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Crime and Punishment

Charges against Judge Jordan dropped

That was quick.

Judge Darrell Jordan

Just four days after being indicted and arrested, Harris County misdemeanor court Judge Darrell Jordan saw an official oppression charge against him dropped.

Fort Bend County prosecutors on Friday announced they were dropping the misdemeanor charge against the judge.

Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton said that while Jordan was indicted by a grand jury, he didn’t believe his office could prove a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt.

“It is important to present cases implicating public integrity to the grand jury, particularly when there is some evidence to support the allegation, because they are representatives of the public,” Middleton said in a statement released after 6 p.m. Friday. “Moreover, it provides due process to the accused and transparency to the public.”

[…]

Middleton said prosecutors need to meet a higher standard when moving a case forward.

“If we believe we cannot prove a charge beyond a reasonable doubt, we have an ethical obligation to dismiss the prosecution,” Middleton said.

His office filed a motion to dismiss the case in Harris County on Friday, he said.

Jordan’s attorney, Marc Carter called Middleton an “honorable man” and said he had believed the district attorney would dismiss the case all along. Jordan is currently deployed with the Texas National Guard, Carter said.

Carter said this week’s incident should remind people about how to behave in a courtroom.

“Contempt is an inherent power judges have to maintain order and decorum in the court,” Carter said “I would advise citizens and officers of the court to abide by the rules of court and maintain decorum to avoid being held in contempt.”

See here and here for the background. Dolcefino was not happy with the decision, which, too bad. I still don’t know any more about this than I did when the news first hit, but it is plausible that the case could have been not very solid, certainly not solid enough to feel confident about getting a guilty verdict. The defense was clear enough, for sure. I hope this is the last we hear of this. I have enough stories to follow.

More on Jordan and Dolcefino

Dolcefino speaks.

Former TV reporter Wayne Dolcefino has called for the resignation of Harris County misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan, alleging a personal vendetta led the jurist to wrongly hold him in contempt of court in 2020.

Dolcefino’s demand came after Jordan was arrested Monday and charged with official oppression related to the confrontation. Jordan is accused of using his office to unlawfully arrest and detain the private media consultant, who had arrived at the judge’s court to request public records on one of Jordan’s political allies.

“This guy has no business on the bench,” Dolcefino said. “He doesn’t have the temperament.”

Jordan’s attorney, Marc Carter, denied that the holding in contempt had anything to do with Dolcefino’s investigative efforts. Dolcefino set a confrontational tone in his prior dealings with the judge, and he sought him out in court with a disruptive result, Carter said.

“This prosecution … will have an absurd result and a chilling affect on a judge’s ability to maintain order in their courts,” he said. “It’s absurd to think anyone can walk into a court, disrupt the proceedings and the judge of the court ends up being prosecuted. That’s not a reasonable person’s idea of justice. The DA should exercise discretion and dismiss this case.”

See here for the background. Let’s just pause for a moment and note that Wayne Dolcefino is denigrating someone’s temperament. Okay, moving on.

Video from the incident shows Dolcefino in a mostly empty courtroom, first chatting with court administrators and receiving a hello from the judge. Then he attempted to ask for the status of public corruption complaints he made about multiple Houston and Harris County officials – including Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a friend of Jordan’s.

In the video, Jordan told Dolcefino that he couldn’t ask questions, told him to sit down and warned him to stop interrupting proceedings. Dolcefino later shared photos of his arresting restraints.

The case against Jordan was filed with Harris County DA’s Office, which recused itself and asked Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton to investigate the allegation.

Fort Bend District Attorney spokesperson Wesley Wittig said he couldn’t discuss the facts of the case, or what distinguished oppression from Jordan’s right to hold someone in direct contempt of the court.

“That would require a real detailed explanation in this case, and that’s the exact thing we can’t talk about,” he said.

Jordan contends that Dolcefino was disrupting his court proceedings on Zoom, but the media personality and an appeals court disagreed. The hidden video also made it seem questionable that Jordan had a hearing underway at all – a legal necessity for a contempt finding, said Amanda Peters, professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. Carter disputed that, adding contempt can occur as long as court is in session.

Dolcefino added that his years in journalism taught him proper courtroom etiquette.

“I would have never interrupted a hearing,” he said. “I may be wild and crazy, but I’ve never done that.”

Wrongful contempt cases do occur, but they usually don’t result in legal action against judges, Peters said. A grand jury might have found probable cause in Jordan’s case, however, if they learned of any personal conflict between the judge and former reporter, she said.

“These kind of charges for a judge in Harris County are incredibly rare,” she said.

If there was video of me writing this post, you would have seen my eyebrows nearly exit my forehead as I perused those statements from Dolcefino. At some point, more people will see the video he has, and we’ll go from there.

In the meantime:

Harris County misdemeanor court Judge Darrell Jordan on Thursday was suspended from his bench by the state’s commission on judicial conduct.

The suspension came just days after Jordan was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of official oppression and then arrested.

In a three-paragraph letter addressed to Jordan, the commission said that Jordan would be suspended without pay from his office as Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge No. 16. The suspension will remain in place until Jordan is either acquitted or the charges are dismissed, according to the letter.

The letter was signed at 4 p.m. Thursday by David Schenk, the chairman of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Jordan’s attorney, Marc Carter, on Thursday evening confirmed the suspension.

[…]

Carter said the judicial commission was compelled to act because of the indictment. State law require judges to be suspended if they’re indicted on official misconduct charges, he said. The commission itself had received a complaint about Jordan’s contempt charges against Dolcefino and dismissed them, Carter said.

That last sentence suggests one possible reason why it took so long between the incident in question and the indictment. It’s certainly possible that if the Judicial Conduct Commission had sanctioned Judge Jordan for this, then perhaps there would not have been charges filed. Once the commission declined to sanction him, the complaint went to the grand jury. I don’t know if this is how it went, but it is plausible.

Jordan and Dolcefino

I have questions about this.

Judge Darrell Jordan

Darrell William Jordan, a Harris County misdemeanor court judge, on Monday was arrested and charged with of official oppression, according to court records.

Jordan is accused of using his office to unlawfully arrest and detain Wayne Dolcefino, a private media consultant and former TV journalist.

The charge stems from an incident on June 30, 2020, when Dolcefino was jailed in contempt of court by Jordan during a hearing in Harris County Court at Law No. 16.

Jordan accused Dolcefino of attempting to interrupt proceedings in the court by demanding to interview the judge. He jailed Dolcefino after giving him repeated warnings, according to court documents.

Dolcefino was found guilty and sentenced to three days in Harris County Jail, six months of probation and a $500 fine.

Monday’s indictment accuses Jordan of wrongfully holding Dolcefino in contempt or subjecting him to summary punishment and jail without a hearing.

In a 2020 video posted on the Dolcefino Consulting Facebook page after his arrest, Dolcefino revealed that he was wearing a hidden camera during the hearing.

The video shows Dolcefino attempting to ask Jordan about public corruption complaints and public records requests he made about multiple Houston and Harris County officials. In the video, Jordan, who was holding court hearings over Zoom, told Dolcefino that he couldn’t ask questions, told him to sit down and warned him to stop interrupting proceedings.

Court records indicate that the grand jury declined to hand down felony charges related to tampering with records and retaliation.

Jordan was arrested, formally charged and released on Monday evening, he said during a short phone interview with the Houston Chronicle. He directed other questions to his attorney.

Marc Carter, Jordan’s attorney, said the case was filed with Harris County DA’s Office, who recused themselves and asked Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton to investigate the allegation.

“Judge Jordan is absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing and looks forward to his day in court,” Carter said in a statement released on Monday.

“Contempt is a power given to judges so they can maintain decorum and control court proceedings. Without it the courtroom would be chaos. Litigants, officers of the court, and jurors want judges to be able to control proceedings and when necessary exercise their contempt power.

“This prosecution, if District Attorney Brian Middleton goes forward with it, will have an absurd result and a chilling affect on a judge’s ability to maintain order in their courts. It’s absurd to think anyone can walk into a court, disrupt the proceedings and the judge of the court ends up being prosecuted. That’s not a reasonable person’s idea of justice. The DA should exercise discretion and dismiss this case,” Carter said.

My head is spinning. You might want to read this companion story that gives some background on both Judge Jordan and Wayne Dolcefino, who’s probably a much better-known name among longer-time residents.

Now then. Three basic questions:

1. Contempt of court is a basic power that judges have. Any power can be corrupted, but I don’t see anything in this story that sounds like an extraordinary usage of that power. Maybe that hidden camera video is more damning than the story suggests, I don’t know. If I didn’t know anything else about this, I’d be wondering what exactly the beef was.

2. The incident in question took place two years ago. I know that investigations can take time, and I know that COVID has caused backlogs in the court system. But seriously, two years? What in the heck caused this to take so long to get to this point?

3. You may be wondering why Kim Ogg farmed this out to the Fort Bend County DA. My answer when I first read this is because Wayne Docefino worked for her campaign in both 2014 and 2016 – I saw him and talked to him at a couple of campaign events, and I have some press releases and other things that he sent out in my mailbox from that time. The second story indicates that Ogg and Dolcefino apparently had a falling out after that, which just makes this all messier. Whatever the merits of the case against Jordan, Ogg’s recusal was clearly the right thing to do.

At this point, I have no idea what else to say. I’m going to wait and see what happens. If you have some inside scoop on this, by all means please let me know.

DAs are not going to be able to avoid enforcing anti-abortion laws

I appreciate the sentiment, but that’s not how it works.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, local prosecutors in several of the largest Texas counties vowed not to file criminal charges in abortion-related cases, seemingly offering hope for those seeking a way around the state’s impending abortion ban.

But those counties are unlikely to serve as abortion safe havens in post-Roe Texas, legal experts and abortion rights advocates say, largely because clinics still face the threat of legal retribution even in counties with sympathetic district attorneys. And the penalty for those who continue offering the procedure is steep — up to life in prison and at least $100,000 in fines under Texas’ so-called trigger law, which will soon outlaw nearly all abortions, starting at fertilization.

While Attorney General Ken Paxton cannot unilaterally prosecute criminal cases unless authorized by a local prosecutor, he is free to do so for civil matters anywhere in Texas. That means district attorneys may shield clinics and physicians from the trigger law’s criminal penalty of a first- or second-degree felony, but Paxton could still target them for six-figure civil fines, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a law professor at the University of Houston.

She also noted that abortion providers could be found criminally liable if an incumbent district attorney reconsiders or is replaced by a successor who wants to pursue abortion-related charges.

The trigger law, which takes effect 30 days after a Supreme Court judgment overturning Roe v. Wade, makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, nor for severe fetal abnormalities. It carries narrow exemptions for abortion patients placed at risk of death or “substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”

Still, some prosecutors could begin pursuing criminal charges immediately based on Texas statutes that pre-dated Roe but were never repealed by the Legislature, Paxton said Friday. Those laws prohibit all abortions except “for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.”

In any case, it’s unlikely that abortion providers will take the risk. They are already bound by the state’s six-week abortion ban, which allows people anywhere in the country to sue providers or those who help someone access the procedure in Texas after fetal cardiac activity is detected. Successful litigants win damages of at least $10,000 under the law.

We’ve discussed this before. There are things that cities and individuals can do to hinder law enforcement or prosecutorial efforts to enforce anti-abortion laws, but one way or another they are going to be enforced, very likely via increasingly intrusive and draconian means. If somehow local DAs refuse to pursue cases, the Lege will change the law to go around them, either to the Attorney General or to neighboring counties – Briscoe Cain is already planning to file bills to that effect. We can’t succeed at this level. The only way to fight it is to have power at the state level, and that’s going to mean winning statewide races and/or winning enough seats in the Lege to take a majority in the House. Even that is at best a defensive position – we are not taking over the Senate, not even in the most wildly optimistic scenario I can imagine – but it’s the best we can do, and it would definitely reduce the harm that is otherwise coming.

One more thing:

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also slammed the Supreme Court decision, arguing that the “criminalization of reproductive health will cause great harm to women in America.” While she added that “prosecutors and police have no role in matters between doctors and patients,” she stopped short of a blanket vow to not prosecute alleged violations of state abortion laws.

“As in every case, we will evaluate the facts and make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” said Ogg, a Democrat.

I’m including this because as far as I can tell it’s the first time Ogg has spoken publicly about the coming anti-abortion enforcement wave. I seriously doubt that Kim Ogg will want to pursue any cases that are filed with her office, but I also doubt that she’ll just ignore them. Maybe she’ll take a broad “prosecutorial discretion” stance, but again, if she does and if nothing changes with the November elections, that discretion will be taken away from her. There just isn’t much she or anyone in her position can do about this. We need to be clear about that.

Lock Louie up

He believes he committed at least one federal crime. Who are we to disbelieve him?

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert was one of a handful of Republicans in Congress who asked former President Donald Trump for a pardon after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, according to testimony shown by the House committee investigating the insurrection.

Witnesses told the committee that the president had considered offering pardons to several individuals, said U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican on the committee.

Cassidy Hutchison, who served as an aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said in recorded testimony shown Thursday that the Tyler Republican was one of the members who had sought a pardon. Others included U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.

“The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you’ve committed a crime,” Kinzinger said.

Gohmert did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

What could he possibly say? His actions speak for themselves. Over to you, Justice Department.

Uvalde versus DPS

Someone’s not happy.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin on Tuesday accused state authorities of selectively releasing information about last month’s school shooting to scapegoat local law enforcement and intentionally leaving out details about the state’s response to the massacre.

New details emerged this week about the timeline of the shooting based on surveillance video from the school’s hallways and a transcript of officers’ body cameras. The records show that officers might not have attempted to open the doors of the classrooms where the gunman had holed up with victims. During a state Senate committee held earlier Tuesday, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers that law enforcement’s response to the Uvalde school shooting was an “abject failure.”

McLaughlin lambasted McCraw for what he described as a selective release of information about the investigation, focusing on blaming local law enforcement and leaving out the role of McCraw’s agency during the shooting.

