Thursday, July 31, 2014

Roundup: Expensive jails, paid-for pols, broken grand juries, and flawed forensics

Here are a few odds and ends that haven't made it into full, individual posts since my return from Mexico City but which still deserve Grits readers attention:

This week in Cow Town: Hair microscopy and other forensic conundrums
The Forensic Science Commission will hold meetings of its hair and fiber microscopy panel (2 p.m.) and the Complaint Screening Committee (4:30 p.m.) in Fort Worth this afternoon, with its main, full committee meeting tomorrow morning. Go here for the agendas and a livestream of each event.

Contract jail scheme failed to turn profit because of high jailer pay
El Paso county commissioners say they have the most expensive jail in the state because of high jailers salaries that start at $37K and rise to $60K after eleven years, which is certainly the highest I've heard of in Texas. The county takes in $10-11 million per year in revenue for federal prisoners they house but can't turn a profit (I know Grits readers are surprised) because of high overhead costs.

John Wiley Price: Federal defendant
So much to say ... so little of it fit for polite company. In Dallas, county commissioner John Wiley Price has been arrested on federal corruption charges and hauled away in irons. He has been "indicted on 11 bribery- and conspiracy-related charges that allege that he took things of value to influence his vote on business matters," reported Texas Lawyer. Price for years acted as a self-appointed czar of the Dallas County Jail as well as the county bail bond board, so there's a particular irony in his present situation. I don't know much about the specifics of the feds' case against Price beyond published newspaper reports, but it'd be hard for any allegation to surprise me. The feds and Price have been dancing around the issue for years, so I'd be surprised if the US Attorney failed to come loaded for bear. If this fiasco ends with Price rising from the political grave, vampire-like - or worse, Messiah-like, stronger than before - it will balkanize and poison Dallas politics for years. So if they've got him, I hope it's dead to rights.

'Is the grand jury system broken?'
At Texas Monthly, Dan Solomon followed up on Lisa Falkenberg's reporting about grand jury misconduct with a short essay titled, "Is the grand jury system broken?" Good question. IMO the answer is, "There's no way to tell." Last session, state Rep. Bryan Hughes filed an unsuccessful bill to require recording of witness testimony in addition to suspects. That'd be a start, and even better would be for those proceedings to be recorded and turned over to the defense prior to trial, just like Brady material. At a minimum, the information should become public after conviction, like other materials in police and prosecutors' possession that becomes public under Sec. 552.108 of the Government Code when a conviction is final.

Rising law enforcement costs in Montgomery County
The Sheriff's office accounted for the bulk of a recent budget increase in Montgomery County.

Make death-in-custody reports more easily available
I wish the Attorney General would link copies of death in custody reports to the names on their macro list published on their website. It's all public record and doing so would make them a lot easier to use without wasting everyone's time with pointless bureaucracy. According to the list, there have 1,736 deaths in custody at TDCJ between 2005 and so far in 2014.

Consensus on privacy of cell-phone location records?
I agree we are approaching a national consensus that cell-phone location records should be private, but unlike this author I'm not sure all the evidence so far blows that direction. If the Texas and California Legislatures pass warrant requirements, it would be hard for SCOTUS to deny there's a significant national trend. The array of less populous states whose legislatures have so far acted may not yet count as a consensus, particularly when federal circuit courts are split on the question and mine in particular (the 5th) is on the wrong side of history.

A big advocate for bail reform
Times have changed when New Jersey Gov. and presidential hopeful Chris Christie feels politically comfortable getting out in front of bail reform. He wants to give judges discretion to deny bail based on dangerousness and to have most release decisions governed by risk assessments instead of the ability to pay a bondsman.


Anonymous said...

I've been watching this Grand Jury discussion in the Houston Chronicle and now Texas Monthly. I don't know that I've ever seen more ill-informed reporting than what has been displayed by Ms. Falkenberg and now Mr. Solomon. This notion that the exclusive role of a Grand Jury is to be a passive, disinterested check on the power of the government is totally contrary to the law. While it's true that ONE role of the Grand Jury is to determine whether there's probable cause to warrant a true bill, in Texas, Grand Juries have near autonomy when it comes to the power to investigate, subpoena or question witnesses, and disagree with or disregard the recommendations of the prosecutors. I'm aware of several cases where the prosecutor recommended a no bill and the Grand Jury disagreed and returned a true bill. It is not at all uncommon for prosecutors to present cases to Grand Juries without making a recommendation as to a true bill or a no bill. Unlike a petit jury which under Texas law has no power to question witnesses, there is nothing that says grand jurors have to sit quietly in the face of testimony they believe to be perjury. They can question witnesses just as zealously as the most enthusiastic prosecutor if they so choose.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:42, maybe reporters' ignorance would be dispelled by greater transparency. For that matter, perhaps the more extreme behavior might be reduced if grand jurors knew the transcript of their questioning would later get out.

TriggerMortis said...

Sometimes, if you have the right political connections to Rick Perry, the DA will overrule the grand jury's decision:

The Homeless Cowboy said...

In reference to John Wiley, I will say this Grits, you were correct in saying they had better have him without a shred of doubt. I am roughly the same age as JWP and I can promise you, IF John Wiley Price is a criminal, it will have to be proven WAY BEYOND a shadow of a doubt. IF he is a criminal, I guarantee you one thing, He is the smoothest criminal to come down the pike in the last several decades. The powers that be tried for decades to bring down Al Lipscomb with little success, Jouhn Wiley is no different and much more technologically savvy. I am sure, knowing there were forces in pursuit of him, he left a few intentional rabbit holes for the foxes to fall in. Im not tooting his horn, but I aint counting him out before he is even stumbled, and so far he is lookin as sure footed as ever. It doesn't mean he can't be caught if he is dirty. It does mean he isn't stupid enough not to know they were watching. I am going to watch this unfold with a keen interest.

Joorie Doodie said...

Re: John Wiley Price

We're certainly used to horrible county politicians here in East Texas ( but John Wiley Price is in a league of his own. The one thing that would prevent monsters like him from becoming so entrenched they are impossible to remove would be term limits on county commissioners and county judges. I say no more than 3 consecutive terms and no more than 4 terms total. (I would count EITHER serving as a commmissioner OR a county judge toward the lifetime term limit.) 16 years is plenty. I also think that those appointed to their offices without being elected should be subject to re-election in the next general election in which an opponent would have had time to file as a candidate. I know this would take all kinds of state constitutional amendments. But these career local politicians are toxic to their communities.