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Ronald Haskell convicted

Good, but nothing can undo the damage he did.

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

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

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

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

Jurors took more than eight hours to deliberate their verdict.

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

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

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

No, crime is not up in Houston

Facts are stubborn things.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The harder question

This story just upsets me so much.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Temple convicted again

New trial, same result.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

It’s about the domestic violence

You want to do something to reduce gun violence, here’s the place to start.

Domestic violence cases have risen sharply across the state, with more than 210,000 wives, girlfriends, husbands and others suffering death or injury at the hands of a family member in the past two years. More than 550 wives or girlfriends were killed by a domestic partner between 2012 and 2016, according to state figures.

“We continue to underestimate the reach and devastation of domestic violence,” said Gloria Aguilera Terry, chief executive of the Texas Council on Family Violence. “Domestic violence thrives in the silence and obliviousness we give it. Only when we confront the very conditions which allow domestic violence to exist will our homes, public spaces and places of worship be truly safe.”


Despite law enforcement’s best efforts to curb the violence, the deaths continue unabated. The Harris County Institute of Forensic Science recorded 229 domestic violence homicides from 2010 to 2016, or an average of 31 homicides a year.

Of those, at least 22 – about 10 percent – were relatives of the main victim.

Amanda Johnson, with the Dallas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Guns Sense in America, said the shooting underscores the need for smarter gun laws.

“People violent enough to be violent enough with their own children and spouses are also violent enough to commit mass murder,” she said. “When they have easy access to these weapons, it’s a really deadly combination.”

She and other advocates hope the Sutherland Springs shooting will spark a national dialogue, particularly with the daily abuse many women face that doesn’t draw the same scrutiny as a mass shooting.

“Up until now, the media would lose interest in a shooting once they found out it was a domestic violence incident and not a ‘real’ crime,” Johnson said. “Sutherland Springs is a game-changer.”

Sherri Kendall, CEO of Aid to Victims of Domestic Violence, said approximately 1 in 4 women experiences domestic violence at one point or another.

“While we are seeing a number of multiple homicides with domestic violence in the timeline, it is happening all the time,” she said. “We have to learn something from it. When this story is over we have to continue to be vigilant in our communities to make sure there are services for survivors and for perpetrators.”

The Sutherland Springs shooting highlighted the need to ensure domestic abusers can’t possess firearms, advocates said.

“This man had a history of abuse, and he should not have had access to a firearm, and we are advocating for stricter gun laws when it comes to being the hands of convicted abusers,” said Chau Nguyen, chief marketing officer at the Houston Area Women’s Center. “If we don’t take action, we’re going to see this as a recurring reality in our lives – and we know the link between domestic violence abusers and mass shooters.”

The link between domestic violence and gun violence is very strong. It’s not just the guys who commit the big headline-grabbing mass murders who depressingly and consistently turn out to have had a history of domestic violence, it’s the everyday (literally, every day) three-to-six people killings that no one outside those affected pay attention to because we’re all mesmerized by the latest double-digit massacre. There are many things we could do to ameliorate this if we wanted to. My advice would be to elect more people who do want to do something about it.

Abbott pushes for hate crime status for targeted killing of police officers

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants the targeted killing of a police officer to be deemed a hate crime in Texas and urged lawmakers to send him such a bill to sign during next year’s legislative session.

Abbott announced Monday his plan to lobby for adding his Police Protection Act to Texas law. Along with extending hate crime protections to law enforcement, the measure would also increase criminal penalties for any crimes in which the victim is a law enforcement officer and “create a culture of respect for law enforcement by organizing a campaign to educate young Texans on the value law enforcement officers bring to their communities,” according to a statement from Abbott’s office.


“At a time when law enforcement officers increasingly come under assault simply because of the job they hold, Texas must send a resolute message that the State will stand by the men and women who serve and protect our communities,” Abbott said Monday in a statement

Abbott’s proposal comes after U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced legislation on Wednesday that would make killing a police officer a federal crime.

I don’t have a position on these proposals yet; I’d like to see some analysis by policy experts first. What I do know is that the mostly conservative opposition to hate crime bills in the past has been on the grounds that they are redundant and thus unnecessary. The politics in this case are a lot different than they were in the past, and I fully expect to see people espousing very different views on this than they might have 20 years ago. To the extent that Greg Abbott’s views on such legislation of yore can be ascertained, it would be useful to ask him why and how his opinion on hate crime laws have changed, if indeed they have.

UPDATE: Lisa Falkenberg and Murray Newman have some fully-developed thoughts on the subject.

Violence against transgender people

There’s way too much of it.

For a few transgender Americans, this has been a year of glamour and fame. For many others, 2015 has been fraught with danger, violence and mourning.

While Caitlyn Jenner made the cover of Vanity Fair and Laverne Cox prospered as a popular actress, other transgender women have become homicide victims at an alarming rate. By the count of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, there have been 22 killings so far this year of transgender or gender-nonconforming people — including 19 black or Latina transgender women.

The toll compares with 12 last year and 13 in 2013, and is the highest since advocacy groups began such tallies a decade ago.

“Most Americans think it’s been an amazing year for transgender rights,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “But for the transgender community, it’s been one of the most traumatic years on record.”

Death by death, the details are horrific. Kiesha Jenkins was beaten and shot dead by a cluster of assailants in Philadelphia. Tamara Dominguez was run over multiple times and left to die on a Kansas City street. Police said the most recent victim, Zella Ziona, was shot dead in Gaithersburg, Maryland, last month by a boyfriend embarrassed that Ziona showed up in the presence of some of his other friends.