“McCraw has continued to, whether you want to call it, lie, leak … mislead or misstate information in order to distance his own troopers and rangers from the response,” McLaughlin said Tuesday evening.

McLaughlin said none of the entities with information about the investigation into the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School — DPS, the Texas Legislature, the Uvalde County District Attorney’s office and the FBI — have briefed Uvalde city officials about their findings.

McLaughlin said he had been asked to refrain from sharing details about the investigation while it was ongoing but said Tuesday he would now start releasing that information as it became available to city officials.

“The gloves are off. If we know it, we will share it,” he said.

McLaughlin’s comments at a special City Council meeting seemed to contradict a press release issued just hours before, in which the mayor had said city officials would refrain from commenting on the investigation “or reacting to every story attributed to unnamed sources or sources close to the investigation.”

I mean, Steve McCraw put all the blame on Pete Arredondo, so it’s not a big surprise that Uvalde’s mayor didn’t care for that. As a reminder, McLaughlin is the guy who got all mad at Beto O’Rourke when O’Rourke interrupted Greg Abbott’s press conference – you know, the one he held just before he headed out for a big fundraiser – to demand that Abbott do something in response to the massacre. This was back when Abbott and DPS were praising Arredondo and Uvalde police for their response, which is to say, back before any of the truth started coming out. McCraw, meanwhile, is a longtime hatchet man for Abbott and Rick Perry before him, and deserves exactly zero benefit of the doubt. This is a fight where you can root for both sides to lose with a clear conscience.

The real issue here is the coordinated resistance to releasing data about the police response to the mass shooting. This is the appropriate response to that.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, is suing the Texas Department of Public Safety over records related to the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary last month.

“In the wake of the senseless tragedy, the people of Uvalde and Texas have demanded answers from their government. To date, they have been met with lies, misstatements, and shifts of blame,” Gutierrez said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

State and local Uvalde officials have fought the release of records that could provide clarity around the botched emergency response to the shooting that killed 19 children and two educators. Law enforcement responding to the shooting waited more than an hour on the scene before breaking into the classroom to kill the shooter.

Gutierrez said he filed an open records request on May 31 for documentation about police presence and ballistics at the shooting, and he still has not received a response. Per state law, DPS had 10 business days to either respond or make a case to the attorney general.

[…

Abbott’s office on Tuesday said all information related to the shooting has been shared with the public or is in the expedited process of being released. Full results of the ongoing investigation by the Texas Rangers and the FBI will also be made public, according to the governor’s office.

That same day, Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin said city officials have been left out of briefings related to the investigation from entities, such as DPS, the Texas Legislature, the Uvalde County District Attorney’s office and the FBI.

Sen. Gutierrez’s press release is here and a copy of the lawsuit is here. I cannot wait to see what response the defendants make to this. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police Chief Pete Arredondo has been placed on administrative leave by the district.

DPS pins the blame on Arredondo

Look out for that bus!

Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told a state Senate committee Tuesday that the law enforcement response to the Uvalde school shooting was an “abject failure” and police could have stopped the shooter at Robb Elementary School three minutes after arriving were it not for the indecisiveness of the on-scene commander, who placed the lives of officers before those of children.

McCraw said the inexplicable conduct by Uvalde school district police Chief Pete Arredondo was antithetical to two decades of police training since the Columbine High School massacre, which dictates that officers confront active shooters as quickly as possible.

“The officers had weapons; the children had none,” McCraw said. “The officers had body armor; the children had none. The officers had training; the subject had none. One hour, 14 minutes and 8 seconds. That’s how long children waited, and the teachers waited, in Room 111 to be rescued.”

The revelations detailed by McCraw completed a remarkable shift in the police response narrative state officials have given since the May 24 shooting. Twenty-seven days after Gov. Greg Abbott said the shooting “could have been worse” but for officers who showed “amazing courage by running toward gunfire,” his state police director described stunning police incompetence that bordered on cowardice.

[…]

McCraw said though the state police are a far larger agency than the six-person Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District department, Arredondo was the rightful incident commander because he was the most senior first responder who had immediate jurisdiction over the district’s campuses. He said Arredondo could have transferred command to another agency, such as state troopers who arrived, but never did so.

Acting against the orders of an incident commander during an emergency can be dangerous and chaotic, McCraw said, responding to a question about why his troopers did not take charge. But he said the failure of one police agency means all law enforcement performed unacceptably that day.

The story notes the comparison of what Arredondo had said to more recent reporting; you can also see a list of places where the two accounts differ in this subsequent Trib story. One almost feels a little sorry for Arredondo. The main question I have at this point is what if anything are we going to do about this? Forget about adopting any kind of gun safety measures, which Greg Abbott will not do, are we interested in any laws that might prevent, or at least disincentivize, police behavior like what we got in Uvalde when the next mass shooting (whether at a school or not) occurs? One possibility I can think of that also will never pass through a Republican legislative chamber is to dial back qualified immunity for law enforcement officers, at least in this kind of circumstance. If the next Pete Arredondo has to worry about getting his ass sued for taking no action at the next gun massacre, maybe he’ll be more inclined towards action. Whether that might end up as a net positive or not, I can’t say. But it’s at least something we could talk about doing, rather than just talk. And someone else, maybe even someone with actual expertise in the matter, may have better ideas. Reform Austin and the Chron have more.

What were Uvalde police actually doing at Robb Elementary?

I’ll say it again: The more we learn about the law enforcement response to the Uvalde massacre, the worse it looks.

Surveillance footage shows that police never tried to open a door to two classrooms at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde in the 77 minutes between the time a gunman entered the rooms and massacred 21 people and officers finally breached the door and killed him, according to a law enforcement source close to the investigation.

Investigators believe the 18-year-old gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at the school on May 24 could not have locked the door to the connected classrooms from the inside, according to the source.

All classroom doors at Robb Elementary are designed to lock automatically when they close and can only be locked or unlocked from the outside with a key, the source said. Police might have assumed the door was locked. Yet the surveillance footage suggests gunman Salvador Ramos, 18, was able to open the door to classroom 111 and enter with assault-style rifle — perhaps because the door malfunctioned, the source said.

Another door led to classroom 112.

Ramos entered Robb Elementary at 11:33 a.m. that day through an exterior door that a teacher had pulled shut but that didn’t lock automatically as it was supposed to, indicating another malfunction in door locks at the school.

Police finally breached the door to classroom 111 and killed Ramos at 12:50 p.m. Whether the door was unlocked the entire time remains under investigation.

Regardless, officers had access the entire time to a “halligan” — a crowbar-like tool that could have opened the door to the classrooms even if it was locked, the source said.

[…]

Days after the massacre, Col. Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a news conference that “each door can lock from the inside” and that when Ramos went in, “he locked the door.” That information was preliminary, the source said, and further investigation has yielded new revelations about the door.

That’s the last paragraph of the story, which was published on Saturday with a note at the end that it’s developing and will be updated. Late yesterday, the Trib published this:

For this article, the Tribune reviewed a timeline of events compiled by law enforcement, plus surveillance footage and transcripts of radio traffic and phone calls from the day of the shooting. The details were confirmed by a senior official at the Department of Public Safety. The investigation is still in the early stages, and the understanding of what happened could still change as video records are synched and enhanced. But current records and footage show a well-equipped group of local officers entered the school almost immediately that day and then pulled back once the shooter began firing from inside the classroom. Then they waited for more than an hour to reengage.

“They had the tools,” said Terry Nichols, a former Seguin police chief and active-shooter expert. “Tactically, there’s lots of different ways you could tackle this. … But it takes someone in charge, in front, making and executing decisions, and that simply did not happen.”

Here are some key findings from these records and materials:

  • No security footage from inside the school showed police officers attempting to open the doors to classrooms 111 and 112, which were connected by an adjoining door. Arredondo told the Tribune that he tried to open one door and another group of officers tried to open another, but that the door was reinforced and impenetrable. Those attempts were not caught in the footage reviewed by the Tribune. Some law enforcement officials are skeptical that the doors were ever locked.
  • Within the first minutes of the law enforcement response, an officer said the Halligan (a firefighting tool that is also sometimes spelled hooligan) was on site. It wasn’t brought into the school until an hour after the first officers entered the building. Authorities didn’t use it and instead waited for keys.
  • Officers had access to four ballistic shields inside the school during the standoff with the gunman, according to a law enforcement transcript. The first arrived 58 minutes before officers stormed the classrooms. The last arrived 30 minutes before.
  • Multiple Department of Public Safety officers — up to eight, at one point — entered the building at various times while the shooter was holed up. Many quickly left to pursue other duties, including evacuating children, after seeing the number of officers already there. At least one of the officers expressed confusion and frustration about why the officers weren’t breaching the classroom, but was told that no order to do so had been given.
  • At least some officers on the scene seemed to believe that Arredondo was in charge inside the school, and at times Arredondo seemed to be issuing orders such as directing officers to evacuate students from other classrooms. That contradicts Arredondo’s assertion that he did not believe he was running the law enforcement response. Arredondo’s lawyer, George E. Hyde, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

You can read the rest and get mad all over again. It seems clear why there’s such a wave of resistance to releasing official information about what happened in Uvalde. We can at least be glad that there are plenty of people who will leak info to the press, because otherwise we’d still be talking about what a bunch of damn heroes these guys were supposed to have been.

There’s a lot of resistance to releasing information about Uvalde

Wow.

The City of Uvalde and its police department are working with a private law firm to prevent the release of nearly any record related to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in which 19 children and two teachers died, according to a letter obtained by Motherboard in response to a series of public information requests we made. The public records Uvalde is trying to suppress include body camera footage, photos, 911 calls, emails, text messages, criminal records, and more.

“The City has not voluntarily released any information to a member of the public,” the city’s lawyer, Cynthia Trevino, who works for the private law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, wrote in a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The city wrote the letter asking Paxton for a determination about what information it is required to release to the public, which is standard practice in Texas. Paxton’s office will eventually rule which of the city’s arguments have merit and will determine which, if any, public records it is required to release.

The letter makes clear, however, that the city and its police department want to be exempted from releasing a wide variety of records in part because it is being sued, in part because some of the records could include “highly embarrassing information,” in part because some of the information is “not of legitimate concern to the public,” in part because the information could reveal “methods, techniques, and strategies for preventing and predicting crime,” in part because some of the information may cause or may “regard … emotional/mental distress,” and in part because its response to the shooting is being investigated by the Texas Rangers, the FBI, and the Uvalde County District Attorney.

The letter explains that Uvalde has at least one in-house attorney (whose communications it is trying to prevent from public release), and yet, it is using outside private counsel to deal with a matter of extreme importance and public interest. Uvalde’s city government and its police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.

The city says that it has received 148 separate public records requests (including several from Motherboard), and has lumped all of them together, making a broad legal argument as to why it should not be required to respond to many of them. Earlier this week, Motherboard reported on a similar letter sent to Paxton by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which wanted to suppress body-camera footage because it could expose “weaknesses” in police response to crimes that criminals could exploit. (The main seeming weakness in the Uvalde response was that police, in violation of standard policy and protocol, refused to risk their lives to protect children.)

For example, the city and its police department argue that it should be exempted from releasing “police officer training guides, policy and procedure manuals, shift change schedules, security details, and blueprints of secured facilities,” because these could be used to decipher “methods, techniques, and strategies for preventing and predicting crime.”

That argument sound familiar, doesn’t it? Gosh, I wonder what Ken Paxton will say. Also, it would be good to know how much the city of Uvalde is paying for those outside attorneys.

Here’s more on the same topic:

In the past week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has joined the growing list of state and local officials fighting the release of records that could help bring clarity to how the emergency response unfolded during last month’s deadly shooting in Uvalde.

The governor’s office strayed from that broader opposition Monday, granting a request under the Texas Public Information Act from a Houston television station that sought the handwritten notes he used when he first spoke publicly about the shooting. The notes appear to support Abbott’s claim that he was misled when he initially praised law enforcement efforts during the mass shooting that resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two educators and left many more injured.

The recent release by Abbott underscores both the tremendous power government officials have to decide what is in the public interest and the unwillingness to release records that could call their agencies’ actions into question.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune have submitted about 70 public information requests that could help answer larger questions as state and local leaders continue to offer conflicting accounts about why law enforcement did not confront the gunman sooner during the May 24 massacre. Those requests include 911 audio recordings, body and police car camera footage, and communications among local, state and federal agencies. The newsrooms also requested use-of-force documents, death records and ballistic reports.

Three weeks after the shooting, government officials have not provided the news organizations a single record related to the emergency response.

[…]

Abbott’s office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Marshals Service and the city of Uvalde are asking the state’s attorney general for permission to withhold records that may offer tangible answers to the contradictory accounts. (Under Texas law, agencies seeking to avoid disclosure of public records typically must make their case to the attorney general.) Other government entities have asked the state for extensions as they decide whether to fight such disclosures. News organizations across the country are reporting similar responses.

Among the arguments provided by government entities for withholding such documents is one from DPS stating that releasing records like footage from body cameras would provide criminals with “invaluable information” about its investigative techniques, information sharing and criminal analysis.

In most cases, however, the agencies argue that releasing such information could interfere with ongoing law enforcement investigations by the federal government and the Texas Rangers, an arm of DPS now tasked with investigating its own department. In a statement, Abbott’s office said that, upon completion of the investigations, “we look forward to the full results being shared with the victims’ families and the public, who deserve the full truth of what happened that tragic day.”

But timely disclosure of the records is paramount given the lack of transparency and contradictory accounts from state and local officials, three Texas Public Information Act experts told ProPublica and the Tribune.

Laura Prather, a First Amendment attorney in Texas, said the reason the state allows agencies to withhold information when it is part of an ongoing investigation is to protect someone who was accused of a crime but didn’t ultimately get convicted, “not to protect law enforcement for their actions in circumstances like this, where the shooter is dead.”

“The public has the right to know what happened that day, and right now they can only act on rumors and conflicting information,” said Prather, who is representing ProPublica in an unrelated defamation lawsuit. She said law enforcement must be transparent in order to earn the public’s trust, but agencies are instead using their discretionary powers “to thwart the public from getting information that they are rightly entitled to.”

