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Pat Lykos

Lykos v Anderson

I obviously don’t have a dog in the Republican District Attorney primary fight, but I like a good high-profile political battle as much as the next junkie, so stories about it are interesting to me.

[DA Pat] Lykos argues she is a reformer with three years of improvements under her belt while Mike Anderson, a popular 30-year veteran of the courthouse, is trying to convince voters the machine used to be better run.

“A prosecutor needs to run that office,” said Anderson, who was an assistant Harris County district attorney for 16 years before spending 12 years as a felony criminal court judge.

“It’s an enormous undertaking for anybody,” Anderson said. “It would be very hard for anybody who has never been a prosecutor and never tried a case as a prosecutor to run that office.”

Lykos scoffs at the criticism. She insists that her experience as a former police officer and a former judge lets her put together the big pieces of the criminal justice puzzle.

“We cannot go backwards. Those days are gone,” Lykos said. “We have to work smart, we have to be tough and always fair.”

Like I said, I have no dog in this fight, but at the risk of making Murray Newman‘s head explode, I do think Lykos has been an improvement over Chuck Rosenthal. Might Kelly Siegler have been a similar improvement over Rosenthal? Maybe, though I felt strongly at the time that bringing about change necessarily required a genuine housecleaning. From a crassly political perspective, I preferred to have our candidate C.O. Bradford run against Rosenthal’s top lieutenant than against some outsider. Maybe Mike Anderson would be an improvement over Lykos – maybe the Rosenthal problem was the man himself more than anything else, so that any change would have been sufficient – I have no idea. What I know is that Rosenthal was a clown and an embarrassment, and Lykos, whatever else you may say about her, has not been.

“She is someone who Republican women, who are the heart and soul of the Republican party in Harris County, would die for,” said Harris County GOP chairman Jared Woodfill. “She has earned their respect.”

Woodfill heartily endorsed Lykos.

“She came in to that office at some challenging times and has done a great job,” Woodfill said. “Pat has a very successful record, and the last thing we need is a big primary fight at the top of the ticket.”

I marvel at this, because Democrats would openly revolt if our party chair picked a side in a primary between two candidates of good standing. I can see the merit of Woodfill’s position, though I disagree about the merits of a big primary fight, but we do our business differently, and I prefer it that way.

Republicans will have to decide between the two in April, but there won’t be any confusion about where either stands.

Anderson has attacked Lykos for DIVERT, a program she created that allows the equivalent of deferred adjudication for first offense DWIs, and her “trace case” policy, which lessened penalties for possession of trace amounts of crack cocaine or crack pipes.

Lykos says the trace case policy has lowered the jail population by 1,000 inmates and freed up resources for more severe crimes.

As you know, I agree with Lykos on this. That causes some conflict for me when I think about this politically. On the one hand, I’d rather see Anderson win because I like my opponents to be wrong about important things. On the other hand, I’d rather see Lykos win because we’re all better off when bad ideas get rejected. So yeah, I’ll be staying neutral.

“It’s all politics!”

The grand jury investigation of the District Attorney’s office over DWI evidence and policies continues to be the most compelling local story right now.

A prosecutor who last week refused to answer questions from a grand jury said Monday she is the target of political forces aligned against her and her boss, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos.

“The fix is in,” Rachel Palmer said from the witness stand. “It’s really clear to anyone who is not already affected by bias.”

Palmer asserted in a hastily called recusal hearing that state District Judge Susan Brown, her husband state District Judge Marc Brown and a special prosecutor appointed by the former were working together to unseat Lykos in a plot that has ensnared Palmer.

Palmer, a deputy chief who oversees dozens of prosecutors in Houston’s 15 misdemeanor courts, invoked her constitutional right to not incriminate herself last week after being asked questions, presumably, about evidence used in DWI prosecutions that was gathered by the Houston Police Department’s troubled breath alcohol testing vehicles.

See here, here, and here for some background; in the end, Judge Brown ruled that Palmer did not have to testify. I have no dog in this fight, and frankly am not all that clear on who all the players are; PDiddie connects a few dots, for those of you keeping score at home. I do love a good political fight, though, and this one is threatening to spiral out of control, right as we head into an election year. There are some meaty legal issues at play as well – how often outside of Hollywood do you encounter someone invoking the Fifth Amendment – and for a thorough discussion of same you should read what Mark Bennett and Murray Newman have to say. It’s too bad that “Law and Order” finally went off the air, because this all has the makings of a great two-parter with a shocking revelation on the witness stand at the end. Alas.

Investigations all around

There’s a second grand jury looking into Harris County DA Pat Lykos.

Sources close to the investigation said a special prosecutor was appointed last week to look into claims by Shirley Cornelius, a 27-year-veteran of the office, that she was asked to change her time cards to delete accrued compensatory time.

Cornelius would not comment Wednesday on the new development.

In her August 2010 resignation letter, she alleged that a supervisor, acting on orders from the administration, asked her to change a time sheet. Harris County employees do not get overtime. Rather, any overtime they work is added to a pool of time they can take off later.

