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Crime and Punishment

Smoots-Thomas suspended from the bench

What you’d expect.

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas

A district court judge in Harris County has been suspended after she was indicted on federal wire fraud charges for allegedly misspending campaign donations.

Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, 44, will be removed from her bench without pay until the State Commission on Judicial Conduct determines otherwise, the oversight board said Tuesday, the same day it was presented with the indictment and ordered her suspension.

“We’re not surprised, but we’re still very disappointed that the state chose to take that action,” Smoots-Thomas’ attorney, Kent Schaffer, said. “It just adds to the fight that we have before us.

[…]

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has the authority to suspend judges, but can only recommend their removal to the Texas Supreme Court after conducting an investigation, according to the commission’s procedures.

Smoots-Thomas has rarely sat on her bench this year, Schaffer said, because she has breast cancer and has undergone several rounds of treatments.

See here for the background. I guess I can understand being disappointed in this entirely expected decision, but I don’t know what else might have happened. I can’t imagine a scenario in which a judge in similar circumstances would not be suspended. If nothing else, anyone appearing before her might reasonably question whether she could be on her game, since there would obviously be bigger things on her mind than whatever case was being argued.

I know that Judge Smoots-Thomas is collecting signatures to get on the ballot next year. I don’t know at this time if anyone else is doing the same. I’ll be surprised if that isn’t the case, but stranger things have happened. In the meantime, we’ll see how long this investigation takes.

State Rep. Poncho Nevarez busted for cocaine possession

It’s been a week, hasn’t it? I have three things to say about this.

Rep. Poncho Nevarez

Authorities issued a warrant Thursday for the arrest of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, an Eagle Pass Democrat, on felony drug possession charges. A state special investigator claims in the warrant, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, that Nevárez was caught on surveillance footage in September dropping an envelope with cocaine as he was leaving the Austin airport.

A magistrate judge in Travis County signed the warrant Thursday afternoon. Nevárez faces a charge of third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.

Neither Nevárez’s office nor the Travis County District Attorney’s Office immediately responded to a request for comment.

Thursday’s news came hours after an affidavit detailing the allegations, filed Oct. 29 in Travis County court by the Texas Department of Public Safety, was revealed and later obtained by the Tribune and other news outlets. The affidavit was attached to a warrant seeking to conduct a test to determine whether Nevárez’s DNA was on the envelope. The document says that the envelope had Nevárez’s official House seal and held “four small clear baggies” containing a substance found to include cocaine.

Nevárez, who chairs the House Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee, announced last week he was retiring from the lower chamber. And in a statement to the Tribune Thursday morning before the warrant was issued, Nevárez confirmed that the “news is true” — and that the events detailed in the affidavit prompted his decision to not seek reelection.

“I do not have anyone to blame but myself,” he said, noting that he plans to seek treatment. “I accept this because it is true and it will help me get better.”

1. Nevarez had previously announced he was not running for re-election, which I think we can all agree is for the best. Sometimes, regardless of other considerations, stepping back in order to get one’s life together is the stronger course of action.

2. And I really do hope he gets his life back together. Addiction is a terrible thing, and it has real costs not just on the addict but on the addict’s family and friends. Even if I am grossly overstating the issue here – I am making some big assumptions – I stand by the main point about the personal cost to all involved.

3. I hope we take this as an opportunity to further reflect on how the criminal justice system handles drug usage and possession. I would not advocate for decriminalization of cocaine, but I would hope we would all by now recognize that a ten-year jail sentence for possessing a small amount of it is ridiculous and serves no worthwhile purpose. It’s needlessly punitive, exorbitantly expensive, and surely does not have a positive effect on addiction and drug abuse. And we should reflect on the fact that while someone like Rep. Nevarez is unlikely to spend much if any time in jail, many many people in Texas and around the country are not so fortunate. Our drug laws are harmful and woefully out of date. We really should do something about that. If Rep. Nevarez’s situation helps even one legislator realize that, then at least one good thing will come out of this.

Harris County’s gun surrender program

Just common sense.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County officials on Tuesday announced four measures aimed at curbing gun violence, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo said are necessary because the state and federal governments have missed opportunities to prevent shootings.

Hidalgo secured unanimous approval from Commissioners Court to expand a gun surrender program to all 22 of the county’s felony courts.

Additionally, county officials unveiled a streamlined system of reporting criminal convictions to the Texas Department of Public Safety, a new health department task force focused on violence prevention and a free gun lock program.

“We know the vast majority of Americans want common-sense gun reforms, and it’s an issue where we’re not just going to roll over,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve spent the last few months scouring what we can do within the framework that exists.”

[…]

The surrender program, which debuted in the 280th family court in December 2018, requires defendants charged with domestic violence offenses to give up their weapons to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office until their legal cases are resolved. To date, deputies have seized 25 guns under 10 protective orders.

Speeding up the reporting of convictions is one of the gun violence mitigation ideas Greg Abbott had in the wake of the El Paso murders. The surrender program for domestic violence offenders is just a recognition of the correlation between gun violence and domestic violence. Anyone who opposes these simple, broadly-supported, sensible solutions – a group that apparently includes one of the Republican candidates in HD148 – has no interest in reducing gun violence. Anyone who doesn’t support these proposals is part of the problem.

District Court Judge Smoots-Thomas accused of wire fraud

Yikes.

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas

A Harris County judge is facing federal charges that accuse her of using campaign donations for personal expenses, including for mortgage payments, private school tuition and travel.

Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, 44, is charged with wire fraud charges, according to federal prosecutors. She turned herself in to U.S. Magistrate Peter Bray, appearing before him with chains wrapped around her waist and ankles.

She pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the magistrate set a pre-trial conference for Jan. 6.

Wearing a gray and black suit, she kept her head down for most of the arraignment. Smoots-Thomas has breast cancer, and had a round of chemotherapy on Thursday, attorney Kent Schaffer said.

Schaffer denied the charges after the proceeding, alleging that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, under Ryan Patrick, was targeting Smoots-Thomas because she is a black female Democrat.

“She has not defrauded anybody,” he said.

Patrick’s office has been contacted for comment on Schaffer’s allegations.

A federal grand jury on Oct. 24 returned a seven-count indictment against Smoots-Thomas, who presides over the 164th District Court and has jurisdiction over civil cases within Harris County. The indictment was unsealed on Friday.

[…]

The indictment alleges Smoots-Thomas of soliciting campaign contributions on the premise the money would be used to help facilitate her re-election campaigns in 2012 and 2016, prosecutors said. She concealed the expenses from her campaign treasurer and the Texas Ethics Commission by filing false campaign finance reports, according to the charges.

Obviously, this is bad and upsetting. She is of course innocent until proven guilty, but federal prosecutors tend to prefer bringing charges in cases they feel confident about winning.

Judge Smoots-Thomas was first elected in 2008. She was known as Alexandra Smoots-Hogan then; I know she had gotten divorced, and I presume remarried. There’s always a question about whether elected officials who are accused of crimes should resign when that happens. This is where I point out that Ken Paxton is still Attorney General, and I have not called for his resignation because he has not yet been convicted of anything. I’m inclined to believe that Kent Schaffer’s allegation about Assistant US Attorney Ryan Patrick is more defense lawyer strategy than anything else, but if all it took was an indictment to force someone out of office, then it’s certainly possible to imagine a politically motivated prosecutor filing sketchy charges as a partisan tactic. Plenty of people have been unjustly prosecuted in other contexts, after all. It’s a terrible look and I’m sure Republicans are rubbing their hands with glee over the potential attack ads, but even public officials get their day in court.

No charges against Bonnen

No surprise.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will not be criminally prosecuted for the things he said during a secretly recorded June meeting with a hardline conservative activist, the district attorney in his hometown announced Thursday.

“As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said in a statement, “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for Bribery or Solicitation of a Gift by a Public Servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Bonnen said Yenne’s decision “deflates Michael Quinn Sullivan’s entire reason for going public three months ago — that, according to him, the Speaker solicited a bribe and broke the law.”

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority into jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary, said in a statement. “While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This was the conclusion of the Texas Rangers investigation – their report was submitted to DA Yenne earlier this week, according to the story. There wasn’t anything in the tape to suggest criminal activity, just deep stupidity, for which Bonnen will leave the Legislature and Yenne chewed him out. All things considered, I’ve got no gripes about how this turned out.

The visiting judge and the public defender

I want to understand more about this.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis is calling for a review of the process used to select substitute judges after fielding a scathing letter from the county’s public defender outlining two decades of allegations against ex-Judge Jim Wallace and questioning whether he is eligible to still sit as a “visiting” jurist in light of his disciplinary history.

The former elected judge, a Republican who left the bench in 2018, was one of 11 publicly admonished by state oversight officials in August for allegedly violating judicial canons by ordering hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants.

That admonishment — which the State Commission on Judicial Conduct later retracted, according to Wallace’s attorney — was just one of nearly a dozen incidents outlined in the two-page letter, which also detailed Wallace’s previous disciplinary actions and a more recent courtroom spat when he suggested that a female attorney was objecting too often and told her she should just “stay standing through the whole trial and save your knees.”

The letter, signed by Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin, called those actions “prejudicial to a fair trial” and suggested that the county get a legal opinion on whether Wallace is still eligible to get work as a visiting judge in light of his history.

The regional administrative judge who approves such appointments said that Wallace does qualify because his disciplinary matters were considered lower-level infractions. Wallace, meanwhile, disputed some of the allegations against him, and argued that his other actions were justified or taken out of context.