Because state law allows government officials to withhold information in cases that don’t result in a conviction, it creates a loophole that lets governments deny records in cases where the offender was killed and will not be tried.

That results in a challenge for members of the public seeking records related to Uvalde because “either way, there is a statutory basis for these governmental bodies to seek to withhold information,” said Jim Hemphill, an attorney who serves on the board of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation.

We’ve heard about the “dead suspect” loophole before. I have a modicum of sympathy for withholding some information during an active criminal investigation, but here we already know who did it and there won’t ever be a criminal trial, at least not for him. Especially given the sheer amount of contradictory information that has been out there, we really deserve a lot of timely disclosure.

House Speaker Dade Phelan has talked about addressing that loophole in the next legislative session. Maybe there are some other items for them to address as well.

Members of the Uvalde Police Department are refusing to cooperate with a Texas House committee probing the law enforcement response to the Robb Elementary School shooting, the Express-News reports.

In comments Thursday, Committee Chairman Dustin Burrows — a Republican state rep from Lubbock — said Uvalde school district police department personnel were providing testimony to the three-member panel, according to the daily.

“There is a question mark, however, about the Uvalde Police Department itself, about whether or not they will visit with us voluntarily,” the lawmaker added. “We’ll see if they do that.”

The committee is in Uvalde for two days to hear closed-door testimony about the May 24 mass shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead. Even if Uvalde police officers don’t voluntarily testify, the committee has the power to issue subpoenas, the Express-News reports.

You have the power to compel their cooperation, or at least to make it a lot more painful to not cooperate. I’m just saying.

What was DPS doing during the Uvalde massacre?

Not much, it would seem.

As many as 13 troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety waited in a hallway at one point during a gunman’s rampage that killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last month, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat whose district encompasses Uvalde, said DPS Director Steven McCraw revealed the number of responding state troopers to him in a recent exchange.

“He told me there was enough people and equipment to breach the door,” Gutierrez said, even as officers continued to wait for more than an hour and some of the children inside the two locked classrooms called 911 for help.

In previous statements, McCraw has said that as many as 19 officers from various law enforcement agencies waited outside the classrooms. DPS has not publicly clarified the extent to which it was involved in the widely criticized police response to the May 24 mass shooting.

[…]

At a news conference last month, McCraw described Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, chief of police for the Uvalde school district, as the on-scene commander. He said that after Arredondo arrived at the school, he instructed other officers not to force entry into the locked classrooms until they could acquire more equipment, such as ballistic shields.

Gutierrez said he spoke May 28 with McCraw, who was in tears. McCraw told Gutierrez that day that DPS would never again “stand down,” the lawmaker told the San Antonio Express-News.

In another exchange June 2, McCraw told Gutierrez that as many as 13 DPS troopers had massed in the hallway outside the classrooms at one point — waiting to make entry even as the massacre unfolded.

[…]

The district attorney for Uvalde, Christina Mitchell Busbee, is leading a criminal investigation into the shooting. The Texas Rangers, with assistance from the FBI, are investigating the police response.

Separately, the Justice Department is conducting a “critical incident review” of the police response. And a three-member legislative committee appointed by House Speaker Dade Phelan is investigating the massacre.

Gutierrez wants more answers now.

“We’re supposed to be the big bad-ass cops in the region,” Gutierrez said of the DPS troopers. “What happened here? Where were they situated in that building, and what time did they get there? When it came to protecting our children, we failed.”

Yeah, lots of investigations of this massive tragedy – perhaps this explains why the local cops quit cooperating the DPS’ own investigation, or why Uvalde schools top cop Pete Arredondo sounds so defensive. Maybe we need all these investigations now because clearly no one wants to have ownership of any of this. Which, given what a massive clusterfuck it appears to have been, I can understand. But man, everything about this just keeps getting worse and more infuriating. I’m with Scott Braddock:

To put this another way:

Gutierrez questioned why state troopers on the scene would automatically defer to a school district officer with no radios.

“Why weren’t the decisions made by the most superior police force on-site?” he asked. “How then did everybody just jump on and make (Arredondo) the incident commander? If he never had a radio, then how did he make himself the incident commander? It just doesn’t follow.”

At the news conference last month, McCraw told reporters that police in Texas are trained not to wait for orders to neutralize an active shooter.

“When there’s an active shooter, the rules change,” McCraw said. “You don’t have time. You don’t have to have a leader on the scene. Every officer lines up, stacks up, goes and finds where those rounds are being fired at and keeps shooting until the subject is dead. Period.”

Law enforcement sources told the Express-News that four Border Patrol agents and two sheriff’s deputies made entry into the classrooms and killed Ramos.

Gutierrez said officers in the hallway at one point had as many as three ballistic shields before finally breaching the door to the classrooms. Once they did, nearly two dozen people inside were dead.

“There was enough material in that room to stop this threat,” he said. “And it didn’t happen.”

There were an awful lot of good guys with guns (and vests and helmet and shields) at Robb Elementary School. They amounted to exactly zero when it came to stopping one guy from killing almost two dozen people, almost all children. That is a goddamn disgrace.

Uvalde’s police chief speaks

I’ll reserve judgment for now.

Only a locked classroom door stood between Pete Arredondo and a chance to bring down the gunman. It was sturdily built with a steel jamb, impossible to kick in.

He wanted a key. One goddamn key and he could get through that door to the kids and the teachers. The killer was armed with an AR-15. Arredondo thought he could shoot the gunman himself or at least draw fire while another officer shot back. Without body armor, he assumed he might die.

“The only thing that was important to me at this time was to save as many teachers and children as possible,” Arredondo said.

The chief of police for the Uvalde school district spent more than an hour in the hallway of Robb Elementary School. He called for tactical gear, a sniper and keys to get inside, holding back from the doors for 40 minutes to avoid provoking sprays of gunfire. When keys arrived, he tried dozens of them, but one by one they failed to work.

“Each time I tried a key I was just praying,” Arredondo said. Finally, 77 minutes after the massacre began, officers were able to unlock the door and fatally shoot the gunman.

In his first extended comments since the May 24 massacre, the deadliest school shooting in Texas history, Arredondo gave The Texas Tribune an account of what he did inside the school during the attack. He answered questions via a phone interview and in statements provided through his lawyer, George E. Hyde.

Aside from the Texas Department of Public Safety, which did not respond to requests for comment for this article, Arredondo is the only other law enforcement official to publicly tell his account of the police response to the shooting.

Arredondo, 50, insists he took the steps he thought would best protect lives at his hometown school, one he had attended himself as a boy.

“My mind was to get there as fast as possible, eliminate any threats, and protect the students and staff,” Arredondo said. He noted that some 500 students from the school were safely evacuated during the crisis.

Arredondo’s decisions — like those of other law enforcement agencies that responded to the massacre that left 21 dead — are under intense scrutiny as federal and state officials try to decide what went wrong and what might be learned.

Whether the inability of police to quickly enter the classroom prevented the 21 victims — 19 students and two educators — from getting life-saving care is not known, and may never be. There’s evidence, including the fact that a teacher died while being transported to the hospital, that suggests taking down the shooter faster might have made a difference. On the other hand, many of the victims likely died instantly. A pediatrician who attended to the victims described small bodies “pulverized” and “decapitated.” Some children were identifiable only by their clothes and shoes.

In the maelstrom of anguish, outrage and second-guessing that immediately followed the second deadliest school shooting in American history, the time Arredondo and other officers spent outside that door — more than an hour — have become emblems of failure.

As head of the six-member police force responsible for keeping Uvalde schools safe, Arredondo has been singled out for much of the blame, particularly by state officials. They criticized him for failing to take control of the police response and said he made the “wrong decision” that delayed officers from entering the classroom.

Arredondo has faced death threats. News crews have camped outside his home, forcing him to go into hiding. He’s been called cowardly and incompetent.

Neither accusation is true or fair, he says.

“Not a single responding officer ever hesitated, even for a moment, to put themselves at risk to save the children,” Arredondo said. “We responded to the information that we had and had to adjust to whatever we faced. Our objective was to save as many lives as we could, and the extraction of the students from the classrooms by all that were involved saved over 500 of our Uvalde students and teachers before we gained access to the shooter and eliminated the threat.”

Arredondo’s explanations don’t fully address all the questions that have been raised. The Tribune spoke to seven law enforcement experts about Arredondo’s description of the police response. All but one said that serious lapses in judgment occurred.

Most strikingly, they said, by running into the school with no key and no radios and failing to take charge of the situation, the chief appears to have contributed to a chaotic approach in which officers deployed inappropriate tactics, adopted a defensive posture, failed to coordinate their actions, and wasted precious time as students and teachers remained trapped in two classrooms with a gunman who continued to fire his rifle.

Hyde, Arredondo’s lawyer, said those criticisms don’t reflect the realities police face when they’re under fire and trying to save lives. Uvalde is a small working-class city of about 15,000 west of San Antonio. Its small band of school police officers doesn’t have the staffing, equipment, training, or experience with mass violence that larger cities might.

That right there would seem to be a pretty damn good argument for trying to limit the availability of at least the kind of guns that can do the kind of damage described here. Surely even a Ted Cruz would have to admit that a teacher with a Glock is not going to be as effective as a professional police officer in this kind of situation, and if the cops themselves say they’re not up to the task, who are we to say otherwise?

Anyway, you can read the rest – it’s a long story – or you can read this “five takeaways” piece about the interview if you want more of a summary. I’ll wait to see what the Justice Department says – I suspect they will have some points of disagreement with Chief Arredondo. Reform Austin has more.

Long lost daughter of Tina Linn and Dean Clouse found

Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

Donna Casasanta got the call this week, a call she’s spent half of her life praying for.

A call about Holly Marie.

More than 40 years ago, her son, Harold Dean Clouse, moved to Texas from New Smyrna, Fla., with his wife, Tina Linn, and their young daughter. Then, all three abruptly vanished.

Finally, in October 2021, genealogists called Casasanta and her relatives with painful news: Police had discovered the couple’s bodies, back in 1981, in a copse of trees in east Harris County, but only had recently identified them using modern technology.

Dean was beaten to death. Tina had been strangled.

There was no sign of their baby, Holly Marie.

This week that changed. Holly Marie is alive and well and living in Oklahoma, after a family adopted her as a baby.

Investigators from the Texas Attorney General’s office walked into Holly’s workplace on Tuesday and told her who she was.

Hours later, Holly and her grandmother and aunts and uncles met, in a raucous Zoom call.

It was June 7, the day that her father would have turned 63.

“Finding Holly is a birthday present from heaven since we found her on Junior’s birthday,” Casasanta said, in a statement released by a family spokeswoman. “I prayed for more than 40 years for answers and the Lord has revealed some of it.”

See here and here for the background. This whole story richly deserves a prestige true-crime miniseries on HBO, and there are still some huge questions that may never be answered. Read the rest, and read the previous stories of how Linn and Clouse were identified if you haven’t yet. The Observer has more.

Justice Department starts its review of the Uvalde law enforcement response

We’ll see what they turn up.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday that the Department of Justice’s investigation into the law enforcement response to the elementary school shooting in Uvalde won’t be criminal in nature.

Garland described the federal investigation as a “critical incident review,” which was done after other mass shootings such as in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida. The review will assess the law enforcement response and “give guidance for the future,” Garland said. The department will then produce a public report, which will include the investigation’s findings and recommendations.

“Nothing that these [investigators] can do can undo the terrible tragedy that occurred, and that we are just heartbroken about,” Garland said Wednesday. “But we can assess what happened and we can make recommendations for the future.”

Garland said the team reviewing the law enforcement response will conduct site visits to the school and interviews with witnesses, families, law enforcement officers and school officials.

He said that his department expects full cooperation from all law enforcement officers involved in the response to the shooting. Authorities have been criticized in the days after the massacre over their decision to wait over an hour before entering the school and confronting the shooter.

“We have been promised, assured and welcomed with respect to cooperation by every level of law enforcement: state, federal and local,” Garland said. “We will participate in that vein and we don’t expect any problems.”

See here for the background. Per Texas Public Radio, there’s no official timetable for this process, but they intend to move “as expeditiously as possible”. Uvalde law enforcement has stopped cooperating with DPS in the state’s investigation, so we’ll see if the feds have more luck. Maybe some subpoenas will be needed, but let’s hope not. As I said, I don’t expect much out of this, but if we learn more about what actually happened with how local law enforcement responded and why it went so very wrong, that’s enough of a reason to do this. The Chron has more.

If committees are all we’re going to get, then let’s get something from the committees

Not too much to ask, I hope.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan on Friday announced the creation of a legislative committee to investigate the Uvalde shooting.

“The fact we still do not have an accurate picture of what exactly happened in Uvalde is an outrage,” the Beaumont Republican said in a statement announcing the committee. “Every day, we receive new information that conflicts with previous reports, making it not only difficult for authorities to figure out next steps, but for the grieving families of the victims to receive closure. I established this investigative committee for the dedicated purpose of gathering as much information and evidence as possible to help inform the House’s response to this tragedy and deliver desperately needed answers to the people of Uvalde and the State of Texas.”

The three-person investigative committee will have subpoena power for its investigation and will be led by state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who is an attorney. El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, a former prosecutor, will serve as the committee’s vice chair. Former Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, who recently lost a bid to become the Republican nominee for attorney general, will also be a member of the panel.

Phelan said Burrows, Moody and Guzman have “decades of experience in civil and criminal litigation matters” that make them well-equipped to conduct the committee’s investigations.

The speaker’s latest announcement comes days after he voiced his support for ending the “dead suspect loophole” in Texas public records laws, which could impede the public’s ability to get answers about the police response to the shooting. Law enforcement agencies often use a statute in the law to shield from public release records related to incidents that don’t lead to a conviction, including in cases in which the suspect dies before a chance to prosecute.

“It’s time we pass legislation to end the dead suspect loophole for good in 2023,” he said on social media on Wednesday.

