Sunday, January 29, 2017
Tyler mayor to run B&B for racially profiled black men, and other stories
Blogging was slow last week but that doesn't mean there weren't quite a few items in the news which merited Grits readers' attention. Here are a few of them:
Medical neglect at TDCJ espied after prisoner death
Alton Rogers died of head trauma in an Amarillo prison unit about a year ago after his cellmate slammed his head into the concrete. But autopsy results and medical records revealed he was extremely malnourished and significant medical problems had long been neglected by TDCJ which also contributed to his death. The Intercept has excellent coverage of this story.
Tyler mayor to run B&B for racially profiled black men
Heisman trophy winning running back Ricky Williams was stopped by cops in my hometown of Tyler earlier this month and questioned in an exchange caught on police dashcam. He'd been taking a walk around his hotel, where he was staying in order to attend an awards dinner for Earl Campbell's foundation, when a homeowner called the cops to report a black man had been standing near his back fence. In Tyler, this apparently will get three cops sent to the scene ASAP. Two of the officers recognized Williams before they stopped him. But the third did not and began to aggressively question him, even lying to him to try to get him to confess to a crime. He told Williams he knew "more than you think I know," including that Williams had been in a neighbor's backyard, not just walking past it. Williams didn't bite, but he did question whether this was a racially motivated stop. This spurred the other two officers, who by this time probably knew the encounter was about to end up online, to interject that this is how they'd treat anyone in this circumstance and try to defuse the situation. Later, Tyler's mayor Martin Hines reached out to the former Miami Dolphns star, offering to let Williams stay in his personal family home the next time he's in town. (“I even invited him to stay with my family when he’s here. We have a guest room he’s welcome to.”) Grits imagines the mayor similarly extends this offer to all black men in Tyler who feel they've been racially profiled by police, don't you think? No chance Williams only got that offer from a starstruck mayor because he's a celebrity and a famous Texas football player. Nah! That can't be it.
For those in and around Austin, the UT law school's Expunction Project will hold a couple of intake sessions next month. Go here for more information.
Austin gets new police monitor
I don't know the new Austin Police Monitor, but the last one, Margo Frasier, was the best we ever had. She made the most of what, on paper and in practice, is a weak and ineffectual office. But it possesses a bully-pulpit function that only works if the Monitor uses it. She did. Will her successor? That's the question lingering in my mind. We'll know soon enough.
Dallas pension fight further devolves
Talks over a pension deal in Dallas have completely broken down and the city may soon pull out of the pension fund and create a new one going forward. Police unions' scorched earth tactics probably will preclude additional negotiations (anybody who questions their demand for a bailout is immediately dubbed a liar, said to have "conned" officers, accused of hating the retirees, etc.), setting the stage for years of litigation that's in the best interest neither of taxpayers nor retirees. The likelihood that police pensions drive the state's second largest city into bankruptcy increased this week.
'New breed of prosecutors'
Freshly minted DAs in Austin and Houston were among those profiled in the Marshall Project item about reformer prosecutors elected on the same day as Donald Trump. I'm kind of surprised they didn't mention Nueces County, which was truly a race decided on reform issues. In Harris, the flip was more rooted in partisan shifts that also impacted the judiciary and other countywide offices.
This item from Houstonia magazine credits better-quality lawyering for Texas having the lowest number of executions last year in two decades. And that's certainly part of it. Unmentioned, though, was a change in the law from 2015 which required prosecutors to notify the defense when they request an execution date from a judge. This additional notice has given the defense heretofore unavailable opportunities to challenge execution dates at the time they're requested, rather than find out later only when the judge issues an order based on an ex parte request. Some of those whose dates were delayed will still eventually be executed, but the change prevents some of the last-minute wrangling and postponements that historically surround such events, While the effect likely is short-term, that new law probably explains the dip in executions in 2016 better than broader macro factors like attorney quality.
Harris DA accused of withholding snitch deal, conflicting testimony
Attorneys from Baker Botts have alleged in filings to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Harris County prosecutors engaged in misconduct in a capital murder case, failing to disclose that a key witness "had provided two separate and conflicting statements to police," as well as failing to "disclose a deal not to prosecute another prosecution witness in exchange for his testimony."
Reduce drug penalties, expand treatment, opportunities for addicts
Treatment, not incarceration, is key to reducing drug-related crime, wrote the executive director of Austin Recovery in a column calling for reducing penalties for low-level drug possession from a state-jail felony to a misdemeanor. "Lowering penalties for minor possession can save Texas more than $60 million – funds that can be used to decrease the waiting list for treatment and overdose prevention. Decreased penalties also mean that people with addiction still have the opportunities to achieve their full potential," she concluded.
Cowtown cop's disciplinary file secret
See an update from AP on the episode out of Fort Worth in which an officer arrested a black mother and daughter while verbally defending the white man who had allegedly assaulted her son. The story noted that disciplinary records for past incidents involving the officer are secret unless they resulted in a firing or suspension. That's a problem not just for public accountability but also for prosecutors. In cities which have adopted the state police and fire civil service code, prosecutors similarly lack access to "impeachment" information in disciplinary files of officers they put on the stand as witnesses, although they have a duty under the Michael Morton Act to disclose such information. The Legislature needs to plug this gap in the MMA, which puts prosecutors in a particularly rough spot.
Crime by the numbers