There’s no question that anti-transgender hatred fueled many of the killings, yet activists and social-service professionals say there are multiple factors that make transgender women of color vulnerable. They have documented that numerous victims were killed by intimate partners and many while engaging in prostitution.

“For many of these women, it’s chronic unemployment or participation in survival sex work,” said Louis Graham, a University of Massachusetts professor who has studied the experiences of black transgender women.

Many are beset by homelessness and economic desperation, sometimes ending out in coercive and violent relationships, Graham said.

Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said that for many perpetrators of the violence, “there’s a sense of transgender people being less than human.”

See here for some background. So often it is the case that a population that is demonized and marginalized is at a much greater risk for crime and violence than the larger population that fears them. We still have a long way to go to get to a society that treats everyone equally.

Jon Buice granted parole

This stirs up a lot of emotions.

Paul Broussard

Jon Buice, serving 45 years in state prison for the 1991 gay-bashing murder of Houston banker Paul Broussard, has been granted parole.

Buice, 42, was one of 10 youths from The Woodlands who assaulted Broussard, 27, in the Montrose nightclub district.

Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles spokesman Raymond Estrada said a three-member paroles committee Friday voted 2-0 to grant parole. The vote was made by the department’s Angleton office, Estrada said, noting that cases occasionally are assigned to offices with no direct connection to the case.

Buice previously was granted parole in 2011, but subsequent protests led to its reversal.


Estrada said factors leading to the parole included Buice’s “satisfactory institutional adjustment,” including no major disciplinary cases, loss of time or demotion in classification since his last review. Buice also had successfully completed one or more vocational or academic programs while confined. Lastly, Estrada said, Buice was only 17 at the time of his crime.

He will remain under parole supervision until April 9, 2037.

I said my piece on this in 2013. Rereading what I wrote then, I still feel that way. Reasonable people can disagree in good faith on the role of punishment in our criminal justice system, and how much of it is enough, in general and in a particular case. In this particular case, I don’t think there was enough. The Press and Lisa Gray have more.

How many crimes does your police department solve?

Fewer than you think, unfortunately.


Violent crime in America has been falling for two decades. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when crimes occur, they mostly go unpunished.

In fact, for most major crimes, police don’t even make an arrest or identify a suspect. That’s what police call “clearing” a crime; the “clearance rate” is the percentage of offenses cleared.

In 2013, the national clearance rate for homicide was 64 percent, and it’s far lower for other violent offenses and property crimes.

University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford says police have shifted priorities over the decades.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, no one thought that the police should be held responsible for how much crime there was,” Wellford says. Back then, he adds, police focused on calls for service and solving crimes.

In more recent years, he says, police have been pushed to focus more on prevention, which has taken precedence over solving crimes — especially non-violent offenses.

In short, the falling crime rate we’ve enjoyed may come at a cost: police indifference when you report your stereo was stolen.

I admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I would have thought that with less crime, police departments would be more able to solve the crimes that were committed, since there would be less of a workload. I’m not a criminologist and I haven’t read any research on this, but my initial reaction here is to be a little skeptical. In what ways are police departments focused on crime prevention, and what evidence is there that those methods are working? My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes. While I would agree that there’s some ancillary prevention benefit in that, we all know that this comes with a variety of costs. Maybe the national effort to decriminalize some drug offenses will have the benefit of allowing police departments to once again focus on solving the crimes that really do victimize the public.

The article comes with a utility to look up the crime clearance rates in your own community. Here’s what it showed for some of Texas’ biggest cities:

All violent crime Homicide Property crime City 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 ====================================================================== Houston 46% 39% 37% 90% 70% 76% 13% 12% 11% Abilene 47% 49% 64% 80% 100% 100% 25% 22% 20% Amarillo 40% 45% 48% 60% 100% 44% 18% 19% 22% Austin 49% 49% 57% 93% 87% 100% 12% 12% 13% Beaumont 70% 70% 69% 100% 100% 75% 23% 28% 27% Corpus Christi 54% 53% 45% 67% 63% 100% 20% 23% 19% Dallas 38% 40% 37% 65% 58% 60% 13% 11% 11% El Paso 48% 47% 49% 88% 96% 80% 18% 20% 22% Fort Worth 36% 38% 39% 61% 80% 86% 14% 16% 17% Laredo 80% 80% 79% 64% 88% 100% 20% 24% 28% Lubbock 30% 32% 34% 50% 73% 100% 15% 15% 19% McAllen 56% 66% 38% 50% 100% 0% 20% 22% 16% Midland 66% 68% 59% 100% 75% 40% 22% 25% 27% Plano 54% 51% 47% 80% 100% 100% 22% 22% 19% San Antonio 48% 36% 37% 80% 70% 75% 12% 11% 12% Waco 56% 56% 55% 91% 67% 50% 23% 23% 26%

Note that these are all for the above-named cities’ municipal police departments. I limited myself to cities that I could think of that had a population of at least 100,000. (Galveston, in case you were wondering, has about 48,000 people.) “Violent crime” includes “Murder and non-negligent manslaughter”, which I characterize above as “Homicide”, “Robbery”, and “Aggravated assault”. “Property Crime” includes “Burglary”, “Larceny-theft”, “Motor vehicle theft”, and “Arson”.

Don’t be too mesmerized by the Homicide solve rates for smaller cities. The total annual number for these crimes in cities of, say, 100,000 to 200,000, is often in the single digits. McAllen, for example, had 4 homicides in 2011, one in 2012, and two in 2013. In a few cases, such as Beaumont for 2011 and 2012, the number of murders solved was greater than the number of murders. My guess is that the solved crimes included cold cases, but there was no explanation on the site. I just listed those as 100% to avoid weirdness.