“They’re bringing up a bunch of stuff that’s totally not true and inaccurate,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “I’m a judge that comes from the old school but I’m not gonna be intimidated by the public defender’s office.”

To Ellis, the letter raises questions about whether judges who were voted out of office or left the bench should still be overseeing local courtrooms. Though he conceded it’s not clear what changes county-level elected officials could implement, on Friday he added the issue to the next Commissioners Court agenda and said he planned to go to the county attorney for advice.

“I’m not sure what can be done,” he said, “but I’m sure what cannot be — and that’s for us to turn a blind eye.”

See here for more on that admonishment. I for one would like to know for sure if the State Commission on Judicial Conduct did in fact retract it, which if true seems to me to be a big deal and a key fact, or if this one judge’s lawyer is just saying they did. The rest of the story goes into the charges levied by Alex Bunin and Judge Wallace’s responses to them. I don’t have nearly enough information to assess them, so I support Commissioner Ellis’ call to review the entire system, which I’m guessing hasn’t had any such review ever. Maybe everything is working fine, maybe there are a few tweaks here and there that could be made, and maybe a wholesale overhaul is in order. Now is as good a time as any to do that, so let’s move on it and see what we find out.

Ronald Haskell convicted

Good, but nothing can undo the damage he did.

Cassidy Stay, the lone survivor of a 2014 shooting that killed her mother, father and four younger siblings, folded her hands in prayer inside a courtroom while awaiting a verdict.

The killer, Ronald Haskell, claimed insanity when he fatally shot six relatives of his ex-wife at their Spring home. But a Harris County jury determined on Thursday that Haskell knew what he was doing when he massacred the family, convicting him of capital murder and moving him closer to a possible death sentence.

Upon hearing the decision, Stay breathed a deep sigh of relief, closed her eyes and pressed her hands over her heart, while Haskell just stared straight ahead.

The decision came after a month of testimony from dozens of witnesses, who described the gruesome scene and attempted to capture Haskell’s mental state at the time of the shooting. Prosecutors said Haskell planned the murders in an effort to enact vengeance on anyone who had helped his ex-wife, who left him in 2013.

Jurors took more than eight hours to deliberate their verdict.

“We are grateful for the jurors’ rapt attention over the last many weeks to every piece of evidence in the case,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement. “There was never a reasonable doubt that Haskell meticulously planned and carried out the slaughter of the Stay family.”

The jury panel will return Monday for the punishment phase of the trial to decide whether to sentence him to either life without parole or death.

See here for the background. Ronald Haskell is as much an emblem of mass gun violence as any of the more notorious murderers. His kind of crime, aimed at those closest to him and driven by misogyny and a history of domestic violence, is so common we almost don’t even notice it. He’s the problem we need to solve if we want to reduce gun violence in our country.

DPS’ intel gathering

Should be interesting. And necessary.

State and federal officials in Texas have started monitoring racist and incendiary rhetoric online, such as that alleged to have been used by the suspect in the El Paso mass shooting, in the hopes of preventing violent attacks in the future.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told a select House committee on mass violence prevention Tuesday that officials at so-called fusion centers — multi-agency intelligence centers throughout the state — had not previously done that work, in part because of the public’s concerns about privacy.

“We know that if we can proactively find those individuals before an event, we have a better chance of getting an opportunity to prevent it from happening,” McCraw said. “It takes professional analysts around-the-clock to do it.”

[…]

Though the online hate monitoring still is in beginning phases, McCraw said officials will be tracking groups from neo-Nazis to incels — self-described involuntary celibates known to commit acts of violence.

Law enforcement is also infiltrating online forums like 8chan where the suspect in the El Paso slaughter allegedly posted a manifesto prior to the attack.

“All of those groups, obviously when there’s individuals that start talking about something that raises a concern, a threat, we should be able to move on it,” McCraw said.

McCraw said the centers will need more resources in the future to not only identify such individuals but also follow up and vet them.

This is what a responsible law enforcement agency should be doing. The threat is real, and the best defense is knowledge of what’s happening. Obviously, any time law enforcement gets involved in intelligence gathering there is the potential for innocent people to be put under suspicion, especially people of color. There will be pressure to view things through a political lens, which in this state is more likely to be bad for those who lean progressive. Strong oversight from the Lege is needed, but we should be prepared for negative effects regardless. Be that as it may, this is still necessary. I hope DPS is up to the task.

Appealing the Crystal Mason illegal voting conviction

This continues to be an appalling travesty.

When Crystal Mason got out of federal prison, she said, she “got out running.”

By Nov. 8, 2016, when she’d been out for months but was still on supervised release, she was working full-time at Santander Bank in downtown Dallas and enrolled in night classes at Ogle Beauty School, trying, she said, to show her children that a “bump in the road doesn’t determine your future.”

On Election Day, there was yet another thing to do: After work, she drove through the rain to her polling place in the southern end of Tarrant County, expecting to vote for the first female president.

When she got there, she was surprised to learn that her name wasn’t on the roll. On the advice of a poll worker, she cast a provisional ballot instead. She didn’t make it to her night class.

A month later, she learned that her ballot had been rejected, and a few months after that, she was arrested. Because she was on supervised release, prosecutors argued, she had knowingly violated a law preventing felons from voting before completing their sentences. Mason insisted she had no idea officials considered her ineligible — and would never have risked her freedom if she had.

For “illegally voting,” she was sentenced to five years in prison. Now, as her lawyers attempt to persuade a Fort Worth appeals court to overturn that sentence, the question is whether she voted at all.

Created in 2002, provisional ballots were intended to serve as an electoral safe harbor, allowing a person to record her vote even amid questions about her eligibility. In 2016, more than 66,000 provisional ballots were cast in Texas, and the vast majority of those were rejected, most of them because they were cast by individuals who weren’t registered to vote, according to data compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In Tarrant County, where Mason lives, nearly 4,500 provisional ballots were cast that year, and 3,990 were rejected — but she was the only one who faced criminal prosecution.

In fact, Mason’s lawyer told a three-judge panel in North Texas last Tuesday, hers is the first known instance of an individual facing criminal charges for casting a ballot that ultimately didn’t count.

Her case, now pending before an all-Republican appeals panel, is about not just her freedom, but about the role and risks of the provisional ballot itself.

Prosecutors insist that they are not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake. Despite those assurances, voting rights advocates fear the case could foster enough doubt among low-information voters that they’ll be discouraged from heading to the polls — or even clear a path for prosecutors to criminally pursue other provisional ballot-casters.

“There are a lot of people who have questions about whether they can vote or where they can vote,” said Andre Segura, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “You want all of those people to feel comfortable going in and submitting a provisional ballot.”

[…]

Tarrant County prosecutors have brushed off concerns the Mason case could lead to voter suppression. “The fact that this case is so unique should emphasize why this case should in no way have a ‘chilling effect’ on anyone except people who knowingly vote illegally,” Jordan said.

But during the 2019 legislative session, some Republican lawmakers pushed to erase Mason’s legal defense for future defendants by making it easier to prosecute people who cast ballots without realizing they’re ineligible.

Currently, to commit a crime, voters must know they are ineligible; under the proposed law, they would commit a crime just by voting while knowing about the circumstances that made them ineligible. In other words, Mason would have been illegally voting because she was aware of her past felony conviction — even if she was not aware her “supervised release” status made her ineligible.

The fact that Mason’s provisional ballot wasn’t actually counted would have also been ruled out as a legal defense under the proposed changes to state law. That legislation ultimately failed in the House amid major opposition from Democrats.

See here for some background. The appellate hearing was last week, and it drew national coverage. There are three legal justifications given by the ACLU on behalf of Crystal Mason why her attempt to vote was not illegal, but even if you think those arguments are insufficient, there’s still no possible justice in a five year prison sentence for this. I mean, there’s plenty of other crimes that are punished far, far less. This is about scaring certain people so they don’t feel confident about voting. This is why reversing the tide of voter suppression laws has to be a priority for the next Democratic Legislature. Further reading about the case from the ACLU is here and here, and the Observer has more.

No, crime is not up in Houston

Facts are stubborn things.

Like the rest of the country, crime in Houston has plummeted over the last 30 years, as has residents’ fear of crime being the city’s most pressing problem. FBI data show that most categories of crime in Houston have fallen or remained stagnant during Turner’s term, which began in January 2016. Criminologists also scoff at the claim that Houston is among the country’s most dangerous cities.

Violent crime is down more than 10 percent from 2017, during its peak under Turner’s administration, according to preliminary FBI data. Non-violent crime has dropped about 6 percent since 2015.

From 2015 to 2018, murders dropped and robberies fell; burglaries decreased; thefts fell; and fewer vehicles were stolen. The exceptions were aggravated assaults and rapes, which rose in 2017 before declining again in 2018.

[…]

“We are at the bottom of a 30-year decline, more or less, in the crime rate,” said Scott Henson, of Just Liberty, a criminal justice reform nonprofit.

In Turner’s first year in office, for example, criminals murdered 301 Houstonians. The city saw 279 murders in 2018, a slight uptick from 269 in 2017.

The city’s murder rate is four times that of New York, the safest large city in the United States, and a sixth of St. Louis, the nation’s most deadly. A survey of the nation’s 297 largest cities (meaning they had populations of 100,000 or more) shows Houston’s ranked 75th in murders, and 31st in violent crime.

“When we talk about the murder capitals of the country, the violent crime capitals of the country, Houston is not one of the cities people put on that list,” said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based criminologist. “At least anyone familiar with the data.”

Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, said it is misleading to compare the crime rate of a city with 2.3 million people to those of small towns, which frequently have much lower crime rates.

A more accurate measure, he said, would be to look at other large cities across the country.

Among the nation’s 30 largest cities, Houston’s murder rate “is thoroughly middle of the road,” Grawert said. “I don’t see Houston as being one of the more ‘violent’ places in the country.”

And while criminologists acknowledge the city’s overall crime rate is indeed higher than 95 percent of other American cities, towns, and villages, they say such comparisons overinflate the importance of more common but less serious crimes like thefts.

“As a major American city, Houston has some crime,” said Asher. “That’s the same as me saying Houston has more trash cans than 95 percent of cities … Houston is one of the largest cities in the country. Of course it does.”

Experts say it is not useful to measure crime on a year-to-year basis because one-year outliers do not accurately reflect trends or significant changes in crime patterns.

Since 1985, the annual number of murders has risen as high as 608 in 1991 and as low as 198 in 2011. Overall, the city’s murder rate has trended downward from about 26.5 per 100,000 to 11.5 per 100,000 in 2018.

“Houston is safer than has been for a really long time, honestly, is the truth of it,” said Henson.

This article was written because the non-Mayors in the Mayoral race were all claiming that crime is up and mayhem is rampant. I mean, what else do they have to talk about? I don’t know about some of these candidates, but I was living here in 1991, and I remember what it was like. I remember looking for rental properties with my roommates in Houston and noticing that the most prominent feature on many places in Montrose was burglar bars. I remember that the conventional wisdom was that single women should not live in the Heights because it wasn’t safe for them. Hell, when I bought my first house in the Heights in 1997, Tiffany’s parents (who live in Bellaire) were worried about its location. The Houston we live in now is so much safer.

One more thing: Insistence that the city is swamped by crime leads naturally to a demand for more aggressive policing – more traffic stops, more “broken windows”-type arrests, more zero-tolerance mindset, etc. We all know what that means for minority communities. At a time when people are recognizing the great harm that over-incarceration and the “war on drugs” have caused, this is dangerous and deeply out of step with the popular will. And pretty much what I’d expect from King and Buzbee, the two loudest voices in that story. Grits, who was quoted in the story, has more.

Red flag

This seems like maybe it’s a problem.

A report out Wednesday by the San Antonio Express-News found that a gun owner in Texas had sent more than 100 pages of racist and violent letters to the Texas Attorney General’s office threatening to kill undocumented immigrants over the course of a year and a half, and that nothing was done to stop him or to communicate the threat to local authorities.

“We will open fire on these thugs,” the white man who allegedly sent the messages wrote in an email to the office. “It will be a bloodbath.”

Over the same period, local officers in San Antonio responded to 911 calls made by and about the man, and visited his house, on at least 35 occasions. However, because he had never seemingly committed a crime, police did not arrest him or take legal action. Nearby neighbors told the Express-News that the man’s home is covered in security cameras and that he often emerged holding a shotgun.

When alerted by a reporter at the Express-News of the threats made to the Attorney General’s Office, the police force did respond. “Since you’ve made us aware of those threats, our fusion center and our mental health unit have reached out to the AG’s office and are trying to work something to make a case against [the alleged suspect Ralph] Pulliam,” Sargent Michelle Ramos told the paper. “They’re going to investigate that.”

The threats and lack of communication by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to local police takes on a new light in the wake of two mass shootings in Odessa and El Paso. The El Paso shooter had long written about his hatred for immigrants and his mother had reportedly called the police before the shooting because she did not think her son should own a gun.

“These messages are clearly threats of deadly force against San Antonians based solely on the color of their skin,” wrote State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer in a letter to Paxton. “It is deeply alarming to me that despite the large volume and explicit nature of the messages from Mr. Pulliam, the Office of Attorney General has taken so long to cooperate with local law enforcement.”

The story was published in the print edition of the Sunday Chronicle, but there’s no link for it yet on the Chron site and the E-N story is behind the paywall, so this is the best I can do. Do bear in mind that Ken Paxton has been actively encouraging people like this to report their complaints to his office, so it’s no wonder he’s being tight lipped about this. Dude’s one of his best customers. In the meantime, while we hope this guy doesn’t follow through on any of the many threats of violence he has made, let’s see if any of our Republican leaders, who have been trying to convince us that they might actually Do Something this time, will at least voice support for disarming this guy. I’m not going to hold my breath.

The Lege will not take any action on guns

By all means, keep calling for a special session to address the issue. Just do keep in mind who holds all the cards.

At least 17 Texas state lawmakers are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to address gun violence following a mass shooting in El Paso that left 22 dead and dozens injured.

The list includes four state representatives from San Antonio, including Roland Gutierrez, Diego Bernal, Leo Pacheco and Ina Minjarez.

“Our state leadership has failed to be proactive and adopt laws that would allow gun safety,” said Gutierrez, who has secured more than 500 signatures in a related online petition. “All Texans should feel safe in their communities. Every year we lose too many to gun violence. Over 3,353 gun-related deaths occur in Texas each year. One death is too many – time for change.”

Others on the list are: state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston; state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin; state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton; state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston; state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas; state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin; state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood; state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City; state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin; state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo; state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Fort Worth and state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

In case you didn’t read through that whole list, none of the legislators in question are Republicans. That tells you everything you need to know.

(To be fair, there are other political reasons why there won’t be a special session.)

After the massacre of 22 people at an El Paso Walmart by an attacker with a military-style rifle, Texas’ Republican leadership is still unlikely to push for gun restrictions in a state that has long embraced firearms and has nearly 1.4 million handgun license holders, experts and advocates on both sides of the gun issue say. The shooting comes nearly 21 months after the Sutherland Springs massacre that killed more than two dozen people and more than a year after the Santa Fe shooting that killed 10.

“When Texas Republicans look at these massacres, they don’t blame guns, or gun laws. They blame people. They may blame institutions, schools, families, mental health, but not guns,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University. “If a school massacre and a church massacre didn’t change people’s opinion, the El Paso massacre isn’t going to.”

[…]

Abbott met last week with Democratic lawmakers from El Paso who have pushed for gun control and said he wants to keep guns away from “deranged killers.” Abbott said the state should battle hate, racism and terrorism, but made no mention of gun restrictions.

“Our job is to keep Texans safe,” Abbott said. “We take that job seriously. We will act swiftly and aggressively to address it.”

Abbott said he will meet with experts this month to discuss how Texas can respond – much as he did after shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe.

Those meetings resulted in Abbott issuing a 43-page report with proposals for more armed guards in schools, boosting mental health screenings, new restrictions on home gun storage, and consideration of red flag laws.

Gun rights supporters immediately pushed back on anything that could be interpreted as restricting gun ownership, and the Legislature’s Republican majority pivoted to expanding run rights. The only victory gun control supporters could claim was a small item in a $250 billion state budget: $1 million for a public awareness campaign on safe gun storage at home.

“They made things worse,” said Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. “I went naively into the session thinking ‘Progress here we come.’ But we ran head on into this idea that more guns make us safer.”

Well, more armed guards in schools, in churches, at WalMart, and now after Midland/Odessa, in cars and on the roads. Maybe if we station an armed guard on every street corner, inside every shop and restaurant, and on every floor of every office building in America, we’ll finally be safe from gun violence. We won’t have time to do anything else because we’ll need literally everyone to serve as all those armed guards, but hey, at least we’ll have done something that the Greg Abbotts and Matt Schaefers of the world can abide. Alternately, we can vote them out and elect people who want to do more rational, sensible, and effective things to curb gun violence. Decisions, decisions.

The felony judges who abused the bail system

Shame on them all.

Three sitting judges and eight former district judges in Harris County were publicly admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in response to complaints that for years they violated state law and judicial cannons by ordering hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants.

But the actions this week came too late to affect most jurists’ behavior on the bench. Seven left their district seats last year either because they didn’t run or lost elections. One lost re-election back in 2016.

The misconduct probes of all 11 judges began in February 2018, when the Houston Chronicle obtained copies of memos and notes that showed that for a full decade most of Harris County’s felony court judges had provided different types of written or verbal instructions to the county’s hearing officers to routinely deny no-cash bail to all or most newly-arrested defendants.

The agency’s findings confirm most bans were in effect for years and largely went unnoticed and unchallenged until 2017 when Harris County judges and other officials were civilly sued in federal court for allegedly violating the rights of poor defendants by routinely failing to provide no-cost bail in many misdemeanor as well as felony cases.(The county is now in the process of settling that lawsuit).

In its August disciplinary orders, the commission concluded that through various actions all 11 Harris County district judges willfully violated judicial cannons and also “failed to comply with the law and failed to maintain competence in the law” by instructing hearing officers not to issue personal bonds even though under state law the hearing officers had the authority and duty to do so, the orders say. Under state laws and ethical cannons, the hearing officers are supposed to consider each defendant’s case and circumstances individually.

Let’s be clear here: These judges were found by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct not just to have violated rules of conduct that they are expected to follow, they actually broke the law by systematically denying personal recognizance bonds to poor defendants. This is serious stuff.

You may say “but these are FELONY defendants!” Sure, but it’s still the case that some number of them will never be convicted of a crime. Some of them will agree to a plea deal for a misdemeanor or lesser felony for which the sentence includes no jail time. Some, regardless of how their case gets adjudicated, represent little to no risk to public safety. How big a risk they are to public safety is completely unrelated to how much cash or collateral they can scrape up to buy their way out of jail. Again, Robert Durst got bailed out. There remains a bail lawsuit in Harris County over the practices in the felony courts, and there’s a similar lawsuit in Dallas that’s working its way towards a resolution. Standard practices are going to change, because they have to change.

