Monday, June 22, 2009

Judge, not AG, responsible for TYC prosecution delays

Before deciding on the new comment policy announced at the end of this post, I was initially hesitant to blog about the minor kerfuffle last week when the Texas Civil Rights Project criticized the Attorney General for failing to yet take to court the West Texas sex-abuse cases that spawned the Youth Commission's recent troubles. It seemed like a trivial, non-story based on outside speculation, not any new event or information, so my impulse was to ignore it.

But then the press conference spawned a reaction story in the Midland Reporter-Telegram trying to portray the delays as an indication that the state's case was weak and couldn't really be proven. That BS deserves a response. We'll find out what the state can or can't prove when they get to court (at one point I was told by someone in a position to know that there was DNA evidence in one of the cases), but it's silly to claim the delay was because the case was weak when the AG has been trying to get the judge to set the case for trial for more than a year.

There hasn't been a trial in the West Texas State School cases for exactly one reason: District Judge Bob Parks won't set a trial date. According to a press statement the AG put out reacting to TCRP's press conference:
This office has made multiple attempts to advance these prosecutions and has informed the court that it is ready for trial. Nonetheless, despite the State's request that the trials proceed, the court has not set trial dates.

At the State's request, Defendant Brookins was set for trial in April, 2008. That trial date was delayed by the court after the defendant's lawyer was arrested. After months of repeated urging by the State, the court finally set a hearing in December, 2008 and assigned the defendant a lawyer. Since then, the State has repeatedly requested that the court set a firm trial date but the court has not yet done so.

Defendant Hernandez was set for trial in August, 2008. In late July, the court informed this office that the case would not proceed as scheduled. Since then, prosecutors with this office have contacted the court on at least five occasions--most recently May 28--in an attempt to obtain a trial setting.

After nearly two years of unnecessary delay, these cases need to proceed to trial. Although this office has requested trial dates on multiple occasions, the court has not set the trial dates. Nonetheless, we will continue to pursue this matter and will continue using all available legal means to advance the cases to trial.
The AG can't force Judge Parks to set a trial date, however shameful and embarrassing it may be for the judge to drag this out (much like the local District Attorney Randy Reynolds did so notoriously for so long). I understand TCRP chief Jim Harrington's frustration that the cases haven't gone forward, but he's blaming the wrong elected official.

Between Judge Parks and Randy Reynolds, one gets the sense that Ward County, Texas is about the most defendant-friendly venue in the nation for those accused of child sexual abuse.

Ironically, precisely because of these delays, in this year's Sunset bill the Lege authorized offenses at TYC facilities to be tried in Travis County (or the county where the offense was committed), but the language wasn't retroactive so the AG cannot seek to remove this case to the capital. Going forward, however, there are many instances where DAs or grand juries in small communities simply won't pursue charges against corrections officers, so the ability for TYC's Special Prosecutor to move cases to Austin should go a long way toward restoring accountability and give the public more confidence that staff-on-youth crimes at TYC won't go unprosecuted.

Note to TYC readers: With this post, this blog begins a new policy of disallowing comments on TYC-related strings. By all appearances, too many current and former TYC employees can't handle the privilege without abusing it and, not being their momma, I don't have time, motivation nor desire to constantly monitor them for obscenity, libel and off-topic attacks on co-workers by name, which is the specific misbehavior that finally spurred this change. Off-topic comments about TYC left on other strings will be removed. TYC employees have begun a bulletin board to discuss issues related to facilities and personnel. I'd encourage them to use it and hope it becomes a robust alternative to using Grits' comments section for the same purpose. We ain't doing it here anymore - at least for now.

I apologize to those commenters who were not abusing the TYC comment threads and regret that a few people's narcissism and lack of self-control ruined the forum for everyone.