What stands out to me in all this is that generally speaking the smaller cities had much better solve rates for property crimes than the big cities. In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the solve rates for property crimes never topped 13%, but in the smaller cities it ranged from 18% to 28%. Fort Worth and Lubbock were the outliers there, on the low end. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it sure is interesting.

What application does this have to the 2015 Mayor’s race? (You knew I was going to get around to that, I’m sure.) Well, in addition to my wish that the candidates will eventually start to talk about public safety in a more comprehensive way, I’d think that a candidate who promised to have his police force concentrate on solving property crimes might be able to sway a voter or two. Lord knows, the Nextdoor discussion list for the greater Heights area spends a lot of time on break-ins and thefts and the like. Given how many of these crimes do go unsolved today, it seems to me there’s some traction to be gained on this issue. Just a thought.

RIP, Randy Ertman

If you’ve lived in Houston long enough, this story will bring back a flood of memories and emotions.

Randy Ertman, a house painter who became a blunt-spoken, combative advocate for crime victims’ rights after his daughter and another teen were raped and murdered in a northwest Houston park, died Monday of lung cancer.

In the early 1990s, Ertman became a familiar figure to Houstonians as he appeared in news photos confronting relatives of his daughter’s killers, who had suggested the victims’ families bore some responsibility for the girls’ deaths.

Ertman’s advocacy led to changes in state law, allowing crime victims’ families to direct comments to convicted offenders in the courtroom and permitting relatives of homicide victims to witness executions.


Ertman was catapulted into his advocacy role by the June 24, 1993, murders of his 14-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and her 16-year-old friend, Elizabeth Pena. The teens were killed in T.C. Jester Park after they blundered into a nighttime gang initiation rite as they made their way home from a nearby party.

Six gang members were convicted in the crime – an episode so horrendous that it deeply shocked a city that routinely shrugged off acts of violence.

Three of the killers – Derrick O’Brien, 31; Jose Medellin, 33; and Peter Cantu, 35 – have been executed. Two others are serving life sentences; a sixth was given a 40-year sentence.

Ertman, 61, died one day after the anniversary of Cantu’s 2010 execution.

The murders of Jennifer Ertman and Jennifer Pena were just horrible. I have no connection to either family, it’s been almost 25 years, and I still can’t read about them without getting worked up. As you know, I have a lot of problems with the death penalty. Racial disparities, bad forensics, unreliable eyewitnesses, coerced confessions, an appellate system that cares far more about “getting a result” than getting that result right, the list of reasons to oppose the death penalty goes on and on. And yet, while I think our system of justice would be just fine without a death penalty, I can’t quite bring myself to call for its abolition. I have always felt, and I continue to feel, that there are some crimes and some criminals for which it is the appropriate response. I would not have been able to tell Randy Ertman, or a member of the Pena family, that the killers of their daughters deserved to have their lives spared. Maybe that’s a failing on my part, but if it is, I accept it. Rest in peace, Randy Ertman. I wish the same peace to your family and the Pena family as well. Doug Miller, who has a nice tribute to Randy Ertman on his Facebook page, has more.

Dan Patrick is lying about immigration and crime

That’s what the headline to Peggy Fikac’s column should be, but she took the easy way out.

At a forum where statewide candidates strutted their stuff for leading business groups, Sen. Dan Patrick could have focused on pretty much any angle when he talked about immigration.

There is the reality that people working here without documents are woven into the economy. There’s the question of how much responsibility businesses should bear for checking on prospective workers’ immigration status. There is the fact that key business leaders stymied so-called sanctuary city legislation in the 2011 legislative session.

Patrick – locked in a tough GOP primary fight for lieutenant governor in which candidates are positioned – chose to tie it to violent crime.

He pounded the need for border security by citing “hardened criminals we arrested from 2008 to 2012 – not illegals who were here for a job, who got four speeding tickets, but hardened criminals – 141,000 we put in our jails just in four years in Texas.”

“They threaten your family. They threaten your life. They threaten your business. They threaten our state,” he said, adding that they were charged with 447,000 crimes including 2,000 murders and 5,000 rapes.

Violent crime is scary and if you’re a law-abiding person, you’re probably against it, no matter your stand on immigration.

But Patrick’s stark language could seem a counterpoint to concerns that Republicans’ future depends on the party attracting more support from the growing Hispanic population.

Can we put aside the politics of Patrick’s abhorrent assertions and focus for a minute on the fact that he’s lying through his teeth? Let’s start by pointing out that Texas’ total state prison population is about 150,000, with another ten to fifteen thousand state prisoners in county facilities. Are we to believe that over 90% of inmates in state prisons are not just immigrants but undocumented immigrants? Does he have a source for this “statistic”, other than perhaps one of his body cavities?

Patrick’s crime numbers are deeply suspect as well. I don’t know what time frame he has in mind, but for the entire five year period of 2008 through 2012, there were 6223 murders in Texas. According to the Census, foreign-born people made up 16.3% of the population of Texas during that same time period. Are we to believe that 16.3% of the population – at least some of whom are children and elderly folks – committed nearly 65% of the murders in Texas?

There’s no evidence that increased immigration causes an increase in crime. That’s true if you look at historic data, and it’s true if you look only at Mexican immigrants. It is true that second-generation immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than first-generation immigrants, but only at the rate of native-born Americans. Which is to say, they’re about as likely to commit a crime as your average Senator or talk radio host.