Better than its Senate counterpart, which is admittedly a low bar. I’d not heard of the “dead suspect loophole” before. I’m fine with closing it, but please don’t tell me it’s going to promote gun safety or reduce gun violence in any way. It’s worth doing on its own merits, and it would mean the Lege didn’t do absolutely nothing. It’s also an extremely small step to take, and we should not be close to satisfied with it.

I do hope this committee uses its subpoena powers, because good Lord there are so many things that still need to be explained.

The Uvalde school district police chief who led the response to last week’s shooting and made the decision to wait for reinforcements while the gunman and survivors were still in the building did not have a police radio when he first arrived on campus, possibly missing reports about the 911 calls coming from inside, according to news reports.

Pete Arredondo, police chief for the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, instead used a cellphone to call a police landline to tell officers about the shooter, The New York Times reported Friday. Arredondo told his department that the gunman had an AR-15 but was contained, the Times reported, and to send backup and surround Robb Elementary School.

Arredondo’s decision-making has been widely criticized after it took more than an hour for law enforcement to breach the classroom where the gunman was holed up. Parents begged the dozens of officers outside the school to take action and tried to enter the school themselves. Some were physically restrained.

It was Arredondo who decided to not immediately confront the gunman, who killed 19 children and two teachers and injured 17 others, state law enforcement officials have said. Instead, Arredondo chose to wait for backup and equipment and to treat the gunman as a “barricaded suspect” rather than an active shooter, Steve McCraw, head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said last week.

Meanwhile, 911 calls from students trapped inside the classroom with the gunman were pouring in to local police dispatchers — including a student begging for police officers to show up. Those calls were routed to the Uvalde Police Department, which operates independently from the school district’s police force, Roland Gutierrez, the state senator who represents Uvalde, said Thursday.

Arredondo presumably did not know about the multiple 911 calls while he was on the scene. McCraw said Arredondo believed no children were in danger, possibly because he did not know any survived inside the classroom.

“Unless there was someone relaying him info, there was no way for him to know there were 911 calls coming from inside that room,” Gutierrez told TV news station WOAI on Friday.

Unbelievable, but at this point unsurprising. The problems go way deeper than one incompetent police chief, and while he deserves a lot of blame and needs to be made to answer a bunch of questions, scapegoating him doesn’t get us anywhere. Just again, don’t ever talk to me about “good guys with guns”. It was idiotic before, and it’s insulting now. Daily Kos has more.

The entire law enforcement response in Uvalde is messed up

What is going on here?

The official response to the mass shooting at an Uvalde elementary school — a response already marred by shifting narratives, finger-pointing and a general lack of timely and accurate information — took a further turn toward dysfunction on Tuesday.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said Uvalde school district’s police chief Pete Arredondo, who made the decision to wait for more resources rather than confront the gunman sooner, has stopped cooperating with state investigators and had not responded to requests for information for over two days. Arredondo contests the claim.

And the agency walked back an assertion that a teacher at Robb Elementary School propped open a back door prior to the shooting, allowing the gunman to enter and kill 19 students and two teachers. Earlier Tuesday the teacher’s lawyer had pushed back on the state’s account.

Texas Rangers investigating the response to the shooting want to continue talking to Arredondo, but he hasn’t answered a request made two days ago for a follow-up interview, according to two DPS spokespeople. The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District’s police department and the Uvalde Police Department have otherwise been cooperating with the Rangers’ investigation, DPS spokesperson Travis Considine said.

Arredondo did not return a call requesting comment. He told CNN in a brief interview that he is speaking “every day” with DPS investigators but declined to further discuss the shooting.

“I’ve been on the phone with them every day,” Arredondo said.

Amid the turmoil, Texas’ largest police union — the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT — urged its members Tuesday in a statement to “cooperate fully” with investigations into the police response to the Uvalde massacre — though they didn’t name Arredondo.

Both the police chief and the school teacher had been implicated by DPS officials as, in effect, having failed at their jobs. The change in narrative is likely to deepen the mistrust surrounding the investigation. Already, as in other mass shootings, conspiracy theories and misinformation have begun to proliferate online.

While the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to review the response to the mass shooting, the ultimate responsibility for carrying out a credible, thorough and transparent investigation rests with the state — and so far, state officials have not offered much confidence in their abilities to carry out such a probe.

[…]

CLEAT, the police union, blamed state officials Tuesday for “a great deal of false and misleading information in the aftermath of this tragedy,” some of which “came from the very highest levels of government and law enforcement.”

“Sources that Texans once saw as iron-clad and completely reliable have now been proven false,” the union said in a statement.

Not much confidence indeed. It’s one thing for there to have been confusion and conflicting or missing information in the immediate aftermath of the murders. We’re more than a week out now, and it’s hard to understand why DPS and the locals aren’t on the same page. If they are unable to communicate or don’t trust each other, it speaks poorly of them all.

And where is Greg Abbott in all of this? He expressed anger after hearing about the botched local PD response, of which he had initially been “misinformed”. Does he have anything left in the tank for this? This is his law enforcement agency, and his hand-picked henchman in charge of it, that are out there stepping on rakes. Is that a problem, or is he going to do his usual thing of refusing to answer any questions about it until the press gets tired and moves on to something else? It’s nice that the Justice Department will do a review, but what happens if Uvalde police don’t want to cooperate with that? Who exactly is in charge here? The Chron, Daily Kos, and Reform Austin have more.

Misogyny is always a threat

It was there in plain sight.

He could be cryptic, demeaning and scary, sending angry messages and photos of guns. If they didn’t respond how he wanted, he sometimes threatened to rape or kidnap them — then laughed it off as some big joke.

But the girls and young women who talked with Salvador Ramos online in the months before he allegedly killed 19 children in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, rarely reported him. His threats seemed too vague, several said in interviews with The Washington Post. One teen who reported Ramos on the social app Yubo said nothing happened as a result.

Some also suspected this was just how teen boys talked on the Internet these days — a blend of rage and misogyny so predictable they could barely tell each one apart. One girl, discussing moments when he had been creepy and threatening, said that was just “how online is.”

In the aftermath of the deadliest school shooting in a decade, many have asked what more could have been done — how an 18-year-old who spewed so much hate to so many on the Web could do so without provoking punishment or raising alarm.

But these threats hadn’t been discovered by parents, friends or teachers. They’d been seen by strangers, many of whom had never met him and had found him only through the social messaging and video apps that form the bedrock of modern teen life.

[…]

A 16-year-old boy in Austin who said he saw Ramos frequently in Yubo panels, told The Post that Ramos frequently made aggressive, sexual comments to young women on the app and sent him a death threat during one panel in January.

“I witnessed him harass girls and threaten them with sexual assault, like rape and kidnapping,” said the teen. “It was not like a single occurrence. It was frequent.”

He and his friends reported Ramos’s account to Yubo for bullying and other infractions dozens of times. He never heard back, he said, and the account remained active.

Yubo spokeswoman Amy Williams would not say whether the company received reports of abuse related to Ramos’s account. “As there is an ongoing and active investigation and because this information concerns a specific individual’s data, we are not legally able to share these details publicly at this time,” she said in an email. Williams would not say what law prevents the company from commenting.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday that Ramos had also written, “I’m going to shoot my grandmother” and “I’m going to shoot an elementary school” shortly before the attack in messages on Facebook. And Texas Department of Public Safety officials said Friday that Ramos had discussed buying a gun several times in private chats on Instagram.

Ten days before the shooting, he wrote in one of the messages, “10 more days,” according to the official. Another person wrote to him, “Are you going to shoot up a school or something?” to which Ramos responded, “No, stop asking dumb questions. You’ll see,” the official said.

[…]

Many of Ramos’ threats to assault women, the young women added, barely stood out from the undercurrent of sexism that pervades the Internet — something they said they have fought back against but also come to accept.

A 2021 Pew Research Center study found these experiences are common for young people, with about two-thirds of adults under 30 reporting that they’ve experienced online harassment. Thirty-three percent of women under 35 say they have been sexually harassed online.

Danielle K. Citron, a law professor at University of Virginia, said women and girls often don’t report threats of rape to law enforcement or trusted adults because they have been socialized to feel they do not deserve safety and privacy online. Sometimes, they don’t think anyone would help them.

Women and girls have “internalized the view, ‘What else do we expect?’” said Citron, the author of the upcoming book “The Fight for Privacy: Protecting Dignity, Identity, and Love in the Digital Age.” “Our safety and intimate privacy is something that society doesn’t value.”

Misogyny and a history of domestic violence is an extremely common factor across mass shooting incidents. We’ve known this for a long time. If we can’t bring ourselves to talk about guns and gun control, and we’re not stupid enough to waste our time on the Republican talking points, maybe we can spare a few words about ways that we could maybe reduce some of this hateful, rage-filled behavior. I’d bet that would have a lot of benefit beyond lowering the threat of mass shootings. I’m not saying this will be easy, but we know what the alternative is. May as well give it a try, you know?

Justice Department to review what happened with Uvalde police

Okay.

The U.S. Department of Justice will review the law enforcement’s response to the Uvalde school massacre as local police face intense scrutiny for not acting quickly enough to confront the shooter.

“The goal of the review is to provide an independent account of law enforcement actions and responses that day, and to identify lessons learned and best practices to help first responders prepare for and respond to active shooter events,” Anthony Coley, a spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department, wrote in a statement Sunday.

Uvalde mayor Don McLaughlin requested the Justice Department investigation, Coley said.

Police officers made a crucial error in waiting to stop the 18-year-old gunman rampaging at Robb Elementary School because the school district’s chief of police wanted to wait for backup and equipment, said Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Meanwhile, students were still trapped inside with the gunman, repeatedly calling 911 for help.

By the time a specialized team of federal officers arrived and entered the school, more than an hour had passed since the shooter had arrived at the school, McCraw said.

“From the benefit of hindsight, where I’m sitting now, of course it was not the right decision,” McCraw said. “It was the wrong decision, period. There’s no excuse for that.”

Since the shooting, state law enforcement officials have given vague and conflicting answers on what exactly happened after the gunman arrived at the school. In the days after the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the shooter was met by a police officer employed by the school district — and gave conflicting accounts about whether the officer fired at the gunman.

See here for some background. We may at least get some more honest and accurate answers about what happened and why the Uvalde police acted as they did. That’s nice, but I doubt it moves the ball forward for anything else. I’m always in favor of getting the facts right, I’m just trying to maintain perspective on this. It’s good on its own terms, just don’t expect more.

For example:

The Texas Senate Democratic Caucus is urging Gov. Greg Abbott to call an emergency special legislative session to consider a variety of gun restrictions and safety measures in the wake of a mass school shooting in Uvalde that left 19 children and two adults dead this week.

In a letter released Saturday morning, all 13 Senate Democrats demanded lawmakers pass legislation that raises the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21 years old. The Uvalde gunman was 18 and had purchased two AR-style rifles which he used in the attack.

The caucus is also calling for universal background checks for all firearm sales, “red flag” laws that allow a judge to temporarily remove firearms from people who are considered an imminent threat to themselves or others, a “cooling off period” for the purchase of a firearm and regulations on high capacity magazines for citizens.

[…]

Such laws are unlikely to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has a track record of favoring legislation that loosens gun restrictions. Only the governor has the power to call lawmakers back into a special session for emergency work.

Asked about a special session at a Friday press conference in Uvalde, Abbott said “all options are on the table” adding that he believed laws would ultimately be passed to address this week’s horrors. However, he suggested laws would be more tailored toward addressing mental health, rather than gun control.

“You can expect robust discussion and my hope is laws are passed, that I will sign, addressing health care in this state,” he said, “That status quo is unacceptable. This crime is unacceptable. We’re not going to be here and do nothing about it.”

Making things worse is always an option. The palaver about “addressing mental health” is as useless and empty as “thoughts and prayers”, since Abbott has said the same thing after each of the previous two mass shootings at schools that have happened during his reign, and all he has done in reality is cut funding for mental health care. Also, too, for the 597th time, the single biggest and best thing the state could do to improve mental health care in Texas is expand Medicaid, and we all know that ain’t happening as long as Abbott and his minions are in charge. Texas Public Radio has more.

The national media discovers Skeet Jones

Here’s NBC News with a nice, juicy story.

Lawmen came to remote Loving County, Texas, on Friday to arrest the county judge, a former sheriff’s deputy and two ranch hands on one of Texas’ oldest crimes — cattle theft.

Judge Skeet Jones, 71, the top elected official since 2007 in the least populated county in the continental United States, is facing three felony counts of livestock theft and one count of engaging in criminal activity, accused of gathering up and selling stray cattle, authorities said.

Jones, the scion of a powerful ranching family that settled in Loving County in the 1950s, was booked into Winkler County Jail on Friday and released on $20,000 bond, records show. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Authorities also arrested former Loving County deputy Leroy Medlin Jr., 35, on one count of engaging in criminal activity — a second-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Medlin did not return phone calls, but his wife sent an email that questioned the motives behind the arrests. “We are being targeted,” she wrote, “at full force.”

Officials with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the lead agency on the case, offered few specifics about the alleged crime. Commissioned through the Texas Department of Public Safety, the association has “special rangers” — certified peace officers — who investigate livestock theft and other agriculture crimes.

Jeremy Fuchs, a spokesman for the association, said the yearlong investigation is ongoing and more charges are possible.

The idea that the judge — who is paid $133,294 annually — would get picked up for cattle rustling was just too much for Susan Hays, a Texas election lawyer who’s wrangled with the Joneses in the past.

“You can’t make this shit up,” she said. “It’s a pain in the ass to round up cattle and take them to market. And then to risk real trouble for it? It’s just asinine to me.”

See here for the background. As a reminder, Susan Hays is also the Democratic candidate for Ag Commissioner.

For decades, a handful of prominent families in Loving County have feuded bitterly for control of the local government, with the Joneses finally largely coming out ahead. Skeet Jones has served as the judge for more than 15 years. His sister is the county clerk. His cousin’s husband is the county attorney. His nephew is the constable.