Cornelius, who became a licensed attorney in 1983, wrote in her resignation letter that she refused to change the official record because it would have been a criminal offense.

Instead, she said, supervisors in the office should be prosecuted for coercion.

Murray Newman wrote about that at the time. Meanwhile, the first grand jury ran into some resistance from other members of Lykos’ office.

Rachel Palmer, a high-ranking assistant Harris County district attorney who oversees the prosecution of hundreds of cases, stunned Houston’s criminal courthouse Thursday by pleading the Fifth Amendment instead of answering questions about evidence gathered by HPD’s beleaguered breath alcohol testing vehicles.

For months, a grand jury has been investigating issues surrounding the Houston Police Department’s BAT vans and possibly the DA’s office’s involvement.

On Thursday, Palmer was told she is not the target of that investigation when she was subpoenaed by the grand jury, according to court records.

She refused to answer questions, citing her constitutional rights, according to court records. It is unusual for a witness who is not being targeted to say that her answers could incriminate her.

Palmer’s actions prompted the grand jury’s special prosecutors to haul her before state District Judge Susan Brown and file a motion to compel her to testify.

Brown said she would hear arguments from both sides in a full hearing Monday. She could compel Palmer to answer specific questions the special prosecutors gave the judge.

Feels like a plot from a David Kelly show, doesn’t it? As far as we know, Lykos has not professed a desire to kiss one of her employees behind the right ear, so she has that going for her. Mark Bennett has more.

Elsewhere in county government, as I noted yesterday, the FBI is taking a look at some personnel files belonging to Constable Jack Abercia. Not clear what that’s about, but any time the words “FBI investigatin” are used in proximity to your name, it’s never a good thing. The Harris County Attorney’s office is also looking at some things Constables do.

First Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke said his office is examining all the nonprofit charitable organizations being run by constables to ensure their activities meet the law. The county attorney is also reviewing a widely used program that allows neighborhood groups and homeowners associations to hire constables for security services. Officials want to check if the time the deputies spend on patrol are consistent with the terms of their security contract.

“This is the backbone of security in much of the city, and in a lot of the unincorporated area,” O’Rourke said. “This is serious stuff, and we are looking into it.”

The third area of the county’s inquiry is the lawful practice of constables pocketing fees for serving notices to vacate, the first step in a eviction ordered by a Justice of the Peace, O’Rourke said.

According to state law, eviction notices may only be delivered when not in conflict with the constable’s official duties, and the deputies cannot be wearing a uniform or driving a county vehicle or county equipment while delivering them.

O’Rourke said each of the eight constables handles serving eviction notices differently. He added that one allegation his office is examining is whether the notices are being served by county employees while on duty.

He said his office will complete a comprehensive report on constable operations by late January.

On top of all that, Constables May Walker and Victor Trevino are being investigated separately over allegations that they had county employees perform political fundraising on county time. Walker’s predecessor had his own troubles as well. Grits has often written that the office of Constable is a political anachronism that ought to be eliminated. Without commenting on the merits of any of these investigations, as I know precious little about them, it’s not hard to see where he’s coming from.

More on Lykos versus the cops

Here’s another Chron story about the recent dust-up between Harris County DA Pat Lykos and six Harris County police groups that don’t like her policy that trace amounts of crack will not be prosecuted as felonies. Two points that are worth highlighting from the story:

State District Judge Michael McSpadden has presided over Houston’s criminal cases since 1982. In that time, he said, the “War on Drugs” has been lost and he has changed his mind about his “get tough on crime” stance. He urges a policy of treatment and second chances for addicts.

“Pat Lykos and I are not close, and in fact probably don’t like each other, but she’s right about this,” the veteran jurist said this week. “Almost everyone’s in agreement except, I guess, the police unions.”

McSpadden said he, not Lykos, has led the charge to change how these trace cases are handled.

“No one respects law enforcement more than I do, but they’re wrong about this,” McSpadden said. “I want them out there going after the career criminals, the sex offenders, the people who pose a real threat to our society, and not someone who has a residue amount of drugs.”

I agree completely with this sentiment. Doing otherwise, which is to say what we have been doing all along, is unsustainable, unaffordable, and unjust. The effect of Lykos’ policy change is clear:

In November, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee and others tasked with criminal justice reform said Lykos has been instrumental in reducing the jail population, and her trace policy is the big piece of the equation. Statistics on how many trace cases are affected are hard to come by because possession of little baggies of cocaine or methamphetamine and small crack rocks fall in the same category as the trace cases once did: possession of less than a gram.

In 2009, there were 10,674 charges for that offense according tho the DA’s office. After the policy, the numbers fell to 5,942 in 2010 and so far this year are at 5,235.

And while police could count the number of paraphernalia tickets issued, officials say this number is not indicative of the actual number of stops because cops on the street are loathe to do hours of paperwork to issue a ticket punishable by a $500 fine.

According to numbers available through the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, authorities believe the policy means there are about 400 fewer inmates in jail on any given day, part of a 2,000 inmate decrease over the past two years.