By the way, if you go back to that link about the volume of crime in Texas, you might notice that there were half as many murders committed in the state in 2012 as there were in 1979, despite the fact that the overall population of Texas is twice as much now as it was then. The per capita murder rate therefore declined from 16.7 per 100,000 people to 4.4 per 100,000 people. Unless you believe that all native-born Texans must be on the verge of sainthood these days, I don’t see how that is consistent with an immigrant-fueled violent crime wave.

But Dan Patrick doesn’t care about any of that. He’s got an election to win, and if spreading lies helps him win, then that’s what he’ll do. To be fair, he’s hardly alone is spreading this manure around the state, but he’s the most shameless about it. I’ll say again, when Bill Hammond and his business brethren actually oppose this sort of crap, then I’ll believe them when they say they’re pre-immigration reform. In the meantime, even in a story on political tactics, I expect better from Peggy Fikac. None of the links I provided was hard to find. She owed it to her audience to at least reference the truth.

We must destroy the pensions in order to save them

There’s so much wrong with this I almost don’t know where to begin.

Houston is the Titanic – it certainly looks impressive, but icebergs lie ahead. That’s the image that mayoral candidate Ben Hall drew when he talked to the Houston Chronicle editorial board last week.

No debate here. Like an iceberg on the horizon, public pensions threaten the budget of our booming city. That danger grows because we’re sailing blind – firefighters have refused to open their books to City Hall. How much will taxpayers owe? We don’t know.

It may seem like an issue for accountants, but pension problems have repercussions beyond balanced budgets. Just look at Oakland, Calif. The Bright Side of the Bay spends 75 percent of its budget on police and firefighter compensation. Yet it has cut 200 police officers since 2008, and crime is skyrocketing. The culprit? Growing pensions. In its last budget negotiations, Oakland allocated more funds for veteran officer benefits instead of new hires.

Bigger pensions, fewer officers, more crime.

The lesson for Houston is that policy changes won’t do much to stop criminals if ballooning pension obligations prevent us from hiring brave souls to stand on that thin blue line. Hall brings this issue to the forefront in his five-point plan on crime, which includes stabilizing pension challenges.

Well, at least this answers my question about what pensions have to do with crimefighting. Too bad it’s based on a large pile of unfounded assumptions.

– There’s no clear relationship between the number of officers on the street and levels of reported crime. This holds true all over the world, and it is especially true for homicide rates. The Wikipedia entry for crime in Oakland, which notes that Oakland has only 18 officers per 10,000 residents, includes this sentence at the end: “As of 2010, the city of New Orleans, whose murder rate outpaces that of Oakland, had 48 officers for every 10,000 people.” Oakland’s homicide rate was 26 per 100,000 residents in 2011. For New Orleans in 2010, it was 50 per 100,000. That’s with nearly three times as many police officers per 10,000 residents. By the way, Houston’s homicide rate for 2012, based on the raw numbers, was 9.6 per 100,000 residents.

– Oakland’s pension problems have been there since the very beginning of its pension program over 60 years ago.

By all indications, the city never had a plan to pay for the Police and Fire Retirement System when it was started in 1951.

It had a $38 million hole from the beginning, said Bob Muszar, a retired Oakland police captain and president of the Retired Oakland Police Officers Association. Muszar has spent years researching the pension. He said that by the 1970s, the pension’s shortfall had grown to over $200 million.

So the city, police and firefighters agreed to close the pension to newcomers, which voters approved.

In 1981, the City Council approved a parcel tax, which costs taxpayers about $447 a year on a $283,900 home, the city’s median value.

But that wasn’t enough. In 1985, the city issued $222 million in bonds to cover pension costs. In the following years, the city refinanced those bonds, issued hundreds of millions in new bonds, and refinanced those bonds.

Then in 1998, the city once again refinanced bonds and also entered into a complicated interest-rate swap with Goldman Sachs that now costs the city $4 million a year and expires in 2021. “The more creative they got, it’s almost like they started digging a hole and they got deeper and deeper,” said Muszar, who feels retirees have been scapegoated for the city’s mismanagement of the pension.

Sure is a good thing that kind of scapegoating could never happen here, isn’t it?

– Oh and by the way, while it is true that crime is up in Oakland, it is also up in many cities neighboring Oakland. I’ll leave it to you to calculate the officers per capita and pension situations for each. Point is, there generally isn’t a simple explanation for these things. The causes are complex, interrelated, and sometimes just plain random.

Back to the editorial:

In his meeting last week, Hall said that this means transitioning from pensions to a defined contribution system. Under Mayor Hall, future police, firefighters and municipal workers would have something like a 401(k) – just like everyone else.

“We are going to have to redefine the pension benefits as a defined contribution plan,” Hall said. “No question.”

This change would be admittedly difficult to pull off. Pensions are controlled by the state government in Austin, and some of Houston’s part-time legislators have full-time paychecks from those pensions. But right now the point isn’t accomplishment, it is debate.

So far, Mayor Annise Parker has led the charge against out-of-control pensions. She’s implemented reforms to lower the city’s burden and worked to open pension books so the city knows what it’s paying for. Parker has said she thinks the city can have pension plans that work and opposes switching to defined contribution plans. That is where she, and the debate, stop.

Hall finally lends a voice to those who want to nix future pensions entirely.

Thank God, Bill King finally has a Mayoral candidate he can support. I just wonder if this is what the firefighters thought they were getting when they endorsed Hall. But like Mayor Parker, this is where I get off. Because let’s be clear on something, pension plans generate vastly superior returns than 401K plans. High income workers in the private sector may do better with 401Ks than they would with pension plans, but lower income workers and public employees do better with defined benefit plans. Employers may do better under 401Ks, but that’s because they get to contribute less. Of course, that comes out of the hides of the employees. Not a bad deal for the Bill Kings of the world, who somehow never call upon themselves to make sacrifices for the greater good, but not so good for the affected employees.