The judges who were admonished included former longtime Harris County District Judge Michael McSpadden, who retired last year after many years presiding over the 209th District Court. The commission found McSpadden had, like many other longtime judges, issued blanket instructions to deny all personal recognizance or PR bond requests from Nov. 20, 2009 to Feb. 1, 2017. McSpadden had previously written a letter to the Houston Chronicle in March 2018 where he admitted that “it is true I have instructed the magistrates not to grant these bonds in our felony cases to all defendants, never specifying a certain race or gender.”

McSpadden told the Chronicle on Thursday that he stands behind his decision to deny PR bonds even if it violated the law.

“I have great respect for the work of the commission. But I still feel the same way. I, as the elected judge, would like to make the decision on free bonds for accused felons rather than turn those important duties over to the magistrates. And it would take one more day to do this,” he said.

[…]

The three active Harris County District Judges who were admonished were: Hazel Jones, of the 174th District Court, Herb Richie of the 337th District Court and George Powell of the 351st District Court.

Michael McSpadden’s first duty as a judge was to follow the law. He did not do that. I don’t give a crap what his feelings were. He failed to do his job, and I am glad he is no longer on the bench.

I am not happy that three Democratic judges were also found to be doing this. All three are up for election next year, and there are no more Republican judges on the district or county courts for Democrats to aim for. But we can still perform upgrades, and these courts are at the front of the line for that. Democrats with a criminal justice background, an interest in becoming a judge, and a commitment to following the law, should look here first.

(Obligatory copy editing nitpick: A “cannon” is a big gun. A “canon” is a fundamental principle or general rule, and is the thing that these judges violated. Spelling counts, y’all.)

The harder question

This story just upsets me so much.

After a man posing as a FedEx deliveryman forced his way into her family’s house and fatally shot her parents and four siblings, 15-year-old Cassidy Stay played dead until the killer fled the scene.

Bleeding from a wound on her head where a bullet grazed her, Cassidy managed to call 911.

“It was my Uncle Ronnie. He has been stalking my family for three weeks,” she told paramedics when they arrived at the Spring-area house, according to court documents. “He said he would shoot us and kill us.”

Cassidy would be the lone survivor of the July 2014 massacre, which Harris County prosecutors say unfolded in a moment of rage as Ronald Haskell hunted for his ex-wife, Melannie Lyon. Cassidy’s parents had been providing support to Lyon, the sister of Katie Stay, Cassidy’s mother. Ronald Haskell didn’t find his intended target, prosecutors said, but opened fire on the entire Stay family.

Cassidy’s phone call is believed to have prevented more violence, as Haskell was captured on the way to Lyon’s parents’ nearby home, police said.

[…]

In the case of the Stay family murders, police said Haskell had come to Texas from California in search of his ex-wife, who had recently divorced him after years of sustained domestic abuse, court filings show. They had lived together in Utah before Melannie Lyon escaped. Haskell had moved to California. where a restraining order was issued against him after he allegedly duct-taped his mother to a chair and choked her because she had spoken to Lyon.

But Lyon wasn’t at her sister’s home in the suburban Spring neighborhood that Wednesday afternoon.

Police gave the following account: Dressed as a FedEx deliveryman, Haskell knocked on the door, then went away. When he came back and knocked on the door again, Cassidy quickly realized something was not right, especially when he mentioned his name. Cassidy tried to close the door, but the burly Haskell forced his way inside, brandishing a 9mm pistol and holding Cassidy and the rest of the children hostage until their parents, Stephen and Katie Stay, returned home. Upon their return, Haskell demanded to know where his ex-wife was, but either no one knew or would say.

Initial police reports were that Haskell had tied up members of the family before shooting them, but court documents say he only threatened to do so. Katie Stay tried to stop him, and he opened fire on the entire family, killing Stephen, 39; Katie, 34; and Bryan, 13; Emily, 9; Rebecca, 7; and Zach, 4. Cassidy lay motionless until Haskell fled in the Stays’ Honda sedan, reportedly continuing his search for his ex-wife.

Katie’s 911 call saved her grandparents’ lives, officials said after the slayings. Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constables intercepted Haskell just seconds before he arrived at Lyon’s parents’ home, then chased him into a nearby cul-de-sac. After a long standoff, Haskell surrendered hours later.

“These people were seconds away from getting killed,” said Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman, then the assistant chief deputy of the agency.

There’s more in this story, and of course there’s been plenty more written about this horrible crime, which happened in 2014. Haskell’s trial is now underway, and prosecutors will seek the death penalty. Because this mass murder occurred in a private home and not a public space, it hasn’t gotten the wall-to-wall national coverage that the public massacres tend to get, but this kind of violence, often involving multiple victims, is much more prevalent. We can and should have serious conversations about how to prevent men like Ronald Haskell from getting guns, but we should also be realistic enough to admit that that’s an impossible task. As long as guns exist, men like Ronald Haskell will find them, and even if we somehow thwart them, they’ll find other ways to carry out their violent urges.

The much harder question to ask ourselves is, how do we prevent boys from growing up to become men like Ronald Haskell? The rage, the hate, the misogyny, they all come from somewhere. It’s well established that a common factor in many mass murders is a history of domestic violence on the part of the shooter, as was clearly the case here. If we want to reduce gun violence, this is what we have to address. What are we doing about that?

David Temple convicted again

New trial, same result.

A Harris County jury on Tuesday convicted David Temple of murder in the 1999 death of his pregnant wife, opening the door for the former Katy-area football coach to be sent back to prison several years after an appeals court reversed his original guilty verdict because of prosecutorial misconduct.

The panel of seven men and five women handed down the decision following almost eight hours of deliberation and 18 days of witness testimony, including evidence prosecutors withheld during the initial trial and which led to the reversal. In the end, jurors convicted David Temple of murder for a second time, rejecting the defense attorneys’ claim that an alternate suspect, a teenage neighbor, fatally shot Belinda Temple.

As state District Judge Kelli Johnson read the verdict, Temple cast his face downward, sweating and suppressing tears while his family members, including his adult son, burst into a chorus of sobs.

Just feet away, siblings and friends of Belinda Temple let out audible sighs of relief, comforted that the man they have long believed killed her could be locked up once more.

[…]

Testimony in the retrial revolved around two competing timelines of events on Jan. 11, 1999, the day Belinda was found shot to death in her master bedroom closet. David Temple told authorities that he came home from a trip to the park and store with his 3-year-old son and found his wife dead amid an apparent burglary.

Prosecutors argued that the husband — who was in the throes of a secret relationship with a coworker — had executed Belinda with a close-contact shotgun wound shortly after she arrived home from a work and a trip to pick up soup for her sick child. He washed his hands, changed his clothes, and left for the store, before returning home and staging a crime scene, state attorneys said. At some point during his shopping trip, prosecutors said, he ditched the murder weapon, which was never located.

Temple’s defense lawyers contended that their client didn’t have time to murder his wife, given a “narrow window” of opportunity when they were both home alone. They argued that the killing occurred while Temple was at the store, and was carried out by a 16-year-old neighbor who had a bone to pick with Belinda, who was also his teacher at Katy High School.

The neighbor testified during the retrial, telling jurors that he skipped the last class period of the day on Jan. 11, 1999. He said that he spent much of the afternoon on a mostly fruitless quest to find marijuana, and several of his high school friends corroborated parts of his story.

See here and here for the background, and here for the rest of my blogging about this. The re-trial was due to Temple’s attorneys successfully arguing that he had not received a fair trial in 1999 because of misconduct by then-Assistant DA Kelly Siegler. Current District Attorney Kim Ogg recused her office from the do-over, with prosecutors from the Attorney General’s office handling the case. In the end, it seems the jury didn’t buy Temple’s defense. Sentencing is still to come, but I imagine he’ll be spending some more time in prison.

I don’t have anything to say this morning

Twenty people murdered in El Paso by a racist piece of shit. Just families, out shopping for back to school supplies. You’re not safe anywhere from an asshole with an automatic weapon and a manifesto. I grew up in a high crime era, but I never worried that I or someone I knew would be randomly gunned down on the street. But here we are.

We all know what needs to be done. We are not powerless. We are, for now, held hostage by a federal and state government that are dominated by a political party that will not do anything about it. We have the power to change that. I don’t want to live with the status quo. I don’t want my kids to live with the status quo. I have, and you have, the power to change it. What will we do?

Once more with more prosecutors

This time, it might work.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is asking county commissioners once again for more prosecutors to handle fallout from the botched Houston drug raid that left a Pecan Park couple dead earlier this year.

The latest $1.96 million funding request that will go to Commissioners Court for consideration Tuesday would add 10 positions to the office, including seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators housed in the Civil Rights Division.

“What leaders fund speaks to what they think is important and our investigation of the Harding Street shootings is one of the most significant matters we have seen in decades,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. “Community trust depends on us getting to the truth sooner than later; we need to add experienced prosecutors to our Civil Rights Division to handle an investigation this deep and wide.”

[…]

Already, it seems the latest proposed expansion may have more support from the politicians who hold the county’s purse strings. Previously, two Republican commissioners generally voiced their support for adding prosecutors, but this time Democrats look poised to back it as well.

“I’m proud that the district attorney and I have reached common ground in working with an independent consultant to help create a strategy that fosters public confidence in our criminal justice system,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “This additional resource is critical to supporting our law enforcement officers.”