But some recently elected county officials have been butting heads with the Joneses and their allies, making for colorful commissioner’s court meetings and a much-anticipated November election.

And blood is no longer holding the Jones family together.

“He’s had free reign for the entire time since he’s been the judge,” said Skeet Jones’ nephew, Constable Brandon Jones, who was elected in 2016. “That’s given him a sense of power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Even the feeling of self-righteousness. That he can do no wrong.”

When Skeet Jones was sworn in as judge in 2007, most of the caliche roads were rutted like washboards and residents still had to line up to get potable water dispensed from a community tank.

But he presided over a period of unprecedented growth, as fracking boomed in the Permian Basin, feeding money into the county’s coffers. The parched landscape is dotted with massive gas plants, water plants and salt water disposal systems. Many of the surviving working ranches have “frac pads” for horizontally drilled wells that cut through the caliche and bedrock to free up the lifeblood for Loving County’s economy: oil and gas.

The tax base hovers around $7 billion to $9 billion. And the county’s budget has grown from about $2 million in 2008 to more than $28 million.

The salaries for many of the top officials in town — the judge, auditor, treasurer, clerk, justice of the peace, county attorney, constable and sheriff — are $100,000 or higher.

To give you some idea of how insane a budget of $28 million for a county with 57 people in it, that’s about $491,000 per person. The fiscal year 2022 budget for Harris County had an estimated general fund of $2 billion, for 4.8 million people, or $415 per person. That’s less than 0.1% of the per capita allocations for Loving. If Harris had the same resources as Loving, it would have over $2.3 trillion in its general revenue fund; in other words, in the ballpark of what the US as a whole spends in a non-COVID year. As for the family dynamics and the concentration of power like that, well, I suspect we’re just beginning to delve into the plot.

One more thing:

Medlin previously worked as a detective for the San Antonio Police Department, where records show he was issued indefinite suspensions — the department’s equivalent of being fired — three times.

In 2015, he was placed on indefinite suspension for a 100-plus mph pursuit of a driver who had a toddler in the back seat, records show. Medlin was reinstated after an appeal.

Then in 2018, Medlin engaged in another high-speed pursuit after telling dispatchers the driver “almost ran me over,” records show. But body and dash camera footage contradicted Medlin’s account, according to internal affairs reports. He appealed again, telling supervisors he felt threatened, even if it wasn’t evident from the videos.

He was later issued another indefinite suspension after supervisors determined he issued tickets for violations he didn’t witness, records show.

Medlin joined the Loving County Sheriff’s Office in January 2019 and “separated” from the agency less than two years later, records show. (Sheriff Chris Busse declined to say why.)

Medlin also worked on Jones’ ranch before being hired by Loving County as a janitor and groundskeeper.

Forget the Yellowstone-meets-Game of Thrones as directed by early-career Coen Brothers aspect of this, it’s Leroy Medlin that’s the tale as old as time here. The inability of law enforcement agencies to fire corrupt and/or inept cops, combined with said cops’ ability to easily hire on with some other law enforcement agency in the state (there are nearly 2,000 law enforcement agencies in the state of Texas, including as we now know the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which was responsible for this particular bust) makes for a plethora of opportunities. I feel very confident there’s more to the story of why Leroy Medlin did not stay with the Loving County Sheriff’s Office longer than he did than what we now know.

The AP had a much shorter story on this, which the Chron picked up. I’m sure other outlets, including the Texas papers, will join in, and I can’t wait. Hell, I can’t wait for the eight-part true crime podcast and hopefully HBO miniseries on the life and times of the Jones family of Loving County. Susan Hays is right, you cannot make this stuff up. But you sure can ride it to the end when it happens anyway.

The cattle-rustling County Judge

“Bonkers” is the first word that came to mind as I read this Twitter thread and the linked story at the end of it:

Read the rest of the thread and the story at the end for more. Remember that this is the County Judge at the top of this alleged crime ring – imagine if say, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough had been busted for running a gang of car thieves. A few other points to note:

– This was not Judge Skeet Jones’ first brush with the law, as noted. In 2016, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a public warning and order of additional education for his role in quashing speeding tickets for truck drivers (note that “CDL” = “commercial drivers license”, so this was for people who drive, usually big rig trucks, for a living). In a sane world, it should have been a political-career-ending scandal, but somehow there he was still in office eight years later stealing cows.

County Judge is normally an executive position, but constitutionally they do have some bench-judge authority, which most County Judges are too busy to do even if they had any interest in it. And also, since I’m sure you’re wondering, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association does indeed have law enforcement authority, which apparently includes a crossover with Oklahoma. The things I learn doing this blog, I swear. Anyway, this is my nominee for most amazing story of the year, and I don’t even want to think about what could knock it off that perch. Many thanks to my friend Ginger for pointing this out to me.

How will abortion bans be enforced?

The good news is that anti-abortion zealots don’t yet know how they’re going to force women to give birth. The bad news is we cannot count on that to continue to be true.

Right there with them

It took next to zero effort for pandering Republican state legislators to obtain cut-and-paste, ALEC-generated laws banning and criminalizing all abortions in their states, then brag and fundraise after such laws were passed by a willing Republican governor. But now that the Supreme Court is apparently set on overruling Roe v. Wade, the much harder part—as Republicans are about to find out—is figuring out how such laws terrorizing pregnant people will actually work in practice.

How do you go about catching and punishing someone who violates these laws? What tools of law enforcement will be necessary? How do you collect the evidence necessary for a prosecutor to charge someone with “aiding and abetting” an illegal abortion, for example? Can you dangle a lesser sentence if they agree to confess or cooperate against the suspect? And once the unrepentant offender has been apprehended, what sort of forensic examination methods or interrogation techniques should be utilized to prove their “crime?” Under what conditions?

[…]

None of the states that provide “exceptions” in cases, for example, involving rape or incest, or to protect the health and life of the mother could provide any guidance as to how such determinations would be made. As Einbinder and Kaskins point out, nearly two-thirds of rapes go unreported, so what type of evidence would be required to apply such an exception? Idaho, Mississippi, and Utah require that the rape be reported to law enforcement before an abortion will be “permitted,” while other states do not. Do prosecutors expect the rapist to voluntarily confirm his behavior?

And what type of medical testimony would be sufficient to establish that a person’s life was actually threatened by their pregnancy? Would there exist a ready cottage industry of experts used by prosecutors to rebut such a claim? Would doctors in a state that provides no such exception be forced to simply sit and watch the pregnant person die?

As Einbinder and Kaskins observe, no one in any of these states so eager to criminalize reproductive choices seems to know the answers to any of these questions. Most of Insider’s requests yielded no records (one district attorney from Shelby County, Tennessee, called their inquiries “political grandstanding”), or were met with bland statements that the agency was not involved in “enforcement”.

It seems clear to me that a big part of the playbook is just having laws that criminalize abortion in whatever form on the books. As we know from the SB8 experience, that by itself serves to intimidate and scare many women away from exploring whatever options they may still have, and also incentivizes fellow zealots to rat out anyone they suspect of engaging in behavior they don’t like – remember, it was someone involved in Lizelle Herrera’s medical care that reported her to law enforcement. If that’s not enough, the next step will be to make it easier for law enforcement to investigate the women in question, which will necessarily mean invasive searches of medical records, Internet and phone records, and who knows what else. Just look at the DFPS investigations of the families of trans kids for a preview of what that might resemble.

It’s likely that at least at first, enforcement of new anti-abortion laws will be uneven, as prosecutors will exercise their discretion as they can. The current Bexar County DA has already said he won’t prosecute abortion cases, and he won’t be alone in that. But DAs can lose elections, and with Ken Paxton actively seeking to bulldoze over DAs who refuse to go along with his agenda, authorizing the AG to pick up these prosecutions will be on the agenda if the zealots deem it necessary. There are no norms or traditions or existing laws that will stop them.

There do remain some ways for blue cities and suburbs to put up resistance even with all that.

Data. Immigration sanctuary cities responded to shifts in federal law during the Trump administration with a data management strategy. Do you need someone’s immigration status? If not, don’t write it down or put it in a database. Local hospitals, whether in red or blue states, should carefully consider what kind of records they must keep about people accessing care related to abortion or miscarriage, along with other kinds of soon-to-be-banned care. County hospitals can also commit to objecting to subpoenas requesting medical records, and instead force courts to compel their cooperation. They can choose not to question a patient’s narrative; they can decline to allow police to question a hospitalized patient.

Nonprosecution. Progressive district attorneys have won election in cities across the country in recent years, including in red states. Some in red states have already said they will refuse to prosecute criminal cases involving abortion. We need to demand that progressive prosecutors nationwide use their broad discretion to decline to prosecute doctors and patients for accessing abortion, for “suspicious” miscarriages, and for using types of birth control outlawed by state abortion laws that mistake pregnancy prevention for pregnancy termination. Even in states like Texas and Florida, it is often local elected prosecutors who will be making those determinations, at least for now.

On the flip side, advocates should be partnering with civil liberties organizations to scrutinize local police departments’ use of big data technologies, which could be used to identify and locate those who have accessed abortion care. Some cities, such as Oakland, California, have privacy task forces that must approve any new technology used for surveillance purposes. Such government bodies could, for example, refuse to approve any technology that makes use of data from period- or fertility-tracking apps. Cities might also consider directing their own police departments not to run searches of residents’ internet searches related to health care.

With the right resources, public libraries could also provide a space for residents to search for information related to self-managed abortion without leaving a search history on their personal devices. Blue cities in red states could provide funds to advertise the availability of library computers, purchase more devices if needed, and even set up the physical space in a way that affords computer users some degree of privacy.

Advice. Another important role cities play is giving advice to their agencies and hospitals and to the public at large. Cities can advise OB-GYNs concerned about their own vulnerabilities, particularly given laws that seek to criminalize routine care even when performed out of state and to deputize citizens to sue health care providers. These localities should develop a clear channel for providers to ask questions about how best to protect themselves while still providing care. Many local governments already have systems in place for disseminating information. During the pandemic, cities have used websites, automated texts, central phone lines, and more to make rapidly changing information and guidance available about COVID-19. Drawing on these strategies, local librarians and public health departments can play an important role in providing information about self-managed abortions. Cities need to think about how their employees might provide guidance, such as by handing out informational pamphlets or via websites and transit ads, and explore strategies for protecting employees and residents alike from liability.

These are all good ideas, but we’ve already seen in Texas that the Republican legislature and state leadership will not let cities stand in their way of anything. As long as they have the power to pass laws that overrule local ordinances or compel cities to do things, they will. It always comes back to the same truth that until we change who’s in charge of the state, we’re not going to be safe from this kind of abuse. We can brainstorm and strategize all we want, and we will have to for at least the short term, but in the long term that’s a losing battle. Winning more elections is the only way forward.

Crystal Mason’s conviction to be reconsidered

Good news.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has told a lower appeals court to take another look at the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, who was given a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters on Wednesday ruled a lower appeals court had wrongly upheld Mason’s conviction by concluding that it was “irrelevant” to Mason’s prosecution that she did not know she was ineligible to cast a ballot. The ruling opens the door for Mason’s conviction to ultimately be overturned.

Mason’s lawyers turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after the Tarrant County-based Second Court of Appeals found that her knowledge that she was on supervised release, and therefore ineligible to vote, was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction. Mason has said she did know she was ineligible to vote and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom.

On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the lower court had “erred by failing to require proof that [Mason] had actual knowledge that it was a crime for her to vote while on supervised release.” They sent the case back down with instructions for the lower court to “evaluate the sufficiency” of the evidence against Mason.

[…]

In Wednesday’s ruling, the court held that the Texas election code requires individuals to know they are ineligible to vote to be convicted of illegal voting.

“To construe the statute to mean that a person can be guilty even if she does not ‘know[] the person is not eligible to vote’ is to disregard the words the Legislature intended,” the court wrote. “It turns the knowledge requirement into a sort of negligence scheme wherein a person can be guilty because she fails to take reasonable care to ensure that she is eligible to vote.”

The court on Wednesday ruled against Mason on two other issues. They rejected her arguments that the lower court had interpreted the state’s illegal voting statute in a way that criminalized the good faith submission of provisional ballots, and that the appeals court had wrongly found she “voted in an election” even though her provisional ballot was never counted.

See here, here, and here for some background. Of particular interest is that the recent voter suppression law played a positive role in this outcome.

Insisting they’re not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake, Tarrant County prosecutors have said Mason’s case is about intent. The case against her has turned on the affidavit she signed when submitting her provisional ballot.

But the legal landscape underpinning Tarrant County’s prosecution shifted while the case was under review, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals noted.

Last year, the Texas Legislature included in its sweeping new voting law several changes to the election code’s illegal voting provisions. The law, known as Senate Bill 1, added new language stating that Texans may not be convicted of voting illegally “solely upon the fact that the person signed a provisional ballot,” instead requiring other evidence to corroborate they knowingly tried to cast an unlawful vote.

The Legislature’s change to the election code — along with a resolution passed in the Texas House regarding the interpretation of the illegal voting statute — are “persuasive authority” that the lower court’s interpretation of the law’s mens rea requirement was incorrect, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Wednesday.

Good. This isn’t over for Mason, as this is just about the appeal of her conviction. Even if the appeals court ultimately throws it out after reconsideration, Tarrant County could still pursue this case and who knows, they might be able to convict her again. It sure seems like the spine of the case against her has been removed, though. And no matter how you look at it, she has already suffered consequences far in excess of her original sin, however you measure it. Please let this be over for her. The Dallas Observer has more.

Oh yeah, Hotze knew all about the Aguirre attack

Who could have ever guessed that a lifelong lying lair was lying to us?

Two days before a private investigator looking into a voter fraud conspiracy theory smashed into an air conditioning repairman’s truck and pulled a gun on him, far-right activist Steven Hotze called then-U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick and told him about the plans to have “a wreck,” court documents show.

Hotze, who funded the investigation and now faces felony charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint, asked Patrick whether he could send federal marshals to help his private investigator. The investigator, former Houston Police Department captain Mark Aguirre, faces the same charges.