The Harris County Jail is overcrowded and understaffed. We ship out inmates to other counties and to Louisiana because we don’t have any place to put them. We can spend a hundred million dollars building more jail space and millions more every year running it, an option the voters rightly rejected in 2007, or we can be smarter about who we put in jail. Like it or not, those are the choices.

By the way, the campaign of Mike Anderson, the Republican running in the primary against Lykos who sided with the cops on this issue, sent out a press release Monday announcing that he had received the endorsement of our old buddy Steve Hotze. I’m not sure why they have me on their press distribution list, but they do so you can see that release here. Those of you reading this who vote in Republican primaries, as far as I’m concerned you now have two reasons not to vote for Mike Anderson in March. Grits has more.

Lykos versus the cops

Various law enforcement unions are not happy with Harris County DA Pat Lykos.

Leaders of six Harris County police organizations Tuesday announced a vote of no confidence in District Attorney Pat Lykos, saying she has “shirked her duty” and has turned down viable cases for prosecution.

The no-confidence vote – a rare public fissure in the traditionally close relationship between police and prosecutors – was triggered by Lykos’ announcement Monday that she would seek re-election, police officials said. The six groups, including the Houston Police Department, represent more than 10,000 present and former law officers in the county.

[…]

Lykos brushed aside police criticism of her policy of not accepting felony charges against suspects caught with trace amounts of drugs, usually found in a crack pipe or as the result of a nasal swab.

She said she wants to go after cartels, not crack pipes.

“We’re not prosecuting the residue cases, the crack pipe cases, or the flakes extruding from someone’s nostrils,” she said. “That’s why my focus is on dangerous criminals, not just getting arrests for the sake of having statistics.”

The police groups could not cite any cases or statistics relating to cases prosecutors declined or dismissed.

They were critical of Lykos’ policy, announced in January 2010, to bring misdemeanor charges in cases where the drug residue is less than one-100th of a gram.

Sorry, but I agree with Lykos here. Prosecuting these cases as felonies would mean even more inmates in our already overcrowded jail. That’s the most costly and least effective way to deal with low-level users, whom we should be diverting into treatment as the primary option. As someone who’s been advocating policies that will ease the overcrowding in our jail, I am glad to see DA Lykos take steps in that direction. There are plenty of things for which to criticize Pat Lykos, but this is not one of them. I will be very disappointed if the eventual Democratic nominee for DA goes after her over this.

On that score, by the way, I am aware of two candidates for the Dem nomination so far: Former prosecutor Zack Fertitta, and perennial candidate Lloyd Oliver. His campaign kickoff got a mention on CultureMap, which should give you some idea of who he is, and I’ve posted a copy of the press release he sent out when he filed beneath the fold. We’ll see if anyone else jumps in on the Democratic side. Lykos has also now drawn a Republican opponent, Mike Anderson, and since I received the statement she sent out about that, I’ve included it as well.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about the entrance of former Judge Mike Anderson into the DA race. Not surprisingly, he’s siding with the cops on this. I’m not impressed.

UPDATE: Grits weighs in.

(more…)

When prosecutors get in trouble

You know, this grand jury investigation of the Harris County DA’s office is starting to look like a full-fledged scandal.

Two Harris County prosecutors are facing contempt charges after a judge learned that members of the District Attorney’s Office were given information that may contain transcripts from secret proceedings of a grand jury that is investigating the office, court records show.

Assistant District Attorneys Carl Hobbs, chief of the government integrity bureau, and Steve Morris, chief of the grand jury division, along with two court reporters have been summoned to appear before Judge Susan Brown’s court at 9 a.m. Monday.

“It has now come to this court’s attention that members of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office may be in possession of official transcripts of testimony from witnesses who appeared before the Harris County grand jury for the 185th District Court August term,” according to a motion issued by Brown and obtained by the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday.

[…]

“If it is proven to be true, it is absolutely a flagrant violation of the sanctity of the secrecy of the grand jury,” said Murray Newman, a defense attorney and former Harris County prosecutor who writes a blog on the Harris County Criminal Justice Center.

Newman also said he was stunned that prosecutors might have tried to unlawfully obtain transcripts from a grand jury that is investigating the DA’s office.

“It’s like a guy robbing a liquor store with a cop standing outside,” he said. “It’s just stupid.”

Not to be crass, but if these recent events haven’t gotten some Democrats to think about running for District Attorney next year, I don’t know what would. The Republicans are contemplating their options, that’s for sure. I have no idea how this will turn out, but I can sure imagine how to talk about it in 2012 no matter what the outcome may be. Mark Bennett and Grits have more.

UPDATE: And more from Mark Bennett.

Grand jury requests special prosecutor

It’s getting mighty interesting over there.

A Houston grand jury that may be investigating the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the Houston Police Department’s troubled breath alcohol testing vans has asked for a special prosecutor and an extension of its term.

In open court [Tuesday] afternoon, grand jurors asked state District Judge Susan Brown to extend their three-month term past their scheduled end date in early November.

Brown said she would rule on both motions by the grand jury’s next session Thursday.

Judge Brown didn’t wait that long to rule.