Finally, the conflation of the police and firefighters’ pension funds just serves to muddle what the issues actually are. The city’s complaint about the firefighters’ pension fund is that they don’t have any say over how much they have to contribute to it each year. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the firefighters’ pension fund is also one of the best funded in the state.) The city would also like to negotiate over and try to wring some concessions on things like the deferred retirement option (DROP) and automatic cost of living adjustments (COLAs). The city has already gotten most if not all of the concession it sought from the police and municipal employees’ pensions, and if you listen to my interview with CM Costello, you’ll hear him say that the city has largely solved its long-term problems with these pension funds. There are issues in the short to medium term, resulting in no small part from the city’s underpayments to those funds in recent years, but once we’re past that the system is sustainable. Mayor Parker will tell you that if the city can negotiate changes to DROP and get some discretion on COLAs, it will have a handle on the firefighter’ pension fund. Whether you agree with that or you agree with the firefighters, the point is that replacing pensions with 401Ks is hardly necessary. Making bogus comparisons to Oakland or Detroit isn’t helpful.

On Jon Buice and Paul Broussard

Grits has a provocative guest post from Michael Berryhill, an author and journalism professor, about the murder of Paul Broussard, the way it has been portrayed by the media, and the effort of convicted killer Jon Buice to win parole for himself. It’s worth reading and thinking about, and it’s also worth responding to.

Paul Broussard

To the Readers of Grits for Breakfast,

Last summer I wrote a letter of support for the parole of Jon Buice, a young man who pleaded guilty to the stabbing death of a 27-year-old gay man named Paul Broussard in 1991. Buice comes up for parole again this summer, and chances are his case will again become a public spectacle. Broussard’s mother, Nancy Rodriquez and her ally, the Houston victims rights advocate, Andy Kahan, will continue to argue that Buice should serve 27 years, one year for every year his victim lived. What follows is a revised version of that letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

I became intrigued by his case during the summer of 2011 when his parole was approved and subsequently reversed after a great deal of publicity. I decided to make Buice’s case the subject of a graduate seminar in journalism at Texas Southern University, where I am associate professor and chair of the department of journalism. The title of our project was “The Death of Paul Broussard, the Parole of Jon Buice,” and the subtitle was “How the News Media Have Played and Were Played.” Six graduate students and I delved into the history of the case. In addition to researching the media history of Buice’s story, we interviewed Jon Buice’s father, Jim Buice; the gay activist who drew media attention to the Broussard’s murder, Ray Hill; and the victims’ activist who is determined to keep Buice from obtaining parole, Andy Kahan.

Our goal was to understand how the news media works: how Hill used the news media to see to it that Buice and other young men who were with him were characterized and captured, and how Kahan has used the news media and politicians to see to it that Buice continues to stay in prison. Jon Buice is caught in the middle, as is, I believe, the parole board.

The theme is this: What is the meaning of forgiveness, legally, morally, religiously, ethically and politically? And how will the Texas parole board respond to the pressures of politics and publicity in this case? Will it do the right thing?

This story is about messages, and Andy Kahan, the City of Houston victims’ advocate said it best during an interview in November 2011. Kahan took credit for the reversal of Buice’s parole in the summer of 2011. He is proud of doing whatever it takes in using the news media to make Buice an example of his power. During our interview he questioned whether Buice should even be brought up for parole annually.

“It’s disappointing there haven’t been more setoffs,” Kahan said. “I’ve been barking in the media about this.”

Paroling Jon Buice “sends the wrong message,” Kahan said. But question is who is supposed to receive that message? Does paroling Jon Buice send the wrong message to teenaged boys out on a drunken night on the town? Are kids like this likely to even know of Jon Buice, much less connect his tragic actions to themselves?


The question the parole board has to answer, is not whether Andy Kahan will create so much bad publicity and political pressure that Buice should be held longer. The question is whether imprisoning Buice longer serves any purpose in his rehabilitation. Is Buice likely to come out of prison and commit a similar crime? Is he a rabid hater of homosexuals who will return to the Montrose and look for someone to kill? Who is Jon Buice today?

We know a few things for certain about him. At the age of 17 he pleaded guilty to stabbing Paul Broussard in a Montrose parking lot near a gay nightclub called Heaven. On July 4, 1991 Buice and nine other friends had driven in two cars from their homes in the Woodlands to the Montrose area. They had been drinking heavily and taking drugs. They challenged three men walking down the sidewalk and got into a fight and chased the men. Paul Broussard, 31, was cornered in a parking lot, and was defending himself well. Buice took a pocket knife and stabbed Broussard twice.

Broussard lay conscious on sidewalk for a long time before the EMS showed up. He asked the drivers to take him to the St. Joseph Hospital Emergency Room rather that one of the better-known trauma hospitals such as Ben Taub. According to medical records, it took several hours for Broussard to be diagnosed. He had showed few signs of external bleeding, but was bleeding internally and died the next morning, some would argue from medical negligence as well as the stab wounds.