Similarly, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis — who opposed the request last time around — said he will back it.

“The Harding Street tragedy raises concerns that are bigger than one officer — it’s about an entire system that needs to be held accountable,” he said. “I have worked with the DA to ensure this new request includes robust oversight by an independent third party to identify the failed safeguards that allowed for any miscarriage of justice to occur.”

See here for the previous update. If nothing else, it looks like Ogg took to heart the reasons why her previous asks were rejected. She’s already got the two Republican commissioners in line, so passage appears assured, and it’s just a matter of whether or not Judge Lina Hidalgo makes it unanimous. (Also of note: unlike the previous times, I’ve not gotten an email from the ACLU or TOP opposing the request.) Assuming nothing unexpected happens and this does go through, I’ll be very interested to see what they turn up. I feel confident saying there’s more to that botched raid than we know about right now.

Paxton wants to move his case back to Collin County

Of course they do.

Best mugshot ever

Paxton’s defense team has asked that the case be moved back to his hometown of Collin County, years after it was moved from there to Harris County. The case was moved hundreds of miles southeast after the prosecutors claimed that Paxton, a Republican who is well connected in that region and once represented it in the Texas Legislature, would not get a fair trial there.

But Paxton’s defense team argued this week that the judge who moved the case to Harris County two years ago didn’t have the authority to do so, as his term overseeing the case had elapsed.

[…]

That leaves [Judge Robert] Johnson, a Democratic judge overseeing the case, with several issues to mull before Paxton faces a jury. Johnson has not yet responded to either side’s motion.

On Monday, Paxton’s defense attorneys argued that if there is a hearing on the prosecutors’ fees, they should also be present — and asked that the judge rule on changing the venue before the pay issue.

The Team Paxton motions were in response to the prosecutors’ motion to confer with Judge Johnson – just them, Team Paxton is not invited – regarding their pay. I can understand that motion, but as the Observer notes, the argument to move the case back to Collin County is a rehash of the same arguments they made when the case was originally moved. That was seen at the time as a win for Paxton, since his team had moved to boot the original judge from the case. It seems unlikely to me that Judge Johnson will agree to just hand the case back to Collin County, but it’s a lead pipe cinch that Team Paxton will appeal that ruling and thus accomplish their main goal, which is delaying this trial from now until the heat death of the universe. Either way, they get something they want. The DMN has more.

We return once again to the Paxton prosecutor pay fight

This is an interesting argument.

Best mugshot ever

The prosecutors appointed years ago to take Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to trial will continue to fight over their pay rate, lengthening a dispute that has already delayed the case for well over a year.

[…]

Prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer had signaled they might withdraw from the case if they could not be paid. Instead, they are now asking a Harris County judge for a private, “ex parte” hearing over their fees — a meeting that would not include Paxton’s defense team. In a filing this week, they asked Judge Robert Johnson to “issue a new order for payment of fees.”

“The Attorneys Pro Tem’s payment is now an administrative matter for the trial court to decide,” an attorney for Wice and Schaffer wrote. “The Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision provides the court with the parameters necessary for the court to use its discretion in discharging its administrative duties.”

They added that “there is no authority suggesting that an adversarial hearing regarding the payment of fees … should be held” — arguing that Paxton’s defense lawyers should not be present for the hearing.

The judge has not yet responded to the request. A spokesman for Paxton did not return a request for comment.

See here for the last update. I’m glad they waited till after the legislative session to advance this argument, as I can easily imagine a hastily-written bill to cut this off at the knees getting rammed through. I’ve no idea if this brief, let alone the assertion that there doesn’t need to be a response from Team Paxton, has any merit or has ever been tried before. But it sure isn’t boring, and I can’t wait to see how Judge Johnson rules. The DMN has more.

David Temple re-trial is now underway

I continue to be fascinated by this.

It’s 1999 in Katy, Texas.

A seemingly perfect couple is falling apart at the seams. David Temple, a high school football coach, is having an affair with a beautiful teacher on campus. His wife, a beloved special education instructor, is becoming anxious. She’s also eight months pregnant.

It was an act of disloyalty, David Temple’s attorneys conceded with opposing state prosecutors. The legal parties disagree, however, on the events of Jan. 11, when Belinda Temple was found shot to death in the closet of her master bedroom.

Lawyers began to reconstruct the murder of Belinda Temple for Harris County jurors on Monday, launching testimony for her husband’s second criminal trial in 12 years. Unlike the first trial, when jurors found David Temple guilty in the killing – a decision that was later overturned by an appeals court – attorneys were tasked with making the panel understand a story from another era.

“We’re going to go back in time,” David Temple’s attorney, Stanley Schneider, began his opening argument on Monday. “We’re going to hear a story of betrayal, two betrayals.”

The lawyer told jurors that while the defendant was unfaithful to his wife, law enforcement also betrayed citizens by operating with “tunnel vision” in the case, which rocked the Katy area in the early 2000s and has maintained a hold in the county ever since.

[…]

“There was only one person on this Earth who had the motive, the means and the opportunity to cause her death,” said Lisa Tanner, a state prosecutor re-trying the case in lieu of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which recused itself after the initial verdict was reversed. Investigators didn’t charge anyone with the crime at first but had questions about Temple’s account, Tanner said. The family’s dog was aggressive and made it difficult for police officers to even gain entry into the yard, making them wonder how a burglar could have made it past. The break-in also seemed staged, Tanner said, as evidenced by the location of broken glass on the floor.

Surveillance videos located Temple being where he said he was on two instances, but the videos are separated by a nearly 45-minute gap, Tanner said.

See here for the background and here for all posts. Again, I don’t have anything to add. We just don’t see many re-trials like this, especially in cases where the original prosecutors had been found to have withheld possibly exculpatory evidence. We’ll never know the answer to the questiof what might have happened if they had played by the rules back then, but we’ll see what happens now that this evidence is known to all. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Did the Lege sort of decriminalize marijuana?

Well, sort of.

Because of a new state law, prosecutors across Texas have dropped hundreds of low-level marijuana charges and have indicated they won’t pursue new ones without further testing.

But the law didn’t decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption. It legalized hemp and hemp-derived products, like CBD oil.

An unintended side effect of the law is that it has made it difficult for law enforcement to tell if a substance is marijuana or hemp, according to prosecutors. Among other provisions, House Bill 1325 changed the definition of marijuana from certain parts of the cannabis plant to those parts that contain a higher level of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. It’s a difference numerous district attorneys, the state’s prosecutor’s association and state crime labs say they don’t have the resources to detect, weakening marijuana cases where defendants could claim the substance is instead hemp.

“The distinction between marijuana and hemp requires proof of the THC concentration of a specific product or contraband, and for now, that evidence can come only from a laboratory capable of determining that type of potency — a category which apparently excludes most, if not all, of the crime labs in Texas right now,” stated an advisory released by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association last month.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which runs more than a dozen state crime labs to conduct forensic testing, including drugs, for local agencies said it does not have equipment, procedures or resources to determine the amount of THC in a substance. Some involved in the hemp legislation have countered that there is already available equipment to test suspected drugs, even if it isn’t in most crime labs.

Still, top prosecutors from across the state and political spectrum — from Harris to Tarrant counties — have dismissed hundreds of pending marijuana charges since the law was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and immediately went into effect on June 10. They have also signaled they won’t pursue any new charges without testing a substance to indicate if there is more than 0.3% of THC, the now-legal limit to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

“In order to follow the Law as now enacted by the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor, the jurisdictions … will not accept criminal charges for Misdemeanor Possession of Marijuana (4 oz. and under) without a lab test result proving that the evidence seized has a THC concentration over .3%,” wrote the district attorneys from Harris, Fort Bend, Bexar and Nueces counties in a new joint policy released Wednesday morning.

So basically, some counties are now refusing to accept low-level pot cases out of concern that they would not be able to prove them at this time; Harris County is one of them. Others will carry on as usual and see what happens, while DPS is now pushing to get the lab equipment they would need to adjust to this change. I think in the end that the prosecutors will figure out how to adjust to this, and at some point the lab equipment will catch up, so in a few months things will return more or less to normal. I mean, I’d be happy if they all just decided this was a better state of affairs and adopted the stance that this change was permanent. But that’s not going to happen.

Still no more prosecutors

I remain fascinated by this dynamic.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for more staff to handle fallout from the Houston Police Department’s botched Pecan Park drug raid, the second time this year commissioners have turned down Ogg’s push for more prosecutors.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines after a feisty debate involving the court’s reform-minded Democratic majority, officials from Ogg’s office and the outnumbered conservative commissioners. In the end, Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined County Judge Lina Hidalgo in turning down the request.

Added to the court’s agenda late Friday, Ogg’s request would have granted the district attorney’s office 10 new positions — seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators — to handle what officials in Ogg’s office characterized as an overwhelming caseload aggravated by the Jan. 28 Harding Street raid.

The court’s decision came a day after HPD agreed to give prosecutors thousands of pages of records relating to their use of confidential narcotics informants, avoiding a legal showdown that loomed after prosecutors from Ogg’s office threatened to issue grand jury subpoenas to get the records.

Instead of granting Ogg more staff, Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia voiced support for an external review by an independent third party. They also cited a Chronicle report that raised questions about caseloads and Ogg’s push for more than 100 new lawyers earlier this year, which the court also rejected.

