Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Plea deals without open files turn off ignition on adversarial system's truth-seeking engine
Benny Tijerina was sentenced to concurrent 40 year sentences in Williamson and McLennan counties for the crimes, though he claims and a victim's mother agrees that another man was the shooter (the prosecutor claimed to have jailhouse informants who say otherwise). Anyway, as cold cases solved by DNA go, this was at once both a remarkable and increasingly a routine event.
What caught Grits' eye was an exchange recorded at the end of the Austin Statesman story: "After he was sentenced, Tijerina asked [Judge] Carnes why he hadn't been allowed to see any of the evidence against him in the case. Carnes said that was standard and that Tijerina would only have seen the evidence if the case had gone to trial."
That's true as far as it goes under the US Supreme Court's Brady v. Maryland ruling, but it's also a "standard" that shifts in Texas county by county at the whim of the local elected prosecutor. In Tarrant County, for example, defense attorneys have access to prosecutor files - electronically, no less - even in cases that result in plea agreements. In El Paso, too, DA Jaime Esparza told a conference at the Task Force on Indigent Defense that his office allows defense counsel to get access to case files within 24 hours, noting that it facilitated more routine cases getting disposed of within three days or less, reduced jail costs, overcrowding and liability, relieved court dockets, and even freed up space in the jail that's now leased out to house federal inmates and make extra money.
We live under a justice system where 98% of cases result in plea bargains instead of trials. Under the Williamson County rule, in the overwhelming majority of cases nobody outside the prosecutor's office ever actually vets the evidence before a sentence is dispensed. If the adversarial system is a truth seeking engine, in 98% of felony cases the engine's ignition switch remains locked in the "off" position under that "standard."
According to the Texas Office of Court Administration's annual report (pdf), "Less than two percent of all criminal cases (excluding transfers and motions to revoke probation) went to trial in 2010" in district (felony) courts. Just 3,633 felony cases in FY 2010 went to either jury or bench trials, says OCA. So in the overwhelming majority of cases, under the Williamson County system, the defense never sees the evidence.
I have no knowledge of the case beyond this report from the Statesman and don't argue with the sentence(s), but that exchange between defendant and judge about what is "standard" in Williamson County - and too many other Texas courtrooms - should raise alarm. The same sort of prosecutorial gamesmanship takes place in more routine cases all the way down to the misdemeanor level. Make Grits philosopher-king and I'd prefer that, as in El Paso and Tarrant, both sides had full access to the police investigation as early in the process as possible. Clearly some DAs - like Williamson's John Bradley - just won't do that unless they're required, so in the interests of justice the Legislature should make them.