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April 12th, 2014:

Saturday video break: Baby Got Back

I trust this needs no introduction:

Have you read the oral history of that video yet? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Besides, you know what’s coming next, right?

You’re probably also aware of the Latin translation of the lyrics, which qualifies as an Internet classic these days. But perhaps you haven’t seen this:

Yeah, I’d say that’s a wrap.

HPD’s good, bad, and ugly

The good news is that the testing of backlogged rape kits has led to the identification of a serial rapist in Houston.

Houston police on Tuesday for the first time identified a criminal suspect – a possible serial rapist – from testing of sexual assault kits that once gathered dust in the police property room.

HPD sex crime investigators said Herman Ray Whitfield Jr., 43, has been charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault going back to 1992, and said he may have had more victims.One of his victims, police said, was a 12-year-old.

The identity comes one year after two independent labs began processing about 10,000 cases, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, that were stored in the HPD property room. The city turned to an outside lab after DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended when an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work.

In February, Houston Police Department brass said partial results of a DNA testing had not resulted in any false arrests. And while HPD confirmed the testing had led to a number of arrests, they would not reveal the exact number or identify any suspects.

“I don’t think it’s surprising. You have thousands of untested rape kits, and when you start testing them you’re going to start making connections,” said Mark Bennett, a veteran Houston criminal defense attorney.

“If there are rape victims who wouldn’t have been raped if the authorities had done their jobs properly, we should all be outraged by that.”

[…]

Whitfield was sentenced in 1994 to 30 years in prison for kidnapping and served 12 years before being paroled in 2006, [Sgt. John] Colburn said.

He confirmed the evidence in the sexual assault cases was developed by DNA testing by the independent labs.

From 2006 to 2009, Whitfield was living near Airport Boulevard and Texas 288 in the Sunnyside area but had several different addresses before being sent back to prison in 2009 on a parole violation, according to officer Holly Whillock.

At some point during his parole, Whitfield’s DNA was entered into a national database, allowing police to later link him to the four local cases, Colburn said.

His victims ranged from 12 to 30.

Three of the assaults occurred before he went to prison: Dec. 15, 1992, 4300 block of Alvin; Feb. 16, 1993, 4300 block of Alvin; and Aug. 30, 1993, 4400 block of Wilmington.

The other charge stems from an attack on June 11, 2008, in the 4300 block of Wilmington. In that case, police released a composite sketch of the attacker, based upon the victim’s description.

Grits was the first to publish about this, and he notes that there will likely be more such identifications when all is said and done. It’s great that this criminal will be held responsible for his rapes, hopefully to the tune of a life sentence, but as Mark Bennett said in the story, the fact that he wasn’t tied to those crimes before now is a tragedy and an outrage. The failures of HPD’s crime lab are well known, but there has been plenty of other bad news for HPD in recent weeks, all of which led to this blistering editorial in the Chron, in which they call for a third-party investigator to do a thorough examination of HPD’s practices.

It seems like a month can’t go by without HPD landing itself in another controversy. There were two HPD lieutenants who retired, with full benefits, amid allegations of sexual harassment. The crime lab faces an internal investigation after reports that a former employee did not follow proper procedures over the last two years. This comes on the tail of untested evidence, faked results, inaccurate fingerprinting and contaminated blood tests. We thought those days were over.

HPD has also yet to properly address a lauded two-part article by Texas Observer writer Emily DePrang documenting rampant and unpunished police brutality in Houston. Nor has HPD taken significant steps to address police shootings, even after a series of articles by Chronicle reporter James Pinkerton revealed that a quarter of civilians shot by HPD over the past five years had been unarmed.

Now we’re learning that the homicide division simply ignored stacks of cases and failed to keep track of documents. The problems go all the way to the top: City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police sergeant, kept homicide case files after leaving the force (“Council member imposes penalty on self,” Page A1, Thursday). Because of this incompetence, a man charged with murder now sits out of reach in Honduras. How many other murderers roam free because Houston’s police officers refused to do their jobs?

Neither Mayor Annise Parker nor District Attorney Devon Anderson should be satisfied with HPD’s performance. The department’s failures undermine its reliability in the courts and its trustworthiness in the hearts of citizens. All of Houston suffers when HPD falls down on the job, yet it seems like officers get off with a slap on the wrist.

See here and here for those two Observer stories by Emily DePrang; I’ve got links to the Chron stories about shootings here. I’d like to see this be an issue in the DA’s race and in next year’s Mayoral race. Frankly, given that DePrang’s stories were published last summer, it should have been an issue in the 2013 Mayor’s race. Instead of his half-baked reform ideas, Ben Hall should have been all over HPD’s discipline problems and used them to attack Mayor Parker hammer and tong. Sure, a lot of this stuff predates her, and institutional change is hard, but hey, the buck stops here. Every Mayoral wannabe next year needs to be pressed on this. It’s embarrassing, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

Two truths about testing

Lisa Falkenberg boils it down.