Hotze’s attorneys long have claimed Hotze was unaware of the encounter between Aguirre and the repairman until he saw it on the news after the episode. The transcript suggests otherwise.

“We’ve surveilled them for the last two nights and still my, my, Mark Aguirre, he said he wants to capture them when they bring (the ballots) out and leave tonight to deliver them but he needs a federal marshal with him,” Hotze says in the Oct. 17 call, according to a transcript submitted in Hotze’s criminal case by the Harris County district attorney’s office.

Hotze added later in the call: “In fact, (Aguirre) told me last night, hell, I’m gonna have, the guy’s gonna have a wreck tomorrow. I’m going to run into him and I’m gonna make a citizen’s arrest.”

Two days later, Aguirre allegedly rammed his SUV into the back of the air conditioning repairman’s truck and pulled a gun on the man around 5:30 a.m.. He expected to find thousands of ballots in the man’s truck, but there only were repair tools.

In addition to the criminal case, the repairman has sued Hotze in a civil case.

The transcript says Patrick recorded the call. It is unclear what Patrick did with the information or the recording after talking with Hotze.

[…]

According to the transcript, Patrick rejected Hotze’s request, telling him that as U.S. attorney he did not have marshals that report to him or investigative staff. Even if he did, Patrick said, he would need probable cause and approval from the Department of Justice to assist.

“I can’t just send marshals. That’s not, the marshals don’t work for me,” Patrick said. “I don’t have any, there are no federal agents that work for me. I don’t have officers, I don’t have investigators, like a DA’s office. I don’t have any peace officers or federal agents that work for me.”

Both Hotze and Aguirre have denied wrongdoing.

A former Harris County prosecutor called the recording “extremely significant,” because the district attorney’s office will have to use the “law of parties” principle — which can hold people criminally responsible for the actions of someone else — in their case against Hotze.

“Having a conversation ahead of time, whether recorded or with a reputable individual such as Ryan Patrick, that there was a plan to have an accident — that certainly shows he was involved in this conspiracy,” said Nathan Hennigan, a former prosecutor who worked at the district attorney’s office from 2008 to 2017.

“It’s basically what you would need to prosecute this case,” he said.

[…]

Previous court documents said Aguirre had called the attorney general’s office days before the alleged assault and asked it to conduct a traffic stop of the repairman.

In the new transcript, Hotze tells Patrick the attorney general’s office “is just AWOL” and he cannot try enlisting the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, “obviously because they’re Democrats.” Hotze suggests he may try to find a constable who would assist Aguirre.

Hotze also said Aguirre planned to have an official from Immigration and Customs Enforcement there, in hopes of threatening to deport the man to coerce a confession. Hotze said the people “running the ring are all illegals.”

About six minutes into the call, Patrick tells Hotze he has received the information but he has to go. Patrick, the son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, then was serving as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas.

There’s a ton of backstory here, but this is a good place to start. I have some sympathy for Ryan Patrick, who I can picture with a pained expression on his face as he’s trying to disconnect from this raving lunatic on his phone. In retrospect, maybe he could have tried to warn someone about what Hotze was up to, but it’s not clear to me who he could have tipped off, and what could have been done about it by whoever he informed. The fact that he declined to get involved in the seditious insanity is sufficient, with a lot of bonus points for recording the call. He did not disgrace himself or his office, and honestly that’s all I really want from most Republicans these days.

Anyway, Hotze’s attorney Jared Woodfill, who has as strained a relationship with truth and reality as Hotze does, claims in the story that this recording will actually bolster Hotze’s defense and prove that he’s innocent, and yeah, no. Given how this has gone so far, and the depraved character of the main players, it won’t shock me if more evidence along these lines surfaces. I’m sure the attorneys for David Lopez, the AC repairman that Hotze’s goons attacked who is suing Hotze for hopefully every last penny he has, are busy taking notes right about now. In the meantime and in conclusion, lock him up. The streets are not safe as long as Steven Hotze is free to walk them.

What is going on at CrimeStoppers?

Whatever it is, I’m not sure how to stop it.

“Anyone with information is urged to call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.” That message, along with the promise of a reward, has appeared for decades at the end of news reports about shootings, stabbings or criminal mayhem in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

But recently, Crime Stoppers of Houston has been blasting out a different, more political message: Activist judges are letting “dangerous criminals” out of jail to threaten the safety of law-abiding residents. On television, Twitter and videos, the traditionally nonpartisan nonprofit organization has been condemning more than a dozen elected judges — all Democrats, four of whom lost primaries last month — while praising the crime policies of Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican.

“What we’re seeing is an assault against the community” by the judges, Rania Mankarious, the organization’s chief executive, said this year on a national Fox News broadcast.

The group’s aggressive posture on the issue followed shifts in Houston’s approach to prosecuting low-level crimes and setting bail. The changes helped prompt a political backlash fed in part by the Crime Stoppers campaign and a rising murder rate.

But an investigation by The New York Times and The Marshall Project found that the stance embraced by Crime Stoppers also intersects with the organization’s financial interests.

  • Financial documents and government records, along with dozens of interviews, show that the organization, with an annual budget of about $2.4 million, has in recent years become reliant on state grants backed by Mr. Abbott. Those grants included $4 million in 2017 that was never publicized by Mr. Abbott or Crime Stoppers, which had previously trumpeted smaller donations from other government entities. In the past five years, the Texas government under Mr. Abbott has given the group more than $6 million, state records show.

  • The organization received $500,000 last year from the local district attorney — money allocated from a pool of funds seized in asset forfeiture. The district attorney, a conservative Democrat, used to run Crime Stoppers, is generally in sync with the group on bail issues and has not been publicly criticized by it.

  • Many of the Democratic judges Crime Stoppers is slamming have cut into the organization’s revenue by curbing a common practice requiring many people sentenced to probation to pay a $50 fee that goes to Crime Stoppers. The nonprofit’s revenue from those fees has fallen by half since Democrats swept the county’s judicial races in 2018.

  • The drop in court revenue and the growing reliance on funding from elected officials came as Crime Stoppers went into debt and ran growing annual deficits.

The evolution of Crime Stoppers of Houston underscores the potential conflicts of interest that can arise when charities become dependent on financial support from politicians.

And it illustrates how nonprofit organizations technically barred from participating in political campaigns can nonetheless exert outsize influence, especially when they wade into a potent issue like violent crime.

And there’s this.

Exchanging money for anonymous tips is still Crime Stoppers’ calling card. Yet as the organization approaches its 50th birthday, for many chapters the heavily promoted rewards have become almost a financial afterthought, with far heftier sums being spent on education, celebrating police, purchasing equipment or supporting their own administrative scaffolding.

Midland Crime Stoppers in 2020 reported $145,000 in expenses, including a director’s salary and $60,000 for advertising, office, banquet and travel costs, for $6,000 in paid rewards. Charity Navigator, a national evaluator of nonprofits, recently gave the North Texas Crime Commission, which includes the Dallas-area Crime Stoppers, a “zero” score for spending more on administrative costs than programs.

Sustained by a steady flow of court fees from criminal defendants ordered to pay local Crime Stoppers as punishment, some chapters have quietly amassed bulging bank accounts. Williamson County Crime Stoppers has long collected more than it paid for tips, said Chairman Sam Jordan. Documents show it distributed about $17,000 in rewards over the past two years while receiving nearly $100,000 in court fees. Its bank account is approaching $700,000, records show.

By the end of 2020 the Dallas chapter, which has seen its reward payments plummet in recent years, had a nest-egg of cash and investments approaching $5 million, records show.

[…]

Crime Stoppers nonetheless continues to boast eye-catching accomplishments. The live tally on the national website stands at more than 800,000 crimes solved and $4 billion-worth of property and drugs recovered thanks to tips.

[Loyola University Chicago Professor Arthur] Lurigio acknowledged it was nearly impossible to fact-check such numbers. It is difficult to know which crimes would have been solved without a paid tip. Shrouded by anonymity – legally protected in Texas – Crime Stoppers stats derive exclusively from police, who have an incentive to report high arrest rates.

Several organization officials also acknowledged that while solving violent crimes garner attention and advance public safety, offenses commonly solved by Crime Stopper tipsters are much more mundane. Mike Pappas, who heads up the North Texas program, said most tips referenced probation violations or drug possession. Midland’s school program pays $20 rewards for information on kids smoking vape pens, Valenzuela said.

“It doesn’t do anything to add to public safety,” said Scott Henson, a long-time Texas criminal justice reform advocate. “It’s a PR ploy that promotes a culture of law enforcement fetishism.”

Lurigio concluded that even a highly successful chapter well-supported by the community was unlikely to have a meaningful impact on local crime rates. “While numerous crimes are solved through Crime Stoppers,” he wrote, “these successes amount to only a small fraction of the total volume of serious crimes committed in a given community each year.”

And this.

Under the leadership of Mankarious, the organization shifted even more aggressively toward crime prevention, rather than focusing exclusively on helping police solve crimes. While the organization says it has helped solve 35,767 cases since 1980, the organization’s annual reports show a sizeable drop in cases in recent years. In 2020 Crime Stoppers issued payments to 248 tipsters totaling $310,800. That same year, the organization paid Mankarious — who supervises just over a dozen employees — about $280,000.

That’s about $8,000 less than that of Houston Police Chief Troy Finner’s (who supervises more than 5,000 officers) salary.

That’s also a lot of cash not being spent on those rewards. There’s a lot more to all of these stories, so go read them in full. I don’t know who decided that this was the week to write about Crime Stoppers, but I approve. I also don’t know what can be done about this bloated and now-partisan organization, but showing it for what it is seems like a decent start. I’m open to suggestion beyond that.

Hotze gets bail

I don’t know about you, but I’d feel much safer if this guy had been locked up.

Far-right activist Steven Hotze on Thursday made his first court appearance since being indicted on criminal charges after funding a private investigation into voter fraud that ended with the investigator pointing a gun at an innocent air conditioning repairman.

State District Judge Maritza Antu set a combined bail at $18,500 on the two charges of aggravated assault and unlawful restraint, Hotze’s attorney Jared Woodfill said after the court hearing.

Hotze, 71, declined to comment after the hearing. Woodfill said Hotze could not comment due to pending litigation.

Woodfill also said the bail was lower than what prosecutors with the Harris County District Attorney’s office sought, which he called a “victory” for his client.

Prosecutors sought bail of $30,000 on the assault charge and $5,000 on the restraint charge, the agency said. Woodfill sought $10,000 on the assault charge on $3,000 on the restraint charge.

See here for the background. By a weird coincidence, Hotze drew the one Republican judge on the bench in Harris County – Judge Antu was appointed by Greg Abbott to the newly-created 482nd Criminal District Court. One less thing for him to whine about being SO UNFAIR to him, I guess. Disgraced former HPD cop and Hotze hired goon Mark Aguirre was levied the bail amounts that prosecutors had requested for Hotze. I’m sure I will blog obsessively about this, so thank you in advance for your indulgence.

Hotze indicted for his bogus “voter fraud investigation”

Lock him up.

Steven Hotze, the far-right agitator who funded a private investigation into voter fraud that ended with a private investigator pointing a gun at an innocent air conditioning repairman, has been indicted for his role in the episode.

A Harris County grand jury has indicted Hotze for charges of unlawful restraint and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, according to his attorney, Gary Polland.

The former police officer whom Hotze hired, Mark Aguirre, was indicted on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon late last year. Terry Yates, who represents Aguirre, said he has been re-indicted on the same charges as Hotze.

[…]

Through a group called Liberty Center for God and Country, Hotze funded a private investigation into a conspiracy theory that Democrats had collected hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots, prosecutors have alleged. The group paid Aguirre, a disgraced former Houston police captain, $266,400 to investigate the claims.

Before 6 a.m. on Oct. 19, 2020, Aguirre allegedly slammed his black SUV into the back of the repairman’s truck and drew a pistol. He ordered the repairman to the ground and put a knee on his back, prosecutors have said.

Aguirre thought the repairman had hundreds of thousands of ballots in his truck. Instead, there were only air conditioning parts and tools, prosecutors said. Aguirre later told police he had followed the repairman for four days.

The vast majority of the money from Hotze’s group, $211,400, arrived to Aguirre one day after the alleged assault, previous grand jury subpoenas showed.

Even after Aguirre’s indictment, the organization has sought donations for more investigations. Hotze hosted a “Freedom Gala” fundraiser April 2 in Houston with Attorney General Ken Paxton and Mike Lindell, the MyPillow executive who has pushed former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

Invites for the event said any money raised would be used to investigate voter fraud in Harris County and Texas, recruit poll watchers, and pay for the legal defense “and offensive efforts” to stop voter fraud.

See here, here, and here for some background. The AC repairman that Hotze’s goons attacked has filed a lawsuit against Hotze that I hope will end up wiping him out. But even that isn’t enough, and I’m so ready to see Hotze as a criminal defendant. And hopefully, one day, as a convicted felon. The Trib has more.

City Council approves security camera ordinance for bars and convenience stores

I have mixed feelings about this.

Houston bars, nightclubs and convenience stores must install security cameras outside of their buildings within 90 days in a citywide surveillance effort Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes will diminish violent crime in high-risk areas.

City Council approved the measure in a 15-1 vote Wednesday after a lengthy discussion on the merits of cameras as a deterrent to robberies, shootings and other criminal activity officials say is concentrated at the nighttime businesses. The ordinance also applies to game rooms and sexually oriented businesses.

The camera requirement is a minor component of the mayor’s One Safe Houston agenda, which will funnel more than $44 million in federal relief funds to mental health and crisis intervention services over the next three years. It passed over objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the plan to fine businesses for failing to turn footage over to the Houston Police Department upon request within 72 hours.

The ordinance, which also requires convenience stores to install enhanced lighting at their entrances, overcame skepticism from council members who worried it would penalize business owners and overburden police. Businesses could face a $500 citation if they fail to provide police with surveillance footage within three days of a crime.

