Saturday, October 13, 2018

Prison guard beat handcuffed inmate to death, how to build a better crime lab, the effects of criminal-justice debt, federal justice reform gets real, and other stories

Here are a few Texas justice stories that merit readers' attention this weekend, as well as some national items which caught Grits' eye:

Prison guard beat handcuffed inmate to death
The inmate beaten to death in the shower by a Huntsville prison guard this summer was handcuffed when he was attacked, reported the Houston Chronicle's Keri Blakinger in an update. The guard was charged with aggravated assault, but those facts read like a minimum of manslaughter, to me, and outright murder doesn't seem much of a stretch, given the clear intent. The CO had been ordered by a supervisor to stay away from the inmate after a confrontation earlier in the day, but he allegedly violated orders, took the inmate into an empty shower area, and beat him to death.

How to build a better crime lab
Our pals Sandra Guerra Thompson and Nicole Casarez from the Houston Forensic Science Center's board have a new academic article out titled, "Three Transformative Ideas to Build a Better Crime Lab," focused on crime-lab independence and governance.

Hack M.E.
Former Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo was a complete hack. KXAN recapped his hackery this week in the Michael Morton case.

Crowdfunding not enough $ for rape kits
The crowdfunding bill passed last session at the Texas Legislature didn't go nearly far enough to clear backlogs of untested rape kits, a new documentary demonstrates.

Man bites dog Prosecutors support expungement
The New York Times reported that some prosecutors are beginning to embrace expungement as part of reentry-related criminal-justice reforms. That's remarkable. In Texas, DAs in the past fought expungement bills tooth and nail. I'd love so see some Texas prosecutor embrace this tactic.

Where are police disciplinary records public?
Check out an analysis of the relative openness of police disciplinary records in all 50 states. Texas would have been among the most open 30 years ago. Today, we're among the middling group with "limited availability" of those records. "Limited" is definitely the operative word.

Effects of criminal-justice debt
Alabama Appleseed conducted a survey of 980 people who owed criminal-justice debt related debt. They found:
  • 83% gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support, in order to pay down their court debt.
  • 50% had been jailed for failure to pay court debt.
  • 44% had used payday loans to cover court debt.
  • 38% committed a crime to pay off their court debt.
  • 20% were turned down for a diversion program like drug court because they could not afford it.
  • 66% received money or food assistance from a faith-based charity or church that they would not have had to request if it were not for their court debt.
Reimagining prisons
The Vera Institute's new Reimagining Prisons report goes on Grits' to-read list.

Federal prison/sentencing reform may move after election
Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell this week announced he would take a whip count on the FIRST-STEP-Act-plus-sentencing reform after the November elections and give the bill a vote if 60 members support it. Soon thereafter, President Trump added his full-throated endorsement, declaring he would overrule Jeff Sessions on the topic if the Attorney General opposed the bill. The president opined that sentencing reform must pass because black people are being treated "very unfairly." Notably, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley's sentencing reform bill has been tacked onto the FIRST-STEP Act, which passed the House on a bipartisan basis. Though perhaps it would be presumptuous to suppose new-found support for sentencing reform among GOP leadership had anything to do with the chairman expediting the Kavanaugh nomination, Sen. Grassley has recently carried a lot of water for the President and Majority Leader and now has chips to cash in. Glad he's using some of them on this.

Ted Cruz's vote key on federal justice reform
One more thing on federal reforms: Here in Texas, our job is to convince Ted Cruz to support the FIRST-STEP/Grassley reform measure. Texas' junior senator now finds himself on the opposite side of the issue from both President Trump and Senate leadership. If he were to flip, the opposition coalition would likely disintegrate.  Cruz was one of four senators to oppose Grassley's bill in committee and has been shedding his last remaining libertarian bona fides on justice reform to try to out tuff-on-crime Beto O'Rourke. Since he's in the midst of a hot election, though, perhaps that will translate into heightened sensitivity over constituent calls. His contact info is here.


James S. said...

Just a thought:

Sometimes, even in a death, prosecutors will charge agg assault instead of murder because they don't have to prove intent to kill. And with the right circumstances like a deadly weapon (I have no idea in this case) or a public servant acting officially (sounds like a no-brainer), it's the same penalty range as murder (5-99 yrs).

Manslaughter, of course, is normally a second degree felony.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That makes sense, thanks James!

Oprah, not her said...

RE: How to build a better crime lab

A better read would be the FSC's report from July 20, 2018, which more or less found Lab Management less concerned with the needs of the lab analysts. Investigating back to 2012, the Lab Management was not interested in root cause analysis, per se, and were content with incomplete or vague documentation describing problems that were reported by the analysts.

"The primary concern voiced by the group [lab analysts] was a need for improvement in the internal training program. Comments included the perception that the section lacks a defined training program, there is no designated training coordinator, and training/competency sets do not mimic actual casework. The need for improvement in the training program was also identified in the 2017 internal DNA audit. Some analysts also expressed a perception that “quantity” of casework was more important than “quality” of casework, others expressed their belief that the quality of the work environment needs to be improved. One analyst described internal training on DNA mixtures as lacking sufficient structure and direction. Some analysts noted high turnover in the section, with 17 people having left the DNA section since 2016. Other analysts expressed a perception that upper management does not fully appreciate the analysts’ concerns with respect to these issues."

"...the Commission agrees with the complainant’s observations that those efforts still resulted in inadequate root cause analysis inadequate corrective action, and inadequate evaluation of corrective actions. While it is not uncommon for forensic laboratories to struggle with effective root cause analysis, shortcomings in this area may have serious implications for the effectiveness of the overall quality system of the laboratory..."

It was noted that there was a high turnover of lab analysts, no doubt because of failures of management to address analysts' concerns, inadequate training, and plain frustration from the lab analysts waiting for Lab Management to do their jobs. I'm fairly certain that no one from Lab Management was fired or demoted for being incompetent, but rest assured the Peter Principle is in full force and more labs are in hiding.

Oprah, not her said...

Sauce for the above reference,

Anonymous said...

Funding and interest in forensic science did not occur in Texas until television glamorized it. Once upon a time the Harris County Medical Examiner was 2 stainless steel tables, an area for investigators, and a small body storage room in the basement of the old Ben Taub Hospital. One Sunday there were 40 bodies. Sexual assault evidence was processed in the Histology lab. The Galveston County Medical Examiner was a mobile trailer on the grounds of the condemned public health hospital on the island. Politicians, journalists, and criminal lawyers simply did not care.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the contact number for Ted Cruz. I called him and we had a nice long talk.

Since you didn't supply it, I had to look up Beto's contact info myself. I thanked him for not taking that check from Harvey Weinstein but he got a little steamed when I asked him why he took a check from every other Hollywood pervert.