The question about the mission of the Parole Board is a valid one, and I have no particular sympathy for Andy Kahan. What I find most interesting about Berryhill’s essay is that while he on the one hand condemns “the media” for sensationalizing aspects of the murder, he himself does a pretty good job of minimizing aspects of the murder. Consider:

“Paul Broussard, 31, was cornered in a parking lot, and was defending himself well.” Defending himself against ten attackers who were trying to kill him. Would it have made any difference if Broussard had curled into a fetal position instead, crying for his God and his mother to save him? Would it have made any difference if Broussard had managed to land a few good punches against his attackers, perhaps bloodying a nose or breaking a jaw before Buice stabbed him to death? To imply that this was somehow a fair fight seems more than a little slanted to me.

“Broussard lay conscious on sidewalk for a long time before the EMS showed up. He asked the drivers to take him to the St. Joseph Hospital Emergency Room rather that one of the better-known trauma hospitals such as Ben Taub.” The implication here is that Broussard couldn’t have been that badly hurt, even if he didn’t have the strength to get up. Berryhill is pushing the idea that Broussard himself bears some responsibility for his death. Let that be a lesson to the next poor soul who gets jumped by ten thugs from The Woodlands: Be sure you know which hospital to ask for.

“He had showed few signs of external bleeding, but was bleeding internally and died the next morning, some would argue from medical negligence as well as the stab wounds.” Again, Berryhill is trying to deflect the blame. Some would argue he’s playing the role of defense attorney here and not media critic.

I’m not here to argue the facts of the case, or whether the media did in fact report some things that weren’t true. We can certainly argue about the effect of media and public opinion on the parole process. I’d agree that the Andy Kahans of the world play an outsized role in the process, and that parole boards should be better shielded from such pressure. But the facts as Berryhill presents them, once stripped of their own bias, just aren’t that compelling to me.

Recent stories in the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American Statesman have high-lighted the improvements to Texas parole. Texans have come to realize that incarceration is expensive and not necessarily the best option for many criminals. Wouldn’t it be better to have Buice out on parole earning a living and paying taxes, rather than costing the state at least $18,000 a year to house in prison?


If Buice had killed a man in a bar fight, chances are would have long ago been paroled. Most murders are crimes of passion, committed under duress and intoxication. But he did not commit an ordinary murder. He committed a publicized crime, a crime with labels and exaggerations.

By 2010, Buice had become an invaluable member of the work team at Wynne prison, which rehabilitated old computers. Microsoft had awarded him certificates for his technical expertise, certificates that would enable him to work in the free world. Prison officials at Wynne constantly called on him to help them with computer problems. He had completed an undergraduate college degree in prison and was in line to be accepted in a graduate program. His disciplinary record was good. He was doing everything the prison system expected of an inmate to win parole.

But Buice didn’t kill a man in a bar fight. He killed a man that he and nine of his friends attacked without provocation. It was a deliberate act, not a heat of the moment reaction. I absolutely agree that more incarceration in general is a bad thing that has contributed to massive overspending on prison building and way too many people being locked up for things that aren’t worth being locked up for. I agree that many inmates are served better by things other than being locked up, and I commend Buice for his efforts to make a better person out of himself. But rehabilitation and public safety aren’t the only aspects of incarceration. Punishment is a part of it as well, and I am not particularly sympathetic to the argument that Buice has been punished enough. Berryhill suggests that denying Jon Buice parole sends a message to other offenders that the system is unfair, and that if theirs is a highly publicized case there may not be anything they can do to help themselves. Some would argue that by denying him parole, there’s a message being sent to would-be offenders that the penalty for killing someone is greater than they’d want to pay. Which message will be heard more clearly is another thing we can argue about.

Elsewhere in the House

No action on transportation yet.

House budget writers on Tuesday ended a hearing on transportation funding with no clear decision about how to raise money for Texas roads.

The House Appropriations Committee is considering several proposals to see which has the most support, even if that means trying to pass a combination of bills in the remaining days of the 30-day special session, said Aaron Greg, chief of staff for state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the chamber’s lead budget writer.

The House committee was expected to pass House Joint Resolution 1, which would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment to divert half of the oil and gas severance taxes that fill the Economic Stabilization Fund — or Rainy Day Fund — to transportation funding.

Instead, the hearing revealed lawmakers’ concerns about whether that bill would provide enough funding for roads in the long term. Lawmakers expressed more interest in other proposals to raise money for transportation.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he worried about a safeguard in the bill that was intended to keep the balance in the Rainy Day Fund from falling too low.

Turner said that the minimum amount of money the fund must maintain would start at more than $4 billion, would rise to more than $5 billion in 2015 and would continue to increase over time. At some point in the future, the minimum amount needed in the fund would rise so high, Turner said, that no money from it would be allocated to roads.

“I am very uncomfortable with that because you have a perpetual savings account that becomes very, very difficult to touch,” Turner said in an interview.


Five other transportation proposals were discussed at the committee hearing. Lawmakers seemed most interested in HJR 2, by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso.

Currently, transportation is funded largely through a 20-cent tax on gasoline, and a quarter of that amount goes into public education. HJR 2 would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to allocate the tax on fuel solely to transportation needs and then use the Rainy Day Fund to replace the lost education funds.

“Pickett’s bill has some attraction for several of us. It’ a lot cleaner,” Turner said. “We simply want to make sure education doesn’t miss out at all.”

HJR 2 would generate slightly less money than HJR 1, but both would produce about $800 million for transportation.

Have I mentioned lately that raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation would generate more revenue, and it would leave the Rainy Day Fund alone? I’m just saying.

Meanwhile, there was progress on the third issue of the session.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee has once again recommended a bill that would close a sentencing loophole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.

Members passed House Bill 4 with a 5-1 vote Tuesday morning following public testimony Monday.

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburgh, cast the dissenting vote. Canales has been pushing his own version of a new sentencing structure that would allow for life with parole and life without parole. But House Bill 10 also included a lengthy list of mitigating circumstances to be used during sentencing.