[…]

Police Chief Troy Finner thanked the council for passing the camera requirement Wednesday, calling it “a force multiplier” that will help his department solve more crimes.

Finner said his department is crafting protocols to guide its collection of businesses’ video footage following a crime. Police will be required to obtain a warrant in the event a business does not volunteer footage, officials said.

We’ve been talking about security cameras as a crime-fighting tool in Houston for at least 15 years. As of the year 2014, HPD had nearly 1,000 camera feeds available to it, mostly around downtown, stadiums and event spaces like the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District. It’s no unreasonable to think that these have had some effect on crime and crime-solving. Bars, nightclubs, and convenience stores are higher-crime areas in general, so they’re a logical place to want to have security cameras. I’m more or less okay with the concept, though I share the ACLU’s concerns about privacy and transparency; given the track record with police body camera video, who wouldn’t be concerned?

My hesitation here is more prosaic. As noted, we’ve had a ton of these cameras around town for a decade or more. We therefore have a huge amount of data relating to their use and their efficacy. Can HPD provide some evidence to back up the claims that more cameras and/or strategically-placed cameras do in fact have a salutary effect on crime? Like I said, I’m inclined to believe it, but it sure would be nice to have some empirical backing of that belief. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. So please, show us the evidence, HPD. And a year or so after these new cameras have been installed, show us the evidence for their effect, too.

More on Lizelle Herrera

Listen to the advocates. They’re seeing this clearly.

A 26-year-old woman was arrested and jailed in South Texas last week over a self-induced abortion just months after the state banned most abortions and weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court could roll back 50 years of federal abortion protections.

The timing of the now-dropped murder charge amid such seismic policy shifts could be pure coincidence. But on Monday, legal scholars and abortion rights advocates said the implications of Lizelle Herrera’s ordeal could not be more timely.

“Ms. Herrera’s case is a terrific example of exactly what we expect to happen,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a group that has defended women in abortion-related criminal cases. “You can’t continue to say over and over again that abortion is murder and not expect that police and prosecutors are going to not treat it as murder.”

[…]

But abortion researchers warn that as Texas and other states further restrict abortion access, more and more pregnant women will be driven to seek out the procedure themselves, leading to potential criminal investigations. In the past, abortion-related criminal cases have disproportionately affected women of color and poor women.

“When you don’t have anybody else to punish, do you just punish no one and let the abortion happen? Or do you punish the woman?” asked Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who has studied the anti-abortion movement. “I don’t know what the state’s going to do with that, but that’s going to be the scenario sometimes. And I think this is sort of a harbinger of that debate to come.”

See here for the background. The anti-abortion zealots that forced SB8 on us insist that they don’t want women who seek abortions to be punished, but there’s no reason to trust them. There are Republican candidates who would very much like to punish women for getting an abortion. There’s no reason to believe that won’t become the mainstream Republican position, because the Republican mainstream has gotten more and more extreme over time. Allowing rape and incest exceptions for abortion used to be Republican mainstream, and now it’s not. This goes in one direction, and we can see that from here. Listen to what the advocates are saying. They’ve been right all along.

The “self-induced abortion” saga

This was quite the journey.

Starr County District Attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez said Sunday he has filed a motion to dismiss a murder charge against a woman for performing a “self-induced abortion.”

Ramirez said the Starr County Sheriff’s Department “did their duty in investigating the incident brought to their attention by the reporting hospital” but this was not a criminal matter under Texas law.

The Starr County Sheriff’s Office arrested 26-year-old Lizelle Herrera on Thursday and held her in custody on $500,000 bond. By Saturday night, Herrera was released from custody after an abortion rights advocacy fund posted bail on her behalf.

The specifics of the case and the strength of the case against Hererra were murky from the start.

Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said that based on the information available, the murder charge didn’t make sense.

“The Texas murder statute does apply to the killing of an unborn fetus,” he said, “but it specifically exempts cases where the person who terminated the fetus is the pregnant woman.”

Vladeck said Herrera’s situation showed what will happen as legal protections around abortion crumble. “I think what this case really is, is an ominous portent of what things are going to look like on the ground in states that have aggressive abortion restrictions,” he added.

Jessica Brand, a former prosecutor and founder of the WREN Collective, a criminal justice nonprofit organization, agreed. “We’ve had a lot of wake up calls in Texas for how far people are willing to go to prosecute women to strip women of their rights,” she said.

Melissa Arjona, who co-founded South Texans for Reproductive Justice, said the arrest is a consequence of SB 8, which criminalized abortion as early as six weeks and deputized private citizens to sue anyone who provides an abortion or “aids and abets” a procedure.

“I mean, they criminalized pregnancy, basically, and abortion access,” she said. “And so we knew something like this was bound to happen eventually.”

I saw this story hit on Friday night but didn’t have time to delve into it. By the time I did get to it, the charges had been dismissed. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first this AP story from Saturday does some legal analysis of what was then an arrest with not a whole lot else known.

It’s unclear whether Lizelle Herrera is accused of having an abortion or whether she helped someone else get an abortion.

Herrera was arrested Thursday and remained jailed Saturday on a $500,000 bond in the Starr County jail in Rio Grande City, on the U.S.-Mexico border, sheriff’s Maj. Carlos Delgado said in a statement.

“Herrera was arrested and served with an indictment on the charge of Murder after Herrera did then and there intentionally and knowingly cause the death of an individual by self-induced abortion,” Delgado said.

Delgado did not say under what law Herrera has been charged. He said no other information will be released until at least Monday because the case remains under investigation.

Texas law exempts her from a criminal homicide charge for aborting her own pregnancy, University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck told The Associated Press.

“(Homicide) doesn’t apply to the murder of an unborn child if the conduct charged is ‘conduct committed by the mother of the unborn child,’” Vladeck said.

A 2021 state law that bans abortions in Texas for women who are as early as six weeks pregnant has sharply curtailed the number of abortions in the state. The law leaves enforcement to private citizens who can sue doctors or anyone who helps a woman get an abortion.

The woman receiving the abortion is exempted from the law.

However, some states still have laws that criminalize self-induced abortions “and there have been a handful of prosecutions here and there over the years,” Vladeck said.

“It is murder in Texas to take steps that terminate a fetus, but when a medical provider does it, it can’t be prosecuted” due to U.S. Supreme Court rulings upholding the constitutionality of abortion, Vladeck said.

Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women also noted the state law exemption.

“What’s a little mysterious in this case is, what crime has this woman been charged with?” Paltrow said. “There is no statute in Texas that, even on its face, authorizes the arrest of a woman for a self-managed abortion.”

Another Texas law prohibits doctors and clinics from prescribing abortion-inducing medications after the seventh week of pregnancy and prohibits delivery of the pills by mail.

Medication abortions are not considered self-induced under federal Food and Drug Administration regulations, Vladeck said.

“You can only receive the medication under medical supervision,” according to Vladeck. “I realize this sounds weird because you are taking the pill yourself, but it is under a providers’ at least theoretical care.”

At this point, we still don’t know a lot about what happened. One hopes we will learn more starting today, and one hopes that Lizelle Herrera will collect a ton of restitution against Starr County if the facts warrant it. I’ll turn this over to Twitter to fill in the rest for now, starting with Prof. Vladeck and a reminder that stupidity is often the simplest explanation for this kind of malfeasance. Which, to be fair, doesn’t make it any less scary or damaging.

Like I said, I hope we learn a lot more soon, because this stinks and it’s scary. MSN and the Trib have more.

No charges against Deshaun Watson

Good for him, I guess.

A Harris County grand jury on Friday declined to indict Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, choosing not to criminally charge him in nine alleged instances of sexual assault or harassment during various private massage appointments, according to Johna Stallings of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

The decision came down the same day Watson was deposed in connection with two of the 22 civil lawsuits against him, which are separate legal matters. Watson declined to answer questions under oath, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself during that proceeding, attorney Rusty Hardin said.

Neither of those cases in the deposition involved women who filed criminal cases against the quarterback, however. Tony Buzbee, who is representing the women who filed suit, said Friday he asked Watson several hundred questions over about three hours of depositions.

Watson, 26, has denied any wrongdoing.

After the grand jury’s decision was announced, Hardin said he is ready to move forward.

“We are delighted that the grand jury has looked at the matter thoroughly and reached the same conclusion we did,” Hardin said in a statement. “Deshaun Watson did not commit any crimes and is not guilty of any offenses.”

See here for the previous entry. I don’t know what I expected from this, but getting no-billed was certainly on my list of possible outcomes. As for the depositions:

While a Harris County grand jury eight blocks away met to decide whether to criminally indict Deshaun Watson, the Texans quarterback spent Friday morning at his attorney’s downtown office building where he declined to answer questions while under oath for the first time in connection to 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment during various massage appointments.

Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed suit, said he asked Watson several hundred questions over about three hours of depostions. In each, Watson asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

Buzbee said there was no connection between Friday’s two legal proceedings. A judge allotted Buzbee 48 total hours to depose Watson, and, on Friday, Buzbee said he asked Watson about facts and circumstances in reference to two women who did not file criminal complaints and believes his clients are “entitled” to hear Watson’s version of events.

“There should be no incrimination involved at all,” Buzbee said. “If you didn’t do anything wrong, if you didn’t do anything illegal, answer the question. It would be one thing if we were asking questions about the women that have filed criminal complaints. We’re not doing that.”

Days before the deposition, Buzbee said he received written testimony from Watson that he had no communication with either woman. Buzbee also requested Watson to provide any phone number that he may have used to communicate with the women. Watson provided seven or eight phone numbers, Buzbee said. Buzbee claimed to have a combined 50 pages of communication between Watson and the women, and he said none of the phone numbers Watson provided had been used in those communications.

Hardin said Watson is “more than willing to talk” in the civil depositions but was following his advice not to incriminate himself while the criminal case was ongoing. When asked how the answers from a deposition with women who were not involved in the criminal investigation would be used against Watson, Hardin said “I have no idea.”

“But you would never take that chance,” Hardin said. “That’s the point. The issue is, is the lawyer going to allow his client to give a civil deposition on the same subject matter that is currently being considered by a grand jury and you won’t find a lawyer who will.”

Hardin said Wastson will waive his silence and answer questions in the civil case after the criminal investigation is resolved, and he said Buzbee has wanted Watson to plead the fifth all along because it gives him an advantage in the civil cases.

Again, I guess I’m not surprised. I’m certainly not in any position to question either Hardin or Buzbee’s legal strategy. The one thing everyone seems to agree on at this time is that this clears the path for the Texans to trade him, as other teams had been waiting to see what happened with the criminal charges. The civil cases, which will continue on in court, didn’t scare them. Make of that what you will. Sean Pendergast has more.

More on Tina Linn and Harold Clouse

Very moving stuff.

Donna Casasanta picked through the brush in an overgrown patch of woods in northeast Harris County, looking.

The 80-year-old mother had spent 40 years wondering. She had traveled 980 miles, driven with her grown children for three days from her home in Florida, to be here.

Casasanta is not as sturdy as she once was. Navigating through the brush and brambles wouldn’t have been difficult 40 years ago, but now she walks with a cane.

But she needed to reach the spot where police finally found her son’s body, a small piece of land next to Wallisville Road in northeast Harris County. The spot was sprinkled with palmettos, fallen trees, and a bed of leaves that crunched and rustled at every step.

She needed to see it.

Forty-two years ago, her son, Harold “Dean” Clouse and his young wife, Tina Gail Linn, moved to Texas from New Smyrna, Fla.

He’d been promised a job building houses, a job that would help him provide for Tina and their infant daughter, Hollie Marie.

They exchanged letters all throughout 1980, but that October, Dean stopped writing.

As the months passed, Casasanta became more and more worried. What had happened to her son?

As we now know, her son and his wife had been murdered. Their bodies were found in 1981, but weren’t identified until last year, thanks to DNA, geneaolgy, and a couple of amateur sleuths. It’s a fascinating story, and you should go back and read the first one if you haven’t already. But there was another mystery to go along with what happened to Tina and Harold. What happened to their baby daughter Holly?

Weeks after those IDs, more questions have emerged: Who will investigate the 1981 murder of Dean and Tina Clouse? Did the Jesus Freaks have something to do with it? And what became of Holly? Was her tiny body carried away by predators or overlooked?

With help from relatives, Peacock, who no longer works with Identigene, has already begun exploring another possibility: Was Holly kidnapped by her parents’ killers? If so, she’d be a woman of about 42 with no memory of them at all.

The Clouse homicide case is considered active in Harris County, according to Deputy Thomas Gilliland, a Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. But recently, that department, which has jurisdiction over a county of 4 million—a population larger than most states—essentially defunded their cold case unit. The two detectives who once oversaw unsolved murder cases like this one have been reassigned, leaving the unit with only one part-time investigator. Gilliland told the Observer via email that the department has “no active suspects or any information on the missing daughter. This case may be transferred to the Texas Attorney General’s Missing Person & Cold Case Unit so that they can utilize more manpower/resources than we can.”

Unfortunately, the cold case task force formed last year by the Texas Attorney General’s office has only just begun to take its first cases. The group’s blue-ribbon advisory board has met, but its progress has been frustratingly slow, members say. Potential leads in the 1981 murder of Tina and Dean Clouse—and the disappearance of their baby Holly—are scarce. It’s unclear if any of the physical evidence from the murder scene is still around.

And it’s not the only high-profile cold murder case in Texas that seems to need urgent attention. Most genetic genealogy groups, like Identigene, rely on small grants or even crowdfunding to work cold cases. But even with limited funding, relatives of several other Texas homicide victims have already been identified through genetic genealogy.

In April 2019, genetic genealogists had identified two out of four women murdered and dumped at different times in a lonely patch of woods in League City, Texas. But the serial murder case called “the Killing Fields” remains unsolved more than 30 years later.

Then, in August 2019, other genealogists working with the non-profit DNA Doe Project helped identify Debra Jackson, a teen found on Halloween 1979 off I-35 north of Austin. Jackson’s murder was initially blamed on Henry Lee Lucas, Texas’ notorious lying “Confession Killer.” But Lucas’ death sentence was commuted after his lies were exposed, and Jackson’s murder also remains unsolved.