While there’s no doubt standardized tests are an important part of student assessment, somewhere along the way, they became too important. We’ve tethered them to everything from student promotion to teacher pay to school reputation. And it’s not just the test days that take away from meaningful learning but the months-long test prep.

Opting out is one way of saying enough’s enough. Principals and teachers aren’t as free to send that message to lawmakers. They’re bound to follow the law. The power rests with parents. But parents are only empowered if they know their rights and band together.

Falkenberg’s column is about two sets of parents, in Waco and in Houston, who try to get their kids out of their STAAR tests. I can’t add anything to that first paragraph above; it’s exactly how I feel. There’s also the stress to the students, which we have had to deal with this year. All tests are stressful, of course, but it’s the pervasiveness and the emphasis on the STAAR that takes it up a notch.

It’s the second paragraph that I want to focus on, because it really is the case that we the parents have the power to affect this. But it’s not just us parents that have this power, and it’s not because we’re parents. The power we have is at the ballot box. If you don’t like the testing regime we have now, don’t support candidates or incumbents that do. In Texas, that means knowing how your legislators stand, and vote, on testing matters. Falkenberg writes about Kyle and Jennifer Massey, parents from Waco who fought a battle with Waco ISD to allow their son to not take the STAAR this year. Kyle Massey runs a blog and has written several entries about his testing beliefs and their fight to opt out their son. Well, the city of Waco is represented in Austin by Sen. Brian Birdwell and Reps. Kyle Kacal and Doc Anderson. I searched Massey’s blog but didn’t find any of those names mentioned on it. I don’t know what these legislators’ records are on standardized testing matters, but they’re the ones the Masseys should have their beef with. Waco ISD is just doing what the Legislature has directed them to do. If you want them to take a different direction, it’s the folks in Austin you need to convince, or defeat.

I bring this up in part because it’s important to keep in mind which office and which officeholders are responsible for what, and partly because doing so can be hard work. I was chatting the other day with a friend who wasn’t previously much engaged with politics and elections. She asked me if there was a website that kept track of which candidates supported or opposed which issues. I said no, that kind of information tends to be widely dispersed. You can check with various interest groups to see who they endorse and for those who keep scorecards like the TLCV how they rate the performance of various incumbents, and you can check out the League of Women Voters candidate guides when they come out. But there may not be a sufficiently organized interest group for the issue you care about, LWV candidate guides don’t come out till just before elections and not every candidate submits responses, and non-incumbents aren’t included on scorecards. You have to track that information down for yourself, via their website or Facebook page or by asking them yourself. It can be a lot of work.

But it’s work that needs to be done if you want a government that’s responsive to you and your preferences. One reason why there’s often a disconnect between what people actually want and what gets prioritized is because there’s a disconnect between what people say they want and what they know about the candidates they’re voting for and against. You ultimately have to do the work to know you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Partisan affiliation is a reliable indicator for some things, but not for everything. Standardized testing and curriculum requirements fall into the latter group. Be mad at your school board trustee for this stuff if you want, but they’re just playing the hand they’ve been dealt. The dealers are on the ballot this fall. Do you know where your State Rep and State Senator stand on this issue?

Time is running out to undo Pratt’s mass dismissals

Remember when now-former Judge Denise Pratt dismissed hundreds of cases at the end of 2013 without notice? Since her abrupt resignation last month, other Family Court judges have been trying to clean up the mess she left behind. This includes reaching out to lawyers and clients that were affected by the New Year’s Eve purge.

Denise Pratt

With deadlines looming, Harris County administrative judges are asking lawyers who had cases dismissed as part of a mass purge by former Family Court Judge Denise Pratt to tell them if they had filed motions asking those cases be reinstated or risk having to start over from scratch.

Pratt, who abruptly resigned late last month, dismissed more than 630 cases on the final two days of 2013. Lawyers said she did not notify them or their clients of the dismissals or schedule hearings for them, as required by law.

[…]

At least 260 of the cases were not inactive, with about 230 having been reinstated before Pratt’s March 28 departure, according David Farr, administrative judge for the county’s nine family courts.

Farr said he has found about 30 paper copies of motions to reinstate cases in the 311th courtroom that were filed on time by lawyers but had not been signed or scheduled for hearings by Pratt.