State District Judge Susan Brown on Wednesday named attorneys Stephen C. St. Martin and James Mount as temporary prosecutors to assist a grand jury apparently investigating the Houston Police Department’s troubled mobile alcohol testing program.

The order appointing St. Martin and Mount, both former assistant district attorneys now in private practice, states that grand jurors are investigating “possible criminal conduct by members of the Harris County district attorney’s office.”

“After considering the grand jury’s request and the applicable law, the court finds the Harris County District Attorney and her office are disqualified from participating in the grand jury’s investigation,” Brown wrote.

Holy ghost of Chuck Rosenthal, Batman! I’m pretty sure we’ve never seen anything quite like this in Harris County before. It must be noted that we’re less than three weeks away from the start of the candidate filing season. You have to think that there are some people reassessing their chances in an election against DA Pat Lykos about now. That’ll be something else to keep your eye on going forward. Murray Newman and Lisa Falkenberg have more.

Investigating the DA

There may be something interesting going on in the grand jury room.

A Houston grand jury apparently investigating recent allegations about the Houston Police Department’s troubled mobile alcohol-testing vehicles may now be setting its sights on the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

An appellate court ruled on Thursday that the grand jury can continue to exclude prosecutors from listening to witnesses testify in secret proceedings in the ongoing investigation, despite protests from Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos.

Because grand jurors meet behind closed doors, their intentions are unclear, but court documents filed this week shed light on the investigation. Defense attorneys involved in the case also have their suspicions.

Chip Lewis, an attorney representing a former police crime lab super­visor who testified Thursday, said it is his understanding that she was called to talk about problems with the HPD’s breath alcohol testing vehicles – known as BAT vans – as well as issues with the DA’s office and the police department.

Lewis also said it was possible the grand jury is investigating the district attorney’s office.

“I wouldn’t call it a runaway grand jury,” he said, as much as I would call it a well-focused grand jury.”

I don’t have a particular opinion about this one way or another. It makes sense to me that if there were issues with the evidence, then those issues are most likely not limited to just the police, but beyond that I don’t know enough to comment. I’m noting this story mostly because of how unusual it is for the DA’s office to be investigated in this manner. It seems to me that in general, a lot of DA’s offices operate without a whole lot of oversight, and that this is how you get situations like that of Michael Morton, in which an innocent man was convicted of a crime in part because exculpatory evidence was never given to the defense attorneys. When you look at all the legal maneuvers the current DA in Williamson County and the District Court judge who was the DA at the time are pulling to avoid having to go on the record about what they did and why they did it, you can clearly see the incentives they have for playing to win rather than working for justice. It may well be that the voters will ultimately hold John Bradley and Ken Anderson accountable at the ballot box, but if that’s the only consequence for conspiring to deprive a man of 25 years of his freedom, well, that ain’t much of an incentive to play by the rules, if you ask me. I don’t know what the answer to this is, but I do know that we ought to be asking some questions about it.

UPDATE: See Murray Newman for more on the Harris County story.

More troubles for CM Jones

There have not been many dull moments this year for CM Jolanda Jones. That seems unlikely to change in the near future.

[O]n Wednesday, revelations surfaced that one of her staffers photographed a citizen picking up public records from her office and that the police union asked the Harris County district attorney to investigate Jones for allegedly practicing law without a license.

Both are likely to provide further ammunition for Jones critics and fodder for her campaign opponents.

Earlier Wednesday, Parker said someone from her office had called the state Attorney General’s office for counsel on how to respond to a Sept. 15 incident in which Jones’ chief of staff, Jack Valinski, allegedly took pictures of a 23-year-old law school graduate who came to pick up emails and calendar information he had requested under the Texas Public Information Act.

“It completely freaked him out,” attorney Billy Skinner said of his client, Andy West. “He felt scared. He felt intimidated.” Skinner said West is not connected to the campaigns of any of Jones’s three opponents on the November ballot for At-Large Position 5 on the Council.

Mr. Skinner has uploaded a video of the incident, presumably taken from City Hall security cameras. He also addressed Council, and specifically CM Jones, about the incident this past Thursday. You can see that video here; go to video 4, and scroll ahead to 15:20 for the nine-minute exchange, including Mayor Parker’s postscript. I will leave both to your interpretation.

[L]ater Wednesday, the friction between Jones and the Houston Police Officers’ Union flared anew when the union delivered a letter to District Attorney Pat Lykos asking her to investigate Jones for practicing law without a license.

The State Bar of Texas suspended the councilwoman’s law license on Sept. 1 because she had failed to pay her annual membership dues and her attorney occupational tax. She was reinstated Sept. 30 when she paid the arrears in full. The police union submitted legal documents signed by Jones with September dates to indicate that she continued to practice law during the suspension.

“It’s starting to look a lot like Groundhog Day at HPOU. If the sun comes up, then there’s a good chance that Ray Hunt will lodge a complaint somewhere,” Jones spokeswoman Kelly Cripe said in an email. Hunt is the union’s vice president.