Canales’ bill was left pending in committee.


Prosecutors have asked that state legislatures move 17-year-old capital murder defendants in with the criminal code that covers juveniles, ages 14-16, who receive mandatory life with parole eligibility at 40 years.

The Senate repeatedly has approved a bill that would do just that, but representatives have gone back and forth on what is appropriate punishment for a juvenile.

Senate Bill 2 also has passed out of committee and is waiting on a full hearing.

If either of these bills fails to pass this time around, it won’t be because of a filibuster, that’s all I know.

Court of inquiry concludes

The court of inquiry that was examining the behavior of then-prosecutor Ken Anderson has concluded with Anderson’s testimony in his defense. Having seen what he had to say for himself, I find myself not terribly sympathetic to him or his situation.

At times fighting back tears, Anderson called Morton’s case his “worst nightmare” but defended his conduct.

“We had a lot to be proud of, we still do,” Anderson said, his voice wavering. Then, pounding on the witness stand, he continued: “The office I ran was professional, it was competent. We did things right. We got it right as much as we humanly could.”

After testimony ended, [Judge Louis] Sturns said it will be several weeks before the parties reconvene. He did not say whether he will issue a ruling then.


Anderson, who testified Friday that he’s spent his life savings “defending myself against accusations that I think we all know are false,” claimed the judge only asked for a small portion of the police notes — and he complied.

Asked if there was any weight to accusations he hid evidence, Anderson responded that he’d reviewed the case “until I’m blue in the face. There is nothing in that record that even remotely says that.”

He was later shown a portion of the trial transcript where the judge asked: “Mr. Anderson, do you have anything that is favorable to the accused?” Anderson replied that he did not.


Anderson said all evidence could be seen differently with the benefit of hindsight. He also accused Hardin of wanting to “see me handcuffed and taken to jail” on matters “that are so bogus it’s unreal.”

Given the chance to address Morton directly, Anderson said he had been gracious since his exoneration and added, “I’ve apologized that the system screwed up and it obviously screwed up.”

“I’ve been beating myself up on what else I could have been done different,” Anderson concluded, “and I frankly don’t know.”

The Trib has a fuller version of that money quote: “I had to spend the money to hire lawyers. And I worked my entire life and now they have it,” he said. I have to say, you’d think a guy who spent a decade or more as a District Attorney would be familiar with the cost of competent defense attorneys. I’m sure some of the people he’s prosecuted could bring him up to speed on that. But be that as it may, he sure is weirdly disconnected from his role in this. I mean, “the system screwed up”? Last I checked, the District Attorney is a pretty integral part of the system. I get that he’s probably limited in what he ought to say during this proceeding, but an “I’m sorry” would have been nice.

Eye on Williamson sums it up nicely.

In watching all of this over the last year and a half or so, I’m not positive that Anderson technically broke any law. But I’m damn near positive there were moral and ethical lapses. And that former Sheriff Boutwell and Anderson knew, deep down in their souls, that Morton was guilty and were bound and determined to put him in jail – no matter what the evidence said. Their egos got in the way of reality. And that later on John Bradley was willing to keep him there for the same egotistical reasons. And lends credence to the many unfair justice stories, that are common place for anyone who has lived in Williamson County for an extended period of time.

Hopefully this will be a cautionary tale for all prosecutors that they are not the judge and jury. That they should allow everyone to look at all the evidence in a case – all the way through the appeals process – to make sure they’re not putting innocent people in jail for crimes they didn’t commit. Because, as this shows, when an innocent person goes to jail it not only ruins their life, but when the truth comes out it ruins the lives, and legacy, of those that put the innocent person in jail as well.

If there’s one other lesson that I hope everyone learns from this, it’s that if a convicted murderer requests that some old piece of evidence be tested for DNA, go ahead and let it be tested. What can it hurt? If he’s as guilty as you believe him to be, the DNA test will vindicate you. And if it proves him right and you wrong, isn’t it better to know, and to not be the villain that tried to keep the truth from coming out? Don’t be like John Bradley, that’s what I’m saying. Texas Monthly has more.

The court of inquiry

Going on this week is a court of inquiry in the matter of Williamson County Judge Ken Anderson, who was the District Attorney that won a conviction against Michael Morton for the murder of his wife, Christine, which as we know has since been overturned after DNA evidence cleared him and implicated another man. The court of inquiry is to evaluate the claims made by Morton’s attorneys that Anderson deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence, which may lead to criminal charges being filed against Anderson if that allegation is found to have merit. The Statesman and the Trib have all the background on this unusual proceeding, and for everything you need to know about the Morton case, read the two-part Texas Monthly story (and be prepared to have your heart broken by it) as well as Scott Henson’s interview with author Pam Colloff. Finally, you can follow the inquiry itself at the Trib’s liveblog.

Whatever else comes out of this inquiry, what I would like to see happen is a re-evaluation of how we think about those who fight crime. From the Trib story:

Anderson, who declined through his lawyer to be interviewed for this story, has contested allegations of wrongdoing and has said that he is sick over the wrongful conviction. And those in the Central Texas city of Georgetown, who have known Anderson over the years, say they can’t believe that the church-going Boy Scout troop leader — who tried to steer young people who veered into his courtroom onto a productive path — could do the unethical things he’s accused of doing. Even some defense lawyers who sparred with Anderson in the courtroom say allegations that he behaved underhandedly are hard to fathom.

“I never thought of him as acting unethically or in violation of the rules,” said veteran defense lawyer Roy Minton. “I did think of him as being very strong and hard on crime, but that was the history of that county.”