[…]

In a statement, Ogg said her office “remains dedicated to fully investigating the Harding Street shootings” and said the shooting victims’ family members “and our entire community deserve to know the truth sooner, not later. Unnecessary delay creates hardship for everyone associated with this tragedy. If police misconduct led to the wrongful convictions of anyone, then every extra day served in the penitentiary waiting for justice increases the potential financial liability for Harris County taxpayers.”

Ellis, a longtime criminal justice advocate, told officials from the district attorney’s office that he did not feel comfortable receiving Ogg’s request late Friday, and urged King to meet first with an independent prosecutor before having commissioners vote on additional staff.

Hidalgo suggested that Ogg’s request was a reaction to coverage of the botched raid, telling King that Commissioners Court members “don’t write budgets based on headlines.”

See here for more on the first time Ogg asked for more prosecutors, here for more on that Chron story about caseloads, and here for more about the late ask for more prosecutors this time around. I can think of three things to say. One is that Kim Ogg should listen to Rodney Ellis and consult with someone outside Harris County about their staffing needs before taking any further action. Two, that consultation should include reviewing and revising those numbers the Chron cited, if only to present an alternative report that conforms to the specifications cited. And three, one way or another she needs to build or rebuild trust between her office and the Democrats on Commissioners Court, because she sure isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt from them. The campaign ads for her primary opposition are being written for them.

David Temple re-trial starts

The beginning of the next chapter in a long story.

For the second time in 12 years, a former Katy-area football coach is standing trial in the murder of his pregnant wife, seeking exoneration after prosecutorial misconduct caused his first conviction to be reversed.

David Temple’s return to court takes place almost 20 years after his wife’s death, which he has insisted was the result of a botched break-in at their home. The murder and trial in 2007 became drew national attention and the case has remained controversial ever since.

Jury selection began Thursday and will continue this week, with testimony due to begin next month. State District Judge Kelli Johnson, special prosecutors from the Texas Attorney General’s Office and defense attorneys are choosing from a pool of 240 potential jurors.

The amount of time that has lapsed usually benefits the defense, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston. It remains to be seen what evidence withheld from the first trial will be presented.

“We probably shouldn’t expect any surprises,” she said. “The question is how much the prosecutors’ case has degraded over time.”

See here for all the background I have on this. The case is being prosecuted by a lawyer from the Attorney General’s office, as DA Kim Ogg recused her office due to the allegations of misconduct against the office from the past. Suffice it to say that this case is a hot potato, and people have strong feelings about it and about David Temple. I’m just interested in seeing how it plays out this time around.

Will Ken Paxton ever be prosecuted?

At this point, I’d have to say it’s very unlikely.

Best mugshot ever

After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.

The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.

Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.

Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid. The prosecutors have also argued that the pay ruling, in limiting how much attorneys may be paid even in cases of extraordinary circumstances, threatens the state’s ability to adequately compensate lawyers representing indigent defendants.

See here, here, and here for the latest updates, and here for even more, if you want to do a deeper dive. We should all have friends as steadfast as Ken Paxton has in Collin County, both on their Commissioners Court and in the person of Jeff Blackard. Friends help you move, real friends help you game the criminal justice system to effectively quash felony indictments.

At this point, either the existing prosecutors decide to stick it out and maybe extract a bit of revenge via jury verdict, or they throw in the towel and the whole thing starts over with new prosecutors. Which in turn would open a whole ‘nother can of worms, thanks to the Lege.

Under Senate Bill 341, which moved quietly and without controversy through the Texas Legislature, only county attorneys, district attorneys and assistant attorneys general would be qualified to serve in the high-stakes, often high-profile affairs that require specially appointed prosecutors. Currently, judges may appoint “any competent attorney,” which some have argued is an insufficient standard.

The author of that bill, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, has presented it as a cost-saving effort for counties — special prosecutors will now be government attorneys who would not require additional funds — and also as a way to raise the bar of qualifications for special prosecutors.

That would limit the selection pool from the more than 100,000 practicing attorneys in Texas to a much smaller group of several hundred elected prosecutors or attorneys employed by the agency Paxton runs. The replacement for Wice and Schaffer would have to be either a Democratic district attorney, who might be seen as overly aggressive in her prosecution of a Republican statewide official; a Republican district attorney, who could be seen as overly sympathetic to a leader of his own party; or an assistant attorney general, who would be an employee of the defendant.

That law goes into effect September 1. This law does make some sense, and if the Paxton prosecution had been handed off to a DA or County Attorney there would not have been an issue with payment. I for one would argue that this case should absolutely be turned over to a big urban county DA’s office – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, or (oh, the delicious irony) Travis – since an aggressive prosecution is exactly what is needed, and the DAs in those counties will have less to fear from the voters than, say, the Denton or Tarrant or Montgomery County DAs would. I will be very interested to see what the presiding judge decides to do, if it comes to that. In the meantime, we need the voters of Collin County to start voting out members of their Commissioners Court, and the voters of Texas to start electing better jurists to the CCA. You want a lower-level cause to get behind in 2020, there’s two of them for you.

On prosecutor caseloads

I’m still thinking about this.

Kim Ogg

When a line of prosecutors stepped up to the microphone at Harris County Commissioners Court in February, they told tales of long hours, endless to-do lists and bloated caseloads well into the triple digits.

Their impassioned pleas and barrage of data were part of the push by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office for an unprecedented $21 million expansion that would add more than 100 lawyers to its staff.

But despite a weeks-long campaign, District Attorney Kim Ogg’s budget request failed. Now, four months later, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle and The Appeal indicate that the attorney caseload figures used to justify the request appear to overstate the office’s workload.

The data presented to commissioners and the public did not reflect that about two-thirds of the felony trial bureau attorneys consistently handle a smaller number of complex cases. Instead, it frequently presented the caseloads of the remaining third of the attorneys — those who handle over 900 cases on average — as representative of the whole trial bureau. The office also counted every charge in an arrest as a separate case and included more than 200 cases put on hold after defendants had not yet been arrested or had fled after violating the conditions of their bonds.

Based on the numbers provided by the DA’s office, an average caseload for “felony two” and “felony three” prosecutors combined would be less than 600, if all positions were filled in each court — and would be even lower if chiefs were included. Exact staff assignments that month were not released with the data.

[…]

Four members of the Commissioners Court—including all three Democrats who voted against the budget request in February—did not comment on the caseload figures.

But Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican who offered staunch support for Ogg during the budget cycle, said that he did not feel the DA’s office misrepresented data and reiterated his concern about the county’s refusal to fund Ogg’s request for more prosecutors.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that she didn’t get it,” he said. “Frankly, it’s a misjustice.”

During budget discussions in February, County Judge Lina Hidalgo — the Democrat who heads up Commissioners Court —questioned whether prosecutors could simply lower their caseloads by charging fewer people and leaning more heavily on diversion alternatives.

“This is not the only way,” she said, “and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads.”

Though Adam Gershowitz — a William & Mary Law School professor who co-authored a 2011 study on district attorney caseloads — raised concerns about the representations in the data, such as the inclusion of bond forfeitures, he stressed that too few prosecutors can have a negative effect on the legal system, leaving people waiting behind bars as their cases get reset instead of resolved.

“We could have debates about if (prosecutors) should charge less and maybe they should,” he said. “But they are overburdened and it’s bad on so many levels when the district attorney’s office is overburdened.”

There’s a lot more, so read on for the methodology and the questions about how cases were counted. One issue was with classifying all types of prosecutors as having similar workloads even though one group has many more cases than the others, and classifying things as active cases that aren’t really. The explanations for why things were counted as they were don’t really make sense. Even with that, there’s support – not unanimous by any stretch, but it’s there – for more prosecutors, and for managing caseloads. Maybe if we can all agree on what the case numbers actually are, we can better agree on what the number of prosecutors should be.

Lineup shuffling at the DA’s office

This was a surprise.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s top lieutenant is out the door after the latest staffing shake-up at an office already plagued by high turnover and ongoing retention problems.

Tom Berg, a former defense attorney who came on board at the start of Ogg’s administration, confirmed his departure early Tuesday – and though initially he described it to the Chronicle as a firing, officials later said that he resigned when offered a different job title.

“I realize that as the office has evolved its needs have necessarily changed,” Berg wrote in a letter to Ogg dated Tuesday. “I could not anticipate or adjust to each aspect of the transformation and acknowledge your need to have a First Assistant who is philosophically more aligned with your course for the future.”

It’s not clear if a specific incident prompted the move. Two other employees – Human Resources Director Dean Barshis and Outreach Coordinator Shekira Dennis – are shifting roles in similarly unclear circumstances.

[…]

As of April, more than 140 prosecutors had left under her tenure, generating a sharp uptick in turnover.

Ogg has attributed the turnover to fallout from Hurricane Harvey, which has left courtrooms scattered across a number of buildings and prosecutors working in makeshift offices.

Some local attorneys chalked up the departures to leadership issues.

“There’s a lot of different things going around — they’re overworked because of the hurricane or they’re not going to trial — but really it’s that there’s no leadership,” said Josh Phanco, a longtime felony prosecutor who left the office earlier this year. “There’s no one you look at and say, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy.’ They all got fired.”

As the story notes, a lot of assistant DAs and other employees left – some voluntarily, others not – after Ogg was inaugurated, and it has continued since then. The same thing happened following Pat Lykos’ victory in 2008 (and would have happened if C.O. Bradford had won instead), as both of these elections represented a change of direction for the office. It’s been bumpy, and that has had a negative effect on how the office has performed, but that is what happens when a large organization undergoes a significant shift in philosophy and operation. I’ve no doubt that plenty of things could have gone better, and of course plenty of experience has been lost. That’s by definition, and it’s part of the point. Kim Ogg will have to defend her record when she runs for re-election next year, but in the meantime and with all due respect, I’m going to take the criticism of people who worked for the previous DAs with a certain level of skepticism.