You can see the HPOU press release here. I’ve not seen any of the referenced documents, and not being an attorney I’m not sure I’d know what to make of them if I had. Far as I know, the grievance the HPOU filed against Jones with the State Bar has not yet been resolved. We’ll see what Lykos does with this hot potato.

DA gets Jones case

What sound does a hot potato make when it gets passed to someone else?

The Harris County District Attorney has been asked to review for possible criminal prosecution allegations that Councilwoman Jolanda Jones used city resources to support her private law practice, Mayor Annise Parker confirmed this afternoon.

Shortly after the Office of Inspector General released a report last month summarizing its findings that Jones had used a city phone number, fax machine and employee time to run her practice, Parker said she did not believe Jones should face criminal prosecution. The alleged crimes are misdemeanors.

Since then, Parker has chaired numerous meetings of a three-member review panel advised by City Attorney David Feldman to determine whether Jones should face the judgment of her fellow council members. If the panel sends the matter to council, Jones could face penalties ranging from reprimand to removal.

[…]

The Inspector General, Houston’s top internal affairs official, referred the case to the district attorney independently, said Parker, but she does not disapprove of the decision.

“My concern once council member Jones started attacking the process was that it would make it very difficult to proceed” with the panel review, Parker said. “This certainly takes that out of the equation.”

The panel is scheduled to meet again Wednesday. Parker said she believes the panel should suspend its work while the district attorney’s office does its job.

All I know at this point is that this needs a resolution, one way or another. I wish I knew what went on in those meetings. It seems clear that there was no consensus, but was that a requirement under the new ordinance, or was it supposed to be up to the Mayor to make like Judge Judy and say how it was going to be? I have no idea. Whatever the case, it’s Pat Lykos’ problem now.

UPDATE: I stand corrected about one thing: There was consensus about the panel suspending deliberations until the DA concludes its investigation.

Still talking about jail overcrowding

Here’s another op-ed about jail overcrowding in Harris County and what to do about it. It’s all familiar stuff – we’ve only been talking about this for a million years or so – but I was struck by what wasn’t said.

Harris County has made strides to safely reduce the jail population. Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos has changed the way her office prosecutes drug possession cases by no longer jailing anyone caught with trace amounts of drugs. This policy change has had a significant positive effect on reducing the jail population without an increase in crime. Sheriff Adrian Garcia has adopted pilot projects for low-risk offenders sentenced to jail. Harris County also created a public defender office, which hopefully can curtail the mass guilty pleas that principally occur because the defendant just wants to get out of jail.

We strongly urge implementation of the strategies recommended in 2009 and expounded on in a Houston Ministers Against Crime report earlier this year.

You can read more about that Ministers Against Crime report, including the report itself, here. What’s missing from this discussion is any mention of Harris County Jail Czar Caprice Cosper. What has she been up to? Google News has nothing, and a plain old Google search has nothing of substance since last February. We know what to do, we just need to quit writing reports and actually start doing it. The DA’s office has done some things, and the Sheriff’s office has done some things, but the judges for the most part are still doing what they’ve been doing with bail and bonds. When is that going to change? Grits has more.

The firings will continue until services improve

Harris County has only just begun to fire people.

The protective net county government weaves under 4 million people — jailing crooks, inoculating residents against disease, investigating child abuse and treating the mentally ill – would fray noticeably under spending cut plans that get a hearing later this week.

With the property tax money county government relies on to cover most of its bills plummeting, the county’s budget boss has asked each department to show what the fiscal year that starts March 1 would look like with a 10 percent cut to the overall $1.3 billion budget.

The answers have come back in grim detail: fewer checks on children who are the subject of custody disputes; the shutdown of prosecutors’ units dedicated to elder abuse, identity theft and public assistance fraud; longer pretrial waits in jail as a shrunken courts staff scrambles to catch up on a backlog of paperwork.

“Public safety is the number one priority of government. That is why government exists,” District Attorney Pat Lykos said last week. In a statement issued Monday, she said, “Further reductions in force will be devastating, delaying justice and putting the public at risk.”

I guess the public will have to get used to it, because until it demands something different, this is what it will get. If you’re not affected, or don’t know anyone who will be affected, by this, you’re a very lucky person.

The HPD crime lab backlog

I just have one question about this:

Lengthy waits for Houston police to test evidence for DNA is an increasingly common problem in the Harris County judicial system, prosecutors say. The understaffed HPD crime lab currently has a backlog of 1,434 cases with newly collected forensic evidence that has not been tested, and prosecutors worry that dangerous criminals remain free as the backlog grows by 75 new cases a month.

“The big deal is when they (HPD ) don’t have the resources to do the analysis, then we don’t have the evidence to charge somebody with a crime. And that person might go out and hurt somebody else,“ said Maria McAnulty, who heads the trial bureau at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

District Attorney Pat Lykos is lobbying hard to have HPD turn over the testing of all new blood and DNA evidence to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. That would free up HPD crime lab’s 20-person DNA staff to work exclusively on a separate backlog of more than 4,000 rape kits, some of which date to 1994.

“HPD doesn’t have the capacity, and that’s why it is absolutely imperative that the city and the county enter into an agreement,“ Lykos said.