In Georgetown’s small courthouse circles, there are different ideas about who may have contributed to the injustice that befell Morton.

Williamson County’s legendary Sheriff Jim Boutwell, a tall, thin cowboy of a lawman who was rarely without his white Stetson, cowboy boots and handcuff tie clip, helped forge the county’s tough-on-crime history.

A former Texas Ranger, Boutwell became famous in 1966 when Charles Whitman went to the top of the University of Texas tower with three rifles and a sawed-off shotgun and fired at students and faculty. Boutwell flew an airplane over the campus, distracting Whitman with gunfire long enough for officers on the ground to take him down. Boutwell cemented his reputation in 1983 when he and a task force of officers extracted hundreds of murder confessions from Henry Lee Lucas. After Lucas was sentenced to death, then–Attorney General Jim Mattox issued a report that dismantled many of the confessions and concluded that the drifter wasn’t even in the same state when some of the killings were committed. In 2001 — eight years after Boutwell died of cancer — then-Gov. George W. Bush commuted Lucas’ death sentence to life in prison.

There’s no question that the path to Michael Morton’s conviction was paved by Sheriff Boutwell’s myopic, almost comically flawed investigation of the case. And whether Anderson was criminally negligent or not, there’s no question that exculpatory evidence was not made available to the defense. By their actions, geared towards convicting Michael Morton, Boutwell and Anderson are responsible for at least one other murder apparently committed by Mark Alan Norwood, who now stands accused of Christine Morton’s death. To me, anyone who by their actions could allow this to happen doesn’t get to be “hard and strong on crime”. Too many people who have that reputation – and this certainly includes now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley, who lost his primary race last year after waging and finally conceding a long battle to keep Michael Morton from doing the DNA test that led to his exoneration – who are more accurately described as being “tough on defendants” or “tough on suspects”. The two are not the same, a lesson I hope is finally starting to sink in. Maybe Mark Alan Norwood would not have been caught in time to prevent him from killing Debra Baker in 1988, but there’s no doubt that Boutwell and Anderson’s zealous pursuit of Michael Morton cost him 25 years of his life, for no good purpose. Had they been as committed to the truth and to justice with the same fervor, the world would be a better place today. It’s time for us to rethink what it means to be “tough on crime”, because the way we use that phrase now, it’s not a virtue.

Murder by numbers continued

There are two ways to look at this.

Houston averaged slightly more than four murders a week during 2012, unofficial figures indicate, inching up from 2011 when the total dropped to the lowest point since 1966.

In unincorporated Harris County, an early total suggests a three-year decline in murders may continue.

Houston police reported 216 murders for the 12 months ending Monday – up from 198 in 2011. Still, said police homicide Capt. David Gott, that figure is “an incredibly low number.”

The 2012 total is the second-lowest since 1966, when only 201 murders were reported in the city. Houston’s population, now 2.1 million, has more than doubled since 1966.


The year 2012 began with a rough start as the city’s first-quarter murder total jumped 27 percent above the same period in 2011. Incidents of this extreme violence leveled off in May after police stepped up enforcement activities in high crime areas.

Gott said his department has cleared about 70 percent of its 2012 cases, meaning that a suspect has been charged, died along with the victim – as in a murder-suicide – or has been no-billed by a grand jury because the killing was justified.

In unincorporated Harris County – with about 1.6 million residents, a jurisdiction more populous than Philadelphia – 63 murders were reported by year’s end. Department spokesman Alan Bernstein said that, like the police numbers, the sheriff’s total is unofficial and subject to revision.

The county total for 2009 was 96; 2010, 77; and 2011, 73.

You could say that the number of murders in Houston jumped by nine percent in 2012 over 2011. That would be entirely accurate, but it would also be needlessly alarmist and not really useful. Or you could say, as I have done before, that in the absence of a multi-year trend, small variations from one year to the next are basically noise. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter, and that there isn’t anything going on in Houston to make it run counter to the national trend of declining crime. Check back in another four or five years and we’ll know for sure. Hair Balls has more.

The murder rate is the same as it was last year

There’s no evidence to suggest otherwise at this time.

Though Houston is not in any danger of reclaiming the unenviable title of “murder capital of the United States,” murders in the city jumped 17 percent during the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year.

There were 105 murders from January through June, up from 90 in the same time frame in 2011. That pace is nowhere near the record-setting year of 1981, when there were a whopping 701 killings in the city.

Robberies, meanwhile, also spiked significantly in the first six months of this year – up 18 percent, police records show.

Authorities say the murder and robbery rates are below other years and believe that crime initiatives in targeted areas have started pulling the numbers back down in the last three months.

“From January through March, the number of murders jumped by 28.9 percent, but when the next three months were included, the increase dropped to 16.7 percent,” said Houston Police Capt. David Gott. “We can definitely see a downward trend here.”

Murders and violent crime began dropping dramatically in Houston and other large U.S. cities in the 1990s. That trend culminated last year when murders dropped to 198 in Houston, the lowest since 1965.

The story is based on a comparison of the first six months of 2011 to the first six months of 2012. But if there were 198 murders committed in Houston last year and 90 of them were in January through June, then there were 108 murders in the last six months of 2011, which is three more than were committed through June this year. Change the time period for comparison and you change the perception of the data. As an expert quoted in the story said, and as I suggested last year, a bump in the numbers this year doesn’t mean anything. We could still be in the midst of a long-term decrease in the murder rate, or we could be settled at the bottom of that decline. A small variation from one year to the next doesn’t really tell us anything.