have been bullied and demoralized by an adminstration full of societal misfits!
No more threats of Christmastime reapplication emails. Adminstration, you are welcome to reapply for your positions! How does that feel?
God has blessed the citizens of Bexar County with a new Chief who cares about public safety AND rehabilitation, not about special favors!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I answered the "boutique crime" question here.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what is happening now in regards to assigning condition x to parolees without benefit of due process. I can tell you that after Judge Sparks first ruling in the case that nothing changed. Parolees were not informed of their rights, only that condition x could be imposed with or without their consent.

BTW - the due process aspect is a sham. Parolees are assigned to sex offender treatment even before they have had any testing to determine a need for it.

As part of the assessment, a parolee must submit to a lie detector test. Sounds like a fair means of identifying a potential threat except the parole officer is allowed in the room and is permitted to prompt and question the parolee during the test.

It's a joke and unless someone has the money to fight it, parole means hell. No matter if you committed a sex crime or not.

Also, whatever they decide about the person, true or not, follows them for the rest of their lives. It's a no win situation for many that are not on parole for a sex crime and just want to go home.

Anonymous said...

Crime has changed recently.

Quiz: which is a bigger racket in South Flordia - drug suggling and distribution or Medicare fraud? If you guessed Medicare fraud (in the billions) you would be right. Check out the October 60 Minutes special on this issue (find the video in Google videos).

This is white collar crime so it is allowed to operate openly and little is done about it.

We want to reduce the cost of corrections by turning prisoners loose. Do we ever think about reducing costs by reducing the fraud? For example, there was widespread financial fraud in TYC and this was covered up for years by the "leaders" at TYC. Frankly (no pun intended), how much of this is still going on? This was never covered in the media despite all the stories about TYC. They got away with it.

What about the TDCJ? Something to think about - if you're the thinking sort of person.