County officials are developing cost estimates for an interim DNA lab to do the testing for the county and city, and have proposed a vacant 20,000-square-foot lab in the Medical Center. The testing could begin in six months at an estimated cost of $20 million a year.

Where’s Harris County going to find the money to pay for that? You can blame the city of Houston for this if you’d like, but the same question applies. Right now, at every level of government, we don’t have the money to pay for the things we want. It’s easy to talk about cuts, but stuff like this is the consequence. Until we come to grips with the fact that what we have is a revenue issue, and we become willing to do something serious about it, problems like this will never go away.

Bad building design

I have two questions about this story, which is about the poor design of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center downtown.

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos calls the building at 1201 Franklin “the most poorly designed criminal justice center in the United States of America.”

The main problem, courthouse users say, is that too many people try to use too few elevators starting about 8:30 every weekday morning. The building opened in 2000 and the problem has existed since day one.

Possible solutions may be on the way, county officials said last week. Those include smarter docketing, renovating the first floor and spending millions to install four new elevators.

[…]

The root of the problem seems to be that planners did not understand that defendants out on bail, defense lawyers and prosecutors constantly move between floors using the elevators.

The four stairwells, secreted behind heavy wooden doors in each corner of the building, are seldom used.

Defendants sometimes have to go between three different floors to check in, pay fees and go to court. Hundreds of defense lawyers and prosecutors float around the building’s 11 floors of courtrooms all morning.

1. How is it that the “planners” did not foresee these problems when the building was being designed? Did they not understand how the system worked? I suppose perhaps something about the way things worked may have changed between the design phase and the grand opening, but if so the story doesn’t say. Or did they make bad assumptions, such as that people in an unfamiliar building would seek out the stairways instead of waiting for the elevators that are right in front of them?

2. How exactly is it that it’s taken ten years for these issues to be addressed? I understand that building new elevators is not a project that is undertaken lightly, but most of the other fixes are administrative in nature. What took them so long?

Murray Newman, who commented on this story before it went online, also wrote about this issue back in May, suggesting that scheduling changes could help a lot:

Why do Harris County Criminal Courts at law make all people on bond come to court every 2-3 weeks? Why don’t the courts give the defendant’s lawyers enough time to investigate the case and then come back to court when they are ready to do something on the case, like plead or go to trial?

This is completely unnecessary and a monumental waste of time for lawyers, defendants (people who have real lives and real jobs yet people who are being forced to take off work for almost a full day while their case is pending, people who are “presumed” at this point to be innocent). Why can’t Harris County follow proper manners and etiquette and extend a little professional courtesy to the people charged with an offense and the lawyers representing them and allow the parties to appear at mandatory court dates less frequently?

In Galveston County, they actually let you come to court about once every 6 months so you can actually have time to work on your case. Montgomery County will give you a 3 month reset. Fort Bend and Brazoria also show the same courtesy. Harris County, however, will make a person come to court about 5 times in a 3 month period.

Why does Harris County do this?

There’s also an interesting comment from one of the aforementioned planners, which suggests they did see this coming but were disregarded. Well, at least now I know.

It’s still hard to free an innocent person

No surprise, right?

While some appellate attorneys are applauding Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ establishment of a Post Conviction Review Section, whose work led to the freedom of two wrongfully convicted men in the past week, Texas law continues to make it difficult for inmates appealing convictions to be heard in court. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remains unfriendly to innocence claims, said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for The Innocence Project of Texas.

“I’m convinced there are thousands of people in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that are innocent and need to get out,” Blackburn said. “But getting them out is very, very difficult.”

Lykos broke ranks with other district attorneys in Texas when she took office in January 2009 by establishing a team dedicated to reviewing cases in which people may have been wrongfully convicted – a move that has changed Harris County’s judicial climate, Blackburn said. The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office has a similar division focused on reviewing possible wrongful convictions in their jurisdiction.

“Harris County was light-years behind everybody else – now it’s light-years ahead of everyone else,” Blackburn said. “I think (Lykos) has brought about a sea change in attitude and perspective for that office. I wish every DA in the state would do what she has proven herself capable of doing in these cases. It’s something that requires a lot of moral authority and a lot of courage.

“We’re still facing counties that will resist the ideas of even DNA tests,” Blackburn said. “That’s crazy to me. If you’ve got biological evidence, why not test it?”

First, kudos to Pat Lykos for establishing that Post Conviction Review Section, which was long overdue here. It’s a big step forward. With the two largest counties in the state now setting that kind of example, one would hope that there will be pressure on others to follow suit. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, and most likely it will take a combination of legislative action and reform-minded candidates ousting recalcitrant incumbents for real progress to be made, but I believe that eventually this will be the standard, and the resistance that Blackburn speaks of will be rightly seen as obsolete.

Please don’t shred the documents

This isn’t good.

At a crucial moment in the development of its light rail system, Metro confronted accusations Wednesday that it shredded documents sought in an open-records request, then fired two attorneys who objected to its handling of the request.

State District Judge Robert Shaffer signed a temporary restraining order forbidding the Metropolitan Transit Authority from destroying records requested by former City Controller Lloyd Kelley.