The state’s huge backlog of unidentified murder victims should not exist at all, argues Kristen Mittelman, whose husband and business partner David is a member of the AG Cold Case and Missing Persons Unit Advisory Committee. She and David Mittelman, who together run a genetics lab in Houston called Othram, both told the Observer that the state should move more quickly. “We’re super excited with the task force. But unfortunately, we haven’t worked any cases,” she said. “What’s going to change the world is creating a way to solve these cases at scale—and to be able to clear 1,000 of cases at a time and be able to clear these backlogs.”

More money is the obvious answer to that. I can see a bill to make it happen getting through the Legislature – it’s the kind of thing that would have little to no opposition, and would be an easy cause to champion – but someone has to do it. It might take more than one try, as these things often do. But it can be done, if someone makes the effort.

Tina Linn and Harold Clouse

This is a fascinating story about two people who were murdered in 1980, discovered in 1981, and finally identified in 2021 thanks to the broader availability of public DNA databases.

Debbie Brooks was hard at work one day back in October when her husband told her two genealogists were trying to reach her.

It was urgent, he told her. Brooks, a senior planner at a semi-conductor plant in central Florida, was thinking it had to be a scam when she responded to the call.

The genealogists had a question:

Did she have a relative who’d disappeared a long time ago?

Of course, Brooks said. Her brother, Harold Dean Clouse, had gone missing more than 40 years ago.

Hundreds of miles away, Misty Gillis had news.

“We believe we found him,” she said. “He was murdered. His body was found in 1981.”

They’d also found the body of a young woman, who they were still trying to identify.

[…]

Authorities in Harris County exhumed the bodies in July 2011 to extract DNA from them — part of a broader effort to close cases that were still open but had gone cold decades before. Investigators were hoping to determine if the two were related. But that still didn’t bring any breaks in the case.

The case remained stagnant until late 2021, when employees at Identifinders International, a California-based organization that performs genetic genealogy for law enforcement, contacted the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences and asked to test the remains.

In this case, the remains were in good condition and investigators had plenty of material to work with, said Misty Gillis, one of the Identifinders investigators who worked the case. They uploaded the information to Gedmatch.com, a genealogy site that allows users to share their genetic information with law enforcement agencies across the country. (Other sites, such as 23andme or ancestry.com, do not share their information with police.)

Soon, they were able to connect Clouse’s DNA to that of close cousins living in Kentucky.

It had taken her 10 days to track down the identity of a man who’d been nameless for 40 years. She began searching for contact information for Clouse’s cousins and other relatives, trying to find out if her hunch was right.

The break in the case was the latest in an increasing number of cold-cases brought to resolution with the help of new genealogical testing. In recent years, millions of people have uploaded their DNA into genealogy testing sites such as Gedmatch.com or familytreeDNA.com. The information on the sites have helped people connect with long-lost relatives and learn about their origins.

Go read the rest, it’s quite a story. It’s also not a finished story, because the couple had a baby, who has never been found and may very well be a 42-year-old woman out there somewhere who has no idea who she really is and who her parents really were. Maybe someday the DNA will lead to her as well.

We don’t really need more prosecutors on the bench

Ugh.

Kim Ogg

On a winter afternoon nine months into the pandemic, Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg held a Zoom meeting with felony judges and prosecutors to discuss the backlog of cases caused by COVID-19 shutdowns at the downtown Houston courthouse. But the backlog wasn’t the only issue to come up that day. For years, the Democratic DA had been publicly criticizing local judges who set what she deemed insufficiently high bonds for defendants accused of violent crimes. Now her office would deliver a direct warning. First assistant district attorney David Mitcham, Ogg’s top lieutenant, informed the judges that there would be a “reckoning” if they didn’t start setting higher bonds.

“My reaction was like, ‘Wow, that was bold,’ ” said Joe Vinas, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, who was on the call representing the criminal defense bar. “One of the judges asked if Mitcham was threatening him.”

Many in Houston’s legal community have thought back to that moment, now that fourteen Harris County prosecutors and one DA investigator have filed to run for criminal court judgeships this year—eight in Democratic primaries, seven in Republican primaries. It’s not unusual for prosecutors to run for judgeships, but the high number in this election cycle has raised eyebrows. In 2020 not a single Harris County prosecutor ran in any of the nine local criminal court races; in 2018, which featured 31 races, just one prosecutor ran. But with Ogg linking a sharp rise in homicides to the bail practices of reform-minded judges elected in recent years, perhaps it’s no surprise that so many of her prosecutors are challenging the 29 Democratic incumbents up for reelection this year.

[…]

In 2019 Harris County agreed to a sweeping set of reforms, including the elimination of cash bail for the vast majority of misdemeanor defendants. Instead, defendants would be released before trial on so-called “personal bonds,” which require no up-front payment. The landmark settlement, the first of its kind in the U.S., was endorsed by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and every other major county-wide Democratic officeholder—with the exception of Ogg, who warned that letting defendants out on personal bonds would threaten the public by giving judges “unfettered and unreviewable discretion” to delay trials or excuse defendants from ever appearing in court.

In the wake of Harris County’s settlement, Travis County also eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor offenses. Two recent academic studies have found that this reform has been effective. Fewer defendants are now incarcerated before trial and those released on personal bonds have proven unlikely to be rearrested. But that hasn’t stopped some politicians from arguing that more lenient bail policies are endangering public safety. And Republicans, who have not won a county-wide race in Harris County since 2014, hope to capitalize on the issue to regain some judgeships and other offices in 2022.

The concerns about bail reform have been exacerbated by local and national spikes in violent crime over the past two years. Between 2019 and 2020, murders jumped by nearly 30 percent across the country—the largest year-over-year increase in at least six decades—and homicides rose again in 2021 (although the FBI hasn’t released its final data). That trend has held true for Houston: there were an estimated 469 homicides in the city last year, an increase of 71 percent from 2019. That’s still well below the 701 killings in 1981, the city’s deadliest year, when the population was nearly one million less.

Violent crimes such as assault have also increased since 2019, both nationally and in Harris County, although nonviolent crime is down. While the national homicide rate remains below its historic peak in the early nineties, the rapid increase has received intense attention in local media, with crime stories frequently leading television news. Houston’s Fox 26 features a recurring segment called “Breaking Bond”—created in collaboration with nonprofit group Crime Stoppers of Houston—about felony defendants who are rearrested while out on bail. The series regularly features prominent local Republicans blasting Democratic judges for their bail practices.

Criminologists disagree on the reason for the rising crime, but most agree that pandemic-induced frustrations, the surge in gun sales during the coronavirus outbreak, and a general police pullback in reaction to protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd have something to do with it. There’s little evidence to connect bail reform with the surge in homicides, but one notorious case last September added fuel to the argument. After judge Greg Glass set bonds of $10,000 and $20,000 for two drug charges against thirty-year-old Deon Ledet, the Harris County man went free and allegedly killed one police officer and injured another. Prosecutors had asked Glass to hold Ledet without bond because he had twice been convicted of a felony. In March, Glass (who did not respond to an interview request) faces two primary challengers, one of them a Polk County assistant district attorney; if he prevails, he’ll face one of Ogg’s Republican prosecutors in the fall general election.

There’s a lot in here to annoy me, starting with the conflation of the reforms to misdemeanor bail reform and complaints about the amounts of bail being set by felony court judges. The simple fact of the matter is that if your system allows for any possibility of bail, sooner or later someone, whether out on ten dollars bail or ten million dollars bail, is going to commit a crime. You could have a system that’s right 99.9% of the time, but given the thousands of people that go through the courts each year, that means multiple times each year when that happens. Unless your solution is to lock everyone up from the time they’re arrested until the time their case is completed in whatever fashion, no matter what the charge or their circumstances or anything else, then you need to accept this basic fact of life.

(Such a solution would be blatantly unconstitutional, of course. So is simply charging everyone more for bail, since that makes bail only accessible to the wealthy, and punishes others for being poor. Which is what the misdemeanor bail lawsuit was all about. That does introduce some risk as noted, but we’re trying to balance it against the enormous wrong of locking up people who have not been convicted of any crime. Sometimes these things don’t have simple answers.)

Look, you can read the various judicial Q&A responses I’ve published from incumbents and candidates. I’ll have run over 40 of them by the time all is said and done. I’ve no doubt some of these assistant DAs would be fine judges. But this isn’t a good look, and I’m not at all inclined to view their time in that office as a positive because of it. And speaking as someone who has voted for Kim Ogg in each of the past two primaries, I’ll be looking very carefully at my other options in 2024.

Sid Miller’s political consultant indicted

Well, this is interesting.

Todd Smith, a top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, was indicted Tuesday on felony charges of theft and commercial bribery related to taking money in exchange for state hemp licenses that are doled out through Miller’s office, according to Travis County district attorney José Garza.

Smith was arrested in May, accused of taking $55,000 as part of the scheme, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. Smith and others were accused of soliciting up to $150,000 to get an “exclusive” hemp license from the Texas Department of Agriculture. Smith allegedly said $25,000 would be used for a public poll on hemp. A hemp license from the state costs $100, according to the arrest warrant.

“We are holding accountable powerful actors who abuse the system and break the law,” Garza said. “Our community needs to know that no one is above the law and will face justice.”

Smith could not immediately be reached for comment but his attorneys said in a statement that their client has not broken any laws.

“We are disappointed that the Travis County District Attorney has obtained an indictment against Todd Smith, he was not invited to address the grand jury. He is not guilty of these charges and intends to vigorously defend himself against the allegations made by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office,” attorneys Sam Bassett and Perry Minton said in a statement.

[…]

Miller on Tuesday evening declined immediate comment, saying he was just learning the news of the indictment from the Tribune reporter. He later went on conservative radio host Chad Hasty’s show and said he’s gonna review indictment, but he’s “not ready to throw [Smith] under the bus” and is “not surprised,” suggesting it’s politically motivated. Miller says he still doesn’t believe Smith did anything wrong.

Smith has faced scrutiny before over his conduct and ties to the Department of Agriculture. In 2018, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Smith promised a San Antonio businessperson an appointment with the Department of Agriculture in exchange for a $29,000 loan. And in 2016, Miller gave Smith’s wife a newly created assistant commissioner position, one of the highest-paying roles in the department.

Miller is unlikely to take this seriously, though he did dump Smith shortly afterwards. His Republican opponents have been all over the story, and I suppose it’s always best to be proactive. As for the indictment itself, I think we all know that this sort of thing either gets resolved very quickly, via a plea deal or (more likely) the charges getting tossed, or it drags out for months if not years. To whatever extent this has an effect on Miller’s re-election chances, it will be because of what has already happened. We already know what kind of a person Sid Miller is, but it never hurts to have a reminder. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Come watch Ken Paxton light your tax dollars on fire

I mean, Theranos would have delivered a greater return on investment than this.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has been one of former President Donald Trump’s most reliable allies in spreading the myth of widespread voter fraud, particularly in the 2020 election, and frequently boasts that few states are as vigilant.

His office’s election integrity unit added two lawyers to the team in the last year, bringing it up to six staffers total, and worked more than 20,000 hours between October 2020 and September 2021. Its budget, meanwhile, ratcheted up from $1.9 million to $2.2 million during that time.

Yet records from the office show that the unit closed just three cases this year, down from 17 last year, and opened seven new ones. That includes the newly created unit focused on the 2021 local elections, which has yet to file a single case.

“This is an exorbitant amount of money that has resulted in no benefit for the average Texan,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, a left-leaning nonprofit government watchdog that regularly files public information requests and files suits to force compliance with those requests. The organization shared some records it obtained from the Texas Attorney General’s Office with Hearst Newspapers for this report; others were obtained independently by Hearst Newspapers.

Evers added: “Taxpayers are funding a political stunt meant to fuel the false claim of a stolen election and justify voting restrictions.”

[…]

Richard L. Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California at Irvine, said there’s a more likely explanation, noting that Paxton, who is running for re-election, has “every incentive,” politically speaking, to vigorously go after voter fraud, as it’s an issue that energizes his party’s base.

“He’s finding very little of it despite spending a lot of money and using a lot of resources looking for it,” Hasen said. “The reason is not that such fraud is too hard to find. Those that commit voter fraud tend not to be brain surgeons. The reason he’s not finding a lot of it is because voter fraud is rare.”

Multiple academic studies and journalistic reviews have uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud, nor did a wide-ranging investigation of election fraud in 2020 conducted by the U.S. Justice Department.

There’s more, and the story does a good job of highlighting how Paxton takes the ridiculously small numbers involved in his crusade and exaggerates them to make them sound slightly less small, so read the rest. Just understand that facts have nothing to do with any of this, and won’t do anything to deter Paxton and his raving band of saboteurs. The argument here is exactly the same as the ones that Republicans have been using for at least the last 20 years for spending on “border security”: If they catch more cases of “vote fraud” it means that what they’re doing is working and so they need to get more money for it. If they catch fewer cases, it means that they’re falling behind and need to get more money to keep up. There are no circumstances under which spending less on this useless and harmful exercise makes sense.

One more thing:

While it’s true that the office has more cases pending this year over last year, 44 up from 38, that’s not because of a surge in new prosecutions. It’s because the vast majority of cases that were pending around this time last year are still making their way through the court system.

Among the cases pending include that of Hervis Rogers, a Black man from Houston who was charged this year with illegally voting while on parole, after he had made national headlines for waiting six hours to vote in the 2020 primary election.

A new ruling from the state’s highest criminal court Wednesday may afford legal relief to Rogers and potentially others, after it found that Paxton’s office does not have the constitutional right to prosecute voter fraud without the consent of local prosecutors.

Yes, given that recent ruling, one has to wonder how much of this activity is even legal at this point. I would suggest that attorneys for every one of the defendants in Paxton’s crosshairs, as well as all of those that have been convicted or pled guilty to something, start filing briefs to have cases and convictions tossed. Let’s expose this for the mockery it is.