I’ve met Tom Berg and I’m friends with him on Facebook. I’m sorry to see him go, I don’t know what might have happened, but I wish him all the best. His successor is now in place.

A day after Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg forced out a top lieutenant in the latest office shake-up, officials confirmed Trial Bureau Chief David Mitcham will step in to assume the role as First Assistant District Attorney.

“David has a long and distinguished career as a criminal trial lawyer and prosecutor; he’s handled thousands of cases and understands the needs of our staff because he has walked in your shoes,” Ogg wrote Wednesday in an office-wide email announcing the change. “While you all have known him over the past two and one half years as the Trial Bureau Chief, I have known David for more than three decades as a colleague, friend and outstanding lawyer.”

Best of luck to David Mitcham.

The Sandra Bland cellphone video

Wow.

Sandra Bland

New cellphone footage from the now infamous traffic stop of Sandra Bland shows her perspective when a Texas state trooper points a Taser and yells, “I will light you up!”

Bland, 28, was found dead three days later in her Waller County jail cell near Houston. Her death was ruled a suicide.

The new video — released as part of a WFAA-TV exclusive in partnership with the Investigative Network — fuels the Bland family’s suspicions that Texas officials withheld evidence in her controversial arrest and, later, her death.

Until now, the trooper’s dashcam footage was believed to be the only full recording of the July 2015 traffic stop, which ended in Bland’s arrest. The trooper claimed he feared for his safety during the stop.

The 39-second cellphone video shot by Bland remained in the hands of investigators until the Investigative Network obtained the video once the criminal investigation closed.

Bland’s family members said they never saw the video before and are calling for Texas officials to reexamine the criminal case against the trooper who arrested Bland, which sparked outrage across the country.

“Open up the case, period,” Bland’s sister Shante Needham said when shown the video.

Read the rest, and read this interview with Sharon Cooper, also a sister of Sandra Bland. It doesn’t look like there will be any reopening of the case, but for sure we need to know why this video hadn’t come to light before now. It’s hard to accept official explanations of tragedies like this when that explanation suddenly changes a couple of years later. We have to know that we have all the available information, and that there are no more surprises lurking in an evidence box somewhere.

County brings charges related to ITC fire

Bring it on.

Kim Ogg

Responding to what it called “criminal levels” of contamination, the Harris County District Attorney’s office said Monday that it has charged Intercontinental Terminals Company with five misdemeanor counts of water pollution arising from a March plant fire that sent toxic chemicals into nearby waterways and a thick plume of smoke over the Houston area for days.

“The discharge from the ITC fire into Tucker Bayou is a clear water pollution case,” said Alex Forrest, the environmental crimes division chief for the DA’s office, in a written statement. “We are looking forward to reviewing the reports of other local and federal agencies, as they complete their investigations, so that we can determine if other charges will follow.”

The charges are the most recent example of District Attorney Kim Ogg’s more aggressive approach toward chemical companies in the aftermath of environmental disasters that have outraged the public and drawn national attention.

“This is the beginning of our review, not the end,” said Dane Schiller, a spokesman for the DA’s office.

According to the DA’s Office, water pollution in Tucker Bayou was at “criminal levels” from March 17 through March 21. Prosecutors filed one count for each of the five days the company allegedly violated the law at its Deer Park plant. Each charge carries a fine of up to $100,000.

“People living in Deer Park and the other neighboring residential areas near ITC’s plant deserve protection,” Ogg said. “When public health is at risk, it’s a public safety concern.”

An attorney for ITC, which stores petrochemicals for companies including Chevron, Philips 66 and Exxon, defended its efforts.

“Although we have not seen the charges, there is no question that there was a large fire and an enormous effort to extinguish it which resulted in a discharge into Tucker Bayou,” said Michael Goldberg, an attorney for ITC, in a written statement.

[…]

Monday’s court action against ITC marks the second time Ogg has pursued criminal charges against Houston-area companies in high-profile pollution cases. After a chemical fire during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Ogg brought a criminal case against the chemical company Arkema and two of its executives for the “reckless” release of an air contaminant.

Investigators found that the company’s emergency plan provided little direction to employees on how to handle major floods, and as a result, it couldn’t keep combustible organic peroxides cool, according to federal documents. Over the next week, nine trailers of organic peroxides erupted in flames, sending pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke into the air.

Prosecutors recently charged the company and a third executive with reckless assault, citing injuries sustained by two deputies who responded to the scene based on the company’s assurances. Company officials have defended their actions in both suits and accused Ogg’s office of prosecutorial overreach.

See here for more about the Arkema indictments, which as far as I know have not progressed past that stage yet. These charges came right after Kim Ogg requested more environmental prosecutors. I don’t know if the one has to do with the other, but either way I expect that division to be busy. It’s one thing to file charges, it’s another to get convictions, and still another for those convictions to withstand appeal. We’ll keep an eye on these.

Prosecuting polluters

It really shouldn’t have to come to this, but here we are.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is calling for a tripling of the number of prosecutors dedicated to environmental crimes in the wake of a series of chemical plant fires that has raised public health concerns.

In a letter Thursday to the county judge and commissioners court, Vivian King, the chief of staff of the district attorney’s office, requested $850,000 to fund eight new positions: four prosecutors two investigators and two paralegals. The county currently has two prosecutors and one administrative assistant devoted to environmental crimes. The request is scheduled to come before the commissioners court on Tuesday.

On March 17, an Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm in Deer Park caught fire and burned for several days, closing the Houston Ship Channel and drawing national attention. No injuries were reported. A couple of weeks later, one person was killed and two others were critically injured when the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby caught fire. A fire also broke out at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery in mid-March but was contained hours later. The investigations are ongoing.

“With Arkema and ITC and all of the alleged criminal acts intentionally polluting our waters supply with cancer agents, we don’t have the staff to investigate and work on these cases,” King said during an interview.

The DA’s environmental crimes division handles 400 to 500 cases a year, the bulk of which are related to illegal dumping and water pollution perpetrated by smaller companies or individuals — not the big corporations, King said.

[…]

Traditionally the county has not criminally prosecuted the large petrochemical industry, King said.

She stressed that the DA’s office welcomes an industry that’s a major source of employment and an important contributor to the area’s economy.

“However,” she added, “as public servants we get a lot of complaints about the very few companies that commit criminal acts by intentionally not following laws and regulations governing hazardous waste and chemical emissions and putting cancer agents in our water supply and the air we breath.”

And they currently don’t have the staff to handle it all, even less so to take on the big cases. A private attorney is working pro bono on a case involving Arkema.

Let’s be clear, it would be best if most of this work were done by the TCEQ. If they were an agency that took their mandate seriously – and, let’s be clear again, if the mandate they were given by the state were more serious – they would be in position to reduce the risk of catastrophes like these. Better enforcement up front is always the better way to go. In the absence of that, and with constraints on civil action, what other option is there for the most egregious offenders? If and when the state does its job, entities like the Harris County DA will be able to back off. This request was part of the larger ask for more prosecutors that was rejected in February. It was unanimously approved by Commissioners Court yesterday, so that’s good. I suspect there will be no shortage of work for this team.

Ogg hires Bradford

A familiar face for the DA’s office.

C.O. “Brad” Bradford

Former Houston City Councilmember and Police Chief C.O. “Brad” Bradford has joined the Harris County District Attorney’s Office as a senior adviser.

District Attorney Kim Ogg has hired Bradford to serve in a senior-level position as special prosecutor and law enforcement liaison, said spokesman Dane Schiller.

“We welcome his expertise and experience as a respected member of the community, a lawyer for 25 years, and a former chief of the Houston Police Department,” Schiller said, declining to offer details about the motives for the high-profile hire.

Bradford said he would be using his expertise in both law enforcement and jurisprudence to analyze the processes of the DA’s office, the criminal cases police bring for prosecution and how the DA’s office handles those cases.

“Thousands and thousands of cases are being filed by police, and there’s a need to look at those cases and see if something can be done other than the police filing formal charges on those people,” Bradford said. “Some of them, you lock them up in jail still; they need that. Others may need prevention programs. They need mental health treatment. They may need diversion.”

The new hire comes on the heels of repeated requests for more prosecutors, the most substantial of which — $21 million for over 100 new positions — the Harris County Commissioners Court shot down earlier this year. The initial wave of new positions would have targeted felony courts, where lawyers are most needed given the post-Harvey backlog, Ogg has said.

The rest of the story is a recap of Bradford’s career – for the record, he served three terms on City Council, not two – quotes from various people of varying quality, and mention of the continued turnover at the DA’s office. I care more about what Bradford will do with the DA. He’s a sharp guy with a good grasp of policy, and I think he could be a good bridge between Ogg and the police, who as noted by some of those comments I didn’t include in this post haven’t always liked Ogg’s policy changes. I had some issue with him as Council member, as he was often a foil to Mayor Parker, but he was a strong advocate for his positions. While I’m sure some of his role will involve talk and diplomacy, I figure you don’t hire a guy like C.O. Bradford to be behind the scenes. I’ll be very interested to see what he gets up to.

We need more than just bail reform

Bail reform is based on the radical idea that locking up non-violent, low-risk people who have been arrested on minor charges is a very bad and very expensive thing to do. But let’s take a step back from that and note that lots of people get arrested for things they shouldn’t get arrested for.