In January, the Houston lawyer had requested travel records, e-mail and other documents involving several top Metro officials, Board Chairman David Wolff and an executive of an agency rail contractor.

In a hastily called news conference, Metro President Frank Wilson said one of the agency’s lawyers shredded some documents on Monday. When he discovered this, Wilson said, he ordered an investigation of what was shredded and the circumstances.

Wilson said he didn’t know whether the shredded documents included any sought by Kelley, but said he was confident Metro will produce the records Kelley wants.

“I’m not sure there was anything sinister about it,” Wilson said. “It may be very innocent and very coincidental.”

That’s usually not the way it is, and even if it does turn out to be the case, the timing is still lousy. Does Metro have a document retention policy in place, and if so was it followed? If it doesn’t have such a policy, now would be a good time to put together a team to create one. Just please make sure the process to create it is done openly, and allows for plenty of input from the public.

To its credit, Metro’s response is appropriate.

Faced with a lawsuit, an increasingly critical mayor and lingering questions about document shredding and high-level firings, Metro board chairman David Wolff took steps Thursday to prop up public confidence in his embattled agency.

Wolff released documents that he said was fully responsive to a January open records request by former City Controller Lloyd Kelley.

He joined Mayor Annise Parker in asking Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos to investigate the shredding of as-yet unidentified documents Monday by a Metro employee.

“It is very important to maintain public confidence in Metro, and that’s why I’ve urged the mayor to involve the DA’s office beginning today, if possible,” Wolff said.

Lykos, through a spokeswoman, declined to say whether she would comply with the request.

The best outcome is for the DA to investigate and determine that nothing sinister happened. Let’s hope that is the case. Martha and Hair Balls have more.

The forensics backlog

I was going to blog about this Chron story regarding a backlog in fingerprint analyses for the HPD Crime Lab, but Grits said most of what I was going to say, so just go read him. The key, I think, is this:

[W]hether the lab is independent or part of the police department, the problem of chronic backlogs stems from a shortage of resources – it’s going to cost Houston a lot more money to fix this problem, either way, than they’re spending on forensics now. The only other option is to choose not to devote forensic resources to certain categories of offenses, and if backlogs become too onerous, to expand those categories.

I feel like what’s been left unsaid in the discussion about creating regional and/or independent crime labs is the cost, and who pays for it. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to think these are good ideas, but only if we do them right. A half-assed, underfunded independent crime will be no improvement over what we have now. DA Lykos suggests in the article that the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office is a possible solution. Maybe she’s right; it can’t hurt to study the idea, in any event. We need to look at these current problems as opportunities to find a better way to do what we’re doing now, and to get commitments to pay for them, so we won’t be faced with fixing the same problems again in another few years.

More on the new DA drug policy

Mark Bennett notes the new policy for dealing with trace amounts of drugs as announced by the Harris County DA’s office and suggests there’s little to be concerned about.

What we’re really talking about here is a small number of people—the Harris County Sheriff’s Office guesses that 750 or fewer people are in Harris County’s jails for possession of trace amounts of controlled substances; there are a few people serving sentences of between six months and two years in State Jail as well for trace cases. The Office of Applied Studies of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 8% of Americans over the age of 12 were current illicit drug users. Harris County has almost 4 million people. If (interpolating from Houston 2000 numbers here) 81.4% of those people are over 12 and 8% of those people are current drug users, then more than 250,000 Harris County residents are current illicit drug users.

In a county of nearly four million, can incarcerating 3% or 6% of the illicit drug users at any one time make a statistically significant difference in the amount of violent or property crime? It might, though I haven’t noticed any shortage of methheads wandering up and down my street under the current regime; I think Pat Lykos has indicated that she is willing to consider the possibility that things will get worse under her new policy.

If the resources taken to prosecute those 750 or 1500 people are then turned toward investigating and prosecuting thieves, burglars, and robbers will there be a net loss in public safety over six months? Pat Lykos is betting that there won’t. If she’s wrong, she can try something different, and if she’s right she has improved the criminal justice system for all time.

I should note that Mark had heard rumors about this change in policy back in October, and mentioned them again on his blog nearly a week before the Chron story appeared. Nicely done, Mark!

Getting smarter about crime

The news that Harris County DA Pat Lykos has changed the office’s policy to no longer will file state jail felony charges against suspects found with only a trace of drugs is good news indeed.

Lykos said the move “gives us more of an ability to focus on the violent offenses and the complex offenses. When you have finite resources, you have to make decisions, and this decision is a plus all around.”

She said she did not have figures for how many cases may be affected, because cases are filed as possession of less than a gram.

Of more than 46,000 felony cases filed last year, almost 30 percent, 13,713, were for possession of less than a gram of drugs.

She said that while having a crack pipe will be only a ticketable offense, police still will be able to search suspects and cars if they find one. She noted that other counties, including Travis and Bexar, have similar policies. In Fort Worth, she said, the minimum is twice as large — .02 of a gram.

