Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Grievance: DA's failure to notify defendants in Salvador mess kept inmate wrongly incarcerated for two years

A state bar grievance has been filed against Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey over his failure to notify defendants eligible for release from prison that evidence in their cases had been tainted by the Jonathan Salvador scandal, reported Leah Binkowitz at the Houston Chronicle (Oct. 26). Now, defendant Jacob Estrada, whose conviction was overturned earlier this year, "claims prosecutors in Fort Bend County delayed notifying criminal defense lawyers of the tainted evidence, as required by law." Wrote Binkowitz:
When the Court of Criminal Appeals finally overturned his conviction in June and ordered his release, Estrada, 29, filed grievances with the State Bar Association against Fort Bend District Attorney John Healey and his chief narcotics prosecutor, Mark Hanna.

In them, he claims Healey's office, by dragging its feet, kept him in prison, knowing the evidence against him was not only tainted but actually had been destroyed, meaning prosecutors had no basis for ever retrying him.

Now, Estrada's grievances have become an issue just weeks before an election in which Healey will have a Democratic challenger for the first time in 20 years.

Healey, a Republican, would not comment on Estrada's case or on his decision to delay notification that the underlying evidence in his conviction had been undermined.
"I believe that our response was fair, it was realistic, and I think at the end of the day, it will be viewed as an acceptable response," Healey said.

Healey said that there were no instructions for how he should proceed once he was informed that he had more than 100 drug cases involving evidence handled by the discredited Department of Public Safety chemist Jonathan Salvador, who was fired in 2012.
It must be said that Healey's claim there were no instructions for how to handle the Salvador case is patently false. The Texas District and County Attorneys Association issued detailed guidance regarding notification, appointment of counsel for habeas writs, etc., early on. Here it is, from April 2012. Healey claims later in the story there were no "rules" for how to handle the Salvador case, which is slightly more accurate (if a bit of a weasel word, under the circumstances), but he absolutely received "instructions" regarding his obligations as a prosecutor in these cases. He just chose to ignore them.

MORE: Grits should have mentioned that, in addition to TDCAA's notice, the Forensic Science Commission issued a lengthy report (pdf, see Exhibit G) on the Jonathan Salvador episode that included recommendations for notifying defendants (and even form letters for prosecutors to use) which were sent to all 36 affected DA's offices. And the Court of Criminal Appeals' Criminal Justice Integrity Unit issued a "white paper" with the FSC on the topic of notification in cases of widespread forensic errors. That makes Healey's claim that he'd never received guidance regarding how to respond even more unbelievable. Really, it's just a lie, and a incredible one at that.

My personal belief is that the state bar will do nothing about this, but that says more about the ineffectiveness of their regulation of prosecutors than it does whether Healey intentionally delayed notifying defendants whose cases merited relief. It's quite clear that's exactly what happened.

How much do you wanna bet there are other counties among the 36 which also failed to notify defendants? Fort Bend almost certainly isn't the only one.

RELATED: Fort Bend DA failed to notify defense of alleged misconduct by DPS lab worker.


Anonymous said...

Wait a minute, I thought there wasn't any recourse for claims of Brady violations by prosecutors? What the hell is this?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The habeas recourse came from the CCA in these particular cases because of flawed forensics, it's not specific to Brady.

Gadfly said...

Grits, have you written anything about this nuttery? http://www.npr.org/2014/10/28/359411980/how-will-a-small-town-in-arizona-manage-an-ice-facility-in-texas

Dr Hilarius said...

"Failure" implies that he strove mightily like Hercules but was thwarted in his quest. I have a feeling it was a little more sleazy in nature.

Anonymous said...

Lovin' that big Tango Blast tat homeboy has on his arm in the Chronicle's picture. That's priceless! And to get to that minimum 25 year sentence, cuz either had a truckload of dope or he's a two time ex-con looking at the high bitch! #guilty #gangsta

Anonymous said...

Having the Tango Blast tattoo should be a crime, not 500 lbs of weed. Texas hasn't learned that drug prohibition leads to losers such as Estrada making easy money off that dope. Texas needs to legalize dope and put losers such as Estrada out of business. Tango Blasters such as Estrada should be working the grill at Burger King and not making millions of dollars slinging that dope.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@3:13, you said a mouthful. None of that excuses the DA from doing his job vis a vis Brady, disclosure, etc., but you're 100% right that the fundamental source of the problem is drug prohibition. The crime labs needn't ever have been put in that position in the first place.

@1:19, I think you mean #notguilty #Bradymatters. Your opinion based on his tattoo is non-probative. Criminal charges must be proved and his cannot be: Hence Keller and Co. at the CCA (damn liberals) granting him habeas relief.

That said, I'll never in a million years understand why Tango or gang members tattoo their affiliations ... there was a time back in the day when criminals didn't want to identify themselves as such to the outside world. You'd think it would make them less effective at their jobs.

Anonymous said...

Well Grits, once a criminal has done a tattoo, it might be hard to remedy the matter. I find it is a lot harder to get a tattoo removed than to get the tattoo itself.