“I strongly suspect that there are other motions to reinstate which were timely filed … but that were not set for hearings prior to Judge Pratt’s departure,” Farr wrote in an email blast to family lawyers on Tuesday. “The Harris County Administrative Judge Robert Schaeffer and I are currently attempting numerous measures in order to identify those ‘lost motions to reinstate,’ which include this email … ‘”

Farr said he has asked the district clerk to track down all electronic motions but is concerned he may not find all of them before deadlines next week. The deadline for reinstating any of the 630-plus cases dismissed at the end of December is April 14 and 15.

Judge Farr had found unsigned orders and other paperwork that may or may not have been filed and processed as part of the triage on Pratt’s files. I think it’s safe to say at this point that if you had any unfinished business in Pratt’s court, now would be an excellent time to inquire with Judge Farr about the status of your case, to make sure that they know about it and that all the paperwork is accounted for so that it can be handed to another judge for disposition. Don’t assume and don’t wait, there’s a deadline approaching.

Ralph Garr

On the anniversary this week of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, the Chron profiles his teammate and resident of nearby Richmond, Ralph Garr.

With Henry Aaron sitting on 714 career home runs as the Braves prepared to play the Dodgers on April 8, 1974, Atlanta leadoff hitter Ralph Garr badly wanted to be on base when Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record.

Garr made it for Aaron’s 714th, but not for 715. He was in the Braves’ dugout as Aaron connected off pitcher Al Downing to become baseball’s home run king, 40 years ago Tuesday.

Garr went 0-for-3 that night, but he had 25 hits over the next 11 games en route to his own milestone. As baseball celebrates the anniversary of Aaron’s record-breaking homer, Garr this year commemorates the 40th anniversary of his 1974 National League batting title.

He and his wife, Ruby, traveled from their Fort Bend County home in Richmond to Atlanta for Tuesday’s ceremony honoring Aaron, 80. After that, it’s back home to his job as a part-time scout for the Braves.

“You never think about it, but 40 years, that’s a long time,” Garr said. “I had a good year because everybody was worried about Henry Aaron hitting a home run. They weren’t paying much attention to me.”

Garr, 68, was known as “the Road Runner” for his speed (3.85 seconds from home plate to first base). He had 1,562 hits in 1,317 games over 13 major league seasons, including 803 hits in his first four full seasons. His lifetime batting average was .306, including his league-best .353 in 1974, and he twice led the National League in triples.

Columnist Jim Murray once said of him: “Ralph Garr is as hard to get out as an impacted tooth.”

But Garr’s thoughts this week are on Aaron’s skill and the quiet grace with which he handled the threats and abuse that accompanied his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record.

“He had taken Dusty Baker and me under his wing, and while all that was going on, he would tell us in the dugout, ‘Don’t sit too close to me,’ ” Garr said. “He didn’t want anything to happen to us.

“Whenever he got to the ballpark, he was all business, regardless of what was going on around him. I’ve never seen a person who could shed things and do his job so well. He is one of the nicest human beings you would want to meet, and he’s a better man than he was a baseball player.”

It’s a nice story about a very good player who had a front seat to history, so go check it out. I’m old enough to have been a baseball fan at the time Aaron broke The Babe’s record, but I don’t have any specific memories of it. Like many people I’m sure, it wasn’t till years later that I learned about the terrible, horrifying racism Aaron faced as he chased down Ruth. He talks about it in this USA Today story – he kept every nasty letter he received, some choice quotes from which are documented at Braves blog Talking Chop. Over at Time, Jon Friedman makes the case that Aaron would have faced worse in today’s troll-laden social media environment. Perhaps ironically, or perhaps not, some wingnut sites do their best to prove his point. (I have no desire to link to them, but here are the URLs I found on the same page as the Google search that led me to Friedman’s piece: http://hotair.com/archives/2014/04/07/time-hank-aaron-wouldve-faced-more-racism-today-because-twitter/ and http://newsbusters.org/blogs/tom-blumer/2014/04/07/times-jon-friedman-fails-show-hank-aaron-would-face-worse-social-media-d) Anyway, these are all good reads for your weekend, as is Craig Calcaterra’s take on that USA Today story. I’ll close with a quote from Hammerin’ Hank in that article:

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been 40 years, and I think more people appreciate it now than 20 years ago,” Aaron says. “History has a way of doing that. People appreciate it more the longer it lasts.”

Aaron acknowledges [Barry] Bonds as the the recordholder. There will be a day, he says, when Bonds’ mark will be broken.

Aaron, who has five grandchildren and one great-grandchild, might not be alive to see it.

Yet when it happens, Aaron says, he hopes he’ll find joy in the chase.

“I just hope we can all enjoy the game and celebrate the next athlete who hits 60 homers or even 50 homers,” Aaron says, “and not worry about whether he’s taking anything or he’s on anything.

“Most of all, I pray that no one ever again, in any walk of life, has to go through what I did.”​

Amen to that.