As the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today prepares to hear HB 2754 (White), the committee substitute to which would limit most Class C misdemeanor arrests (with certain public safety exceptions), Just Liberty put out a new analysis of data titled, “Thousands of Sandra Blands: Analyzing Class-C-misdemeanor arrests and use-of-force at Texas traffic stops.”

The analysis relies on the new racial profiling reports which came out March 1st, analyzing information for Texas police departments in cities with more than 50,000 people, and sheriffs in counties with more than 100,000. Here’s the table from Appendix One of the report with the underlying data.

Readers will recall that new detail about Class-C arrests, use of force, and outcomes of searches were added to the report as part of the Sandra Bland Actpassed in 2017. But the provision to restrict Class C arrests was removed before the law was passed. So HB 2754 amounts to unfinished business for those concerned about what happened to Sandra Bland.

Our findings: The practice of arresting drivers for Class C misdemeanors – not warrants, and not more serious offenses – is more widespread than portrayed by law enforcement. The 96 police and sheriffs in our sample arrested people nearly 23,000 times for Class-C misdemeanors last year, with the Texas Department of Public Safety accounting for nearly 5,000 more.

[…]

These data represent fewer than 100 law enforcement agencies, but more than 2,000 agencies must submit racial profiling reports because they perform traffic stops in come capacity. Agencies in our dataset represent the largest jurisdictions, but not all by a longshot. If we assume that these departments plus DPS represent 60 percent of traffic stops in the state, and that the average arrest rate for the other 40 percent is the same as in this sample, then Texas law enforcement agencies arrested more than 45,000 people at traffic stops statewide last year, the report estimated.

These higher-than-previously-understood estimates are corroborated by Texas Appleseed’s recent analysis of jail bookings. Examining data from eleven (11) counties, they found more than 30,000 jail bookings where Class C misdemeanors (not warrants) were the highest charge. The difference between analyzing jail bookings and racial-profiling data is that jail bookings include Class C arrests which happened anywhere. The racial profiling reports Just Liberty analyzed only consider arrests made during traffic stops.

Taken together, these analyses demonstrate that the overall number of Class C arrests is much higher than anyone ever imagined when this topic has been discussed in the past.

The full report is here. It’s short, so go read it. How many people over the years do you think have spent time in the Harris County Jail because of a traffic stop? How many millions of your taxes do you think went to keeping them there?

Marijuana diversions

Good progress so far. What can we do to build on it?

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office estimated on Friday that it’s saved $35 million and arrested 14,000 fewer people since the start of a program to divert low-level marijuana offenses.

The announcement marked the two-year anniversary of the initiative, which allows misdemeanor anyone caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana to avoid an arrest, ticket or court appearances if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class.

“We know we have reduced the arrest rate,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said at a news conference Friday morning. “That gives law enforcement more time to answer serious calls.”

The initiative launched in early 2017 was one of Ogg’s first steps to reform, earning her accolades among criminal justice reformers and marijuana activists. Since then, the program has expanded to include parolees and defendants on probation – but still some experts have questioned whether the initiative, and Ogg’s office, could go further.

“Compared to past district attorneys in Harris County, Kim Ogg’s record looks promising,” said criminal justice expert Scott Henson, with the nonprofit Just Liberty. “Compared to so-called ‘progressive’ district attorneys at the national level like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, she looks very moderate.”

Before the program started, Harris County law enforcement agencies typically filed around 10,000 misdemeanor weed cases per year, officials said Friday. Since the program began, that number has dropped to about 3,000 people per year.

[…]

[HPD Misdemeanor Division Chief Nathan] Beedle suggested that Ogg’s office isn’t getting enough credit for the progressive shift in marijuana prosecutions, but reformers like Henson have advocated for dropping marijuana prosecutions across the board – whether or not the would-be arrestee successfully completes an education class.

“In a time when 10 states have already legalized fully, I think that marijuana diversion is probably looked at as less aggressively reformist than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago,” Henson said. “I mean, Greg Abbott thinks it should be charged as a Class C misdemeanor. So she’s not that far out of line with centrist opinion.”

I’m not as inclined to give Abbott credit for his belief. Nothing has passed the Lege yet, and Dan Patrick remains a significant obstacle to any reforms. It’s good that Abbott himself isn’t an obstacle, but let’s hold off on the plaudits till something gets done.

That said, I take Henson’s point that while diversion has been a big change here in Harris County, it’s not on the leading edge of reformist thought anymore. So, while we can be glad for the progress that we’ve made so far, it’s fair to ask what comes next. What can we do to push these arrest numbers down further? What do we need to do to drag the more recalcitrant law enforcement agencies within the county along? What’s the next opportunity once marijuana arrests are mostly a thing of the past? These are the questions we need to be asking and answering.

Schlitterbahn indictments dismissed

Some good news for the company, following the worst thing that ever happened at a Schlitterbahn water park.

A Wyandotte County judge on Friday said that the Kansas Attorney General ‘irreparably tainted’ a grand jury with prejudicial evidence to obtain indictments against several Schlitterbahn employees and associates involved in the design, construction and operation of a water slide that killed a 10-year-old boy in 2016.

Judge Robert Burns dismissed indictments against three individuals and two corporate affiliates of Schlitterbahn, the company that built the 17-story Verruckt water slide in Kansas City, Kan., in 2014. It drew large crowds until Caleb Schwab, son of Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, was killed by decapitation on the ride. The water slide, once billed as the world’s tallest, was torn down last year.

Burns sided with defense attorneys who argued that lawyers in Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office showed a Wyandotte County grand jury evidence that would not have been admissible in trial — clips of reality television, misleading expert testimony and references to an unrelated death from years ago — that improperly influenced the grand jury in handing down criminal charges.

Taken all together, Burns found the grand jury had been abused to obtain indictments, which contained charges as serious as second-degree murder for two of the defendants.

“The court has grave doubts as to whether the irregularities and improprieties improperly influenced the grand jury and ultimately bolstered its decision to indict these defendants,” Burns said. “Quite simply, these defendants were not afforded the due process protections and fundamental fairness Kansas law requires.”

For now, Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry, Verruckt designer John Schooley and former Schlitterbahn operations manager Tyler Miles face no criminal charges in Caleb’s death. The Kansas Attorney General can seek criminal charges again, either through another grand jury, through a preliminary hearing or seek an appeal of Burns’ decision. Or they could just walk away from the case.

See here for the background, and here for a deeper dive. I still have very mixed feelings about all this, and if you keep reading the story you’ll see that the reasons for the dismissal were more technical and procedural than substantive. I don’t feel like the Schlitterbahn folks were exonerated in any way, just that maybe the Kansas AG didn’t do a good job. (To be fair, the story notes that a lot of people thought the indictments were problematic in the first place.) The Schlitterbahn settled a civil case related to Caleb Schwab’s death for $20 million, so it’s not like there were no consequences. I’m just still not ready to forgive and move on. Texas Monthly has more.

Ogg’s second ask

We’ll see how this goes.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is planning to head back to county leaders with another request for more prosecutors in light of the massive case review sparked by fallout from last month’s botched Houston police drug raid.

The renewed push for additional positions comes just after a failed bid to get funding for 102 new prosecutors, a hefty $21 million budget request slapped down by the Harris County Commissioners Court earlier this month. At the time, Ogg argued that her office’s overwhelming caseloads were likely among the highest in the country, and that the understaffing at all levels could prevent prosecutors from evaluating cases eligible for diversion.

But now, her new push to expand hinges on the need to review the more than 1,400 cases handled by Officer Gerald Goines, the case agent suspected of giving false information to justify the no-knock raid that left two civilians dead, officials said. In some of the cases, the 34-year officer was a witness, while in others he signed the affidavits underlying warrants, Ogg said Thursday. Of those up for review, 27 are active and at least five involve defendants currently in jail.

“These are individual cases; justice has to be meted out in every one. It takes time, we need some more investigators,” Ogg said. “We can get there with the understaffing that we have, it’s just going to take longer.”

It’s not clear how many new positions Ogg would ask for, but she stressed that the case reviews will happen regardless.

“This review is not contingent on funding, we’re going to do it,” she said. “It’ll just take a lot longer with the few people that we’ve got assigned to our Conviction Integrity Division.”

Because the jobs would go to “trusted, trained” prosecutors, Ogg said, the idea would be to promote from within and hire new positions at a lower level. The review of the 27 active cases can be handled by current staff.

See here for some background. I’ve not gotten any press releases in my inbox from groups that had opposed the previous request, as I had at that time, but that may just be a function of timing. It’s not fully clear to me from this story if what Ogg is requesting is more prosecutors or more investigators, the latter of which may perhaps be less controversial. The reason prompting this request is unimpeachable, but there may be more to it than what is apparent now. If she’s going to make this request at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, we should know pretty quickly what kind of a reaction this will get.

As for the larger issue, I have not blogged about the HPD no-knock raid mess, as there’s only so much I can keep up with. I fully support the effort to review and revise the department’s policy on no-knock raids, and will note that there has been advocacy in favor of this, here and nationally, for a long time. As is so often the case, it takes a tragedy to focus a sufficient amount of attention on the issue to make anything happen. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is making similar changes, though that will have a much smaller effect than what HPD does since the Sheriff’s office rarely conducts such raids. There are also bills in the Legislature, with Rep. Harold Dutton being one of the main authors, to impose restrictions and more stringent processes on all law enforcement agencies. As with bail reform, this is something that has been needed for a long time, and maybe, just maybe, the time is right for it to happen.