The Dallas shooting and a handful of other ambush killings of police, including the murder of a San Antonio police officer while parked right outside the station house, bumped up the number of police officers' on-the-job deaths slightly in 2016, both in Texas (19) and nationally (135), though in historic terms the number remained half of its 1970s peak. Police in 2016, by contrast, killed nearly 1,000 people nationwide, down slightly from 2015. In Texas, we learned from the Dallas News, the number of police shootings has grown steadily over the last few years, led by increases in Houston, San Antonio, and, of course, Fort Worth. And that was before we learned that some 200 fatal Texas police shootings over the last decade had been left out of the data. The issue of police shootings hasn't been as partisan in Texas as elsewhere, with folks like Rick Perry and Dallas-based media mogul Glen Beck offering sympathetic sentiments toward #blacklivesmatter activists. It was a fascinating year on this front and debates surrounding these topics were the hottest in criminal justice.
At the Texas Tribune, reporter Jonathan Silver offered up a top five list of Texas criminal justice stories in a 2016 retrospective, but only the two related to this summer's protests and shootings would have made my list. He included the murder of a TDCJ corrections officer, which I agree was chilling and terrible. But Grits would bet most Texans are unaware of it and I'm unaware of the incident spawning significant discussions of policy change. Meanwhile, the Texas AG so far this year has recorded 351 deaths in custody in Texas prisons alone, with more still to be reported from the end of the year. (Usually, unless family gets involved, inmate deaths receive no MSM attention at all.)
Silver thinks the much-touted drop in county jail suicides merits "top 5" status, but these small numbers vary widely from year to year and Grits thinks it's WAY too early for the state (or the media on their behalf) to claim credit for fixing that problem - certainly if the change in a bureaucratic form is the only thing to which anyone can attribute the drop. Routine fluctuation might equally explain it, just as likely, and we really can't know yet one way or the other.
Finally, Silver claimed fallout from the new open carry law merited a "top five" story, and for Grits it likely wouldn't have made a Top 25 list.
So what were the other biggest stories of the year from Grits' perspective?
Big-league bail reform push
Bail reform litigation in Harris County is challenging the fundamental constitutionality of judges using a bail schedule instead of assessing the particular situation of individual defendants. In part in response to this litigation, but also thanks to Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, the Texas Judicial Council took up the banner of bail reform and legislation is expected to be filed in the new year to expand the use of risk assessment tools and personal bonds by judges. While advocates are worried the legislation may be toothless - the fight will likely be how to make it as strong and functional as possible - support from top state leadership means something is likely to pass.
Austin DNA lab becomes poster child for forensic error
Somewhere in the top five one must find space for the closure of the Austin PD DNA lab and the admission by the state, via the Forensic Science Commission, that most labs had been misinterpreting DNA mixture evidence for many years. While other labs didn't have staff so recalcitrant that DPS found them untrainable, thus making Austin unique, many other labs were similarly misinterpreting DNA mixture results, including at DPS. Fallout from the need to recalculate results from thousands of cases - for which defendants in most of them have never even been notified of the problem or afforded counsel to assess their situation - is truly mind boggling and far reaching. Even more amazing: The same mistakes were made everywhere in the country, not just in Texas. Texas is just the first state to formally own up to the problem, but what's happening here foreshadows developments in every other state and likely internationally, since many of the best forensic scientists in other nations train here.
Kangaroo court in Waco
Though this blog hasn't covered it as closely as I should, Grits would include the ongoing travesty of justice in Waco in the aftermath of the 2015 Twin Peaks biker shootings in the five biggest stories of the year. The DA and local judiciary have conspired to trump up cases against dozens of bikers against whom they have zero inclulpatory evidence and then dragged out proceedings for more than a year without dismissing the BS cases. There's hardly a pretense anymore of justice being served, DA Abel Reyna is engaging in what amounts to petty bullying. The courts so far have backed the DA, but not yet on the challenges where he's most vulnerable, the denouement of which we may happily expect in 2017. Still, when this is finished (years from now, following the exoneration of most defendants and what will likely be successful civil litigation), Grits believes the episode will give the town an even worse black eye than the sexual assault allegations against Baylor football players, although the latter is presently a bigger deal nationally than the former.
Tattoo You: A new breed of Texas DAs
Finally, District Attorney elections in Harris and Nueces Counties must nudge their way into Grits top five because of their potential historic import. The change in Harris was part of a generalized partisan rout, with Dem judges and a new DA sweeping all the countywide offices. In Nueces, though, reformer Mark Gonzalez running as a Dem - a criminal defense lawyer with "Not Guilty" tattooed across his chest - was elevated by voters in a county that went for Donald Trump. In general, District Attorneys in Texas' largest counties these days are a lot less hard core and more likely to be sympathetic to reform than just a few years ago. This represents an opportunity for reformers, both because these new DAs themselves might do good stuff, and also because the opposition coming from prosecutors to statewide reforms may be less likely to speak with one voice.
Honorable mention for top stories:
- Democracy failing us on judges: Court of Criminal Appeals elections are a joke and one of the court's best judges, Elsa Alcala, says she'll decline to run for reelection in 2018 rather than subject herself to them again. IMO Alcala was Gov. Rick Perry's very best appointment, out of thousands. In a different time and place, this traditional-conservative Latina Republican judge married to a former Houston police officer would be on a GOP short list for the US Supreme Court. That instead she's walking away from politics in disgust says something sad about the state of both republicanism and Republicanism in Texas.
- When judges choose convenience over law: Texas is not following the constitution when it comes to vetting pro se habeas corpus pleadings, we learned from one of Judge Alcala's opinions. There has been no MSM coverage on this, and it's unclear who could provide any remedy since these are state habeas petitions, but from a systemic perspective it's a big deal.
- Looming crisis: The Dallas police pension may bankrupt the city; Houston's not far behind.
- Innocence matters: The San Antonio Four were declared actually innocent. And the underlying flawed forensics behind Harris County drug exonerations was revealed. Meanwhile, Texas Exoneration Review Commission finished up its work and issued recommendations. Two legislators - Rodney Ellis, now a Harris County Commissioner, and Ruth Jones McLendon, now retired to private life - deserve immense credit for pushing for the commission last session. Now it's up to advocates and the Lege to make them happen.
- Declining executions: The number of Texas executions plummeted this year to historic lows in 2016, in part thanks to 2015 legislation (SB 1071) requiring prosecutors to notify the defense when they seek to set executions. Most of the MSM coverage hasn't mentioned that piece, though the Texas Tribune brought it up in September, but it's definitely been a factor.