Lykos said the policy may help reduce jail overcrowding, an an idea “cautiously” embraced by Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

“The sheriff is cautiously in support of the policy,” said Alan Bernstein, director of public affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

The new policy will be reviewed after six months in response to concerns expressed by police that crack pipe busts help catch burglars. I think we could probably learn from other counties’ experiences to tell us about that, but I suppose that’s the politics of this. Be that as it may, this will enable to DA’s office to devote more of its resources to more serious crimes, and as with the proposal by County Commissioner El Franco Lee to let more inmates do cleanup work for quicker releases, it will have the effect of easing the jail overcrowding problem. Given how pressing that matter is, it’s very encouraging to see concrete steps like these being taken to deal with it. Kudos to DA Lykos for making the call. Grits and Murray Newman have more.

Lykos asks Senate for regional crime lab funds

Harris County DA Pat Lykos went before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week to ask for money that would be used to help get a regional crime lab up and running.

Lykos testified Tuesday in support of the Innocence Protection Act and urged lawmakers to implement a pilot program of independent DNA testing labs, with Houston as the first site.

[…]

She estimated $15 million would get a lab up and running in temporary offices in six months.

“The barrier is money,” she said. “The county has already developed a plan. I want to accelerate that plan.”

These things never move quickly, but given that the alternative is to wait till 2011 for the Lege to act, it’s relatively accelerated. I hope she succeeds.

Chron poll: Brown leads

Campos teased the news earlier today, and now the story is up: Peter Brown leads in a new Zogby poll of the Mayor’s race.

According to the poll, Brown leads the field with 23.8 percent of the vote, followed by Parker with 19 percent, Locke with 13.1 percent, and Harris County Board of Education Trustee Roy Morales with 6.7 percent.

The results are drawn from a survey of 601 likely Houston voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

In head-to-head matchups that provide some insight on how the candidates may fare in a potential runoff, Brown’s lead withers to statistical insignificance against Parker, with him winning 35.3 percent to Parker’s 34 percent, and 28.8 percent undecided.

In a one-on-one contest between Brown and Locke, Brown leads with 36.9 percent to 24.9 percent, with 34.1 percent undecided.

While Parker is close to Brown and polled strongly among self-identified Democrats, women and younger voters, the results could spell trouble for Locke, who has only slightly better name recognition in the race than Morales, a more conservative candidate whose anemic fundraising has not allowed him to pay for any television, radio or mail advertising.

Well, that’s a strong suggestion that Brown’s domination of the airwaves has had an effect. There’s still a lot of undecideds, and I’m not sure I believe that Locke’s level of support is that low, but this is what we’ve got.

Greg, Martha, and Nancy add their analyses, and they cover most of the necessary ground. The main thing I would add is that it’s a wee bit unclear just what their voter screen is. The story says “a survey of 601 likely Houston voters”, but the sidebar says “601 likely voters, randomly drawn from a telephone list of registered voters”. Does that mean they spoke to more than 601 people from that list and used a filter of some kind to narrow it down, or does that simply mean 601 registered voters? There’s a big difference between the two. And if they did narrow things down, how many people did they speak to originally? Remember, in a good year turnout will be around 30%, so most registered voters are not “likely”, and that’s especially true this year when turnout might be more in the 20-25% range. So as happy as I am to see another data point, it’s still the case that you can only put so much stock in just one data point. It would not be a surprise at all if another pollster got a different result, if only because they made different assumptions about who is “likely” to vote this year.

For what it’s worth, Zogby did a pretty reasonable job polling Harris County in 2008 for the Chron, though they did show Bradford beating Lykos by 7 in the DA race, and gave Ed Emmett a much bigger lead than he eventually won with against David Mincberg. I believe this is a trickier race to poll, as again nobody has a firm grip on how big the electorate will eventually be. With all those undecideds, the question is will they eventually pick someone, or will they stay home? I guarantee everyone will be paying very close attention to how early voting goes.

Finally, as Nancy notes, the Chron also made its endorsements in the Mayor’s race. Yes, endorsements – they co-endorsed Parker and Locke. I can’t wait to see how that goes. A statement from the Parker campaign about the poll is here. I’ve reproduced it, plus a statement from the Brown campaign, beneath the fold. I have not as yet seen a statement from the Locke campaign.

UPDATE: Received a release from the Gene Locke campaign, which has been added beneath the fold as well.

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Endorsement watch: At Large

Having dispatched with the District Council races yesterday, the Chron continues with the schedule I’d hoped they’d follow by making their endorsements in the At Large races. As I thought, they went with incumbents Sue Lovell in #2 and Jolanda Jones in #5. The other two were not what I thought they’d be.

At-Large Position 1

• In a crowded field of eight candidates vying to replace outgoing incumbent and mayoral candidate Peter Brown, the best choice for voters is health care management specialist Herman Litt, a former trustee and board chairman of the Houston Community College. He is also the past president of Southwest Houston 2000, which focused on lowering crime and spurring economic development in the area.

As a qualification for office, Litt cites his experience as a consensus builder in bringing the fractured HCC board together. He has an imposing list of endorsements, including former Houston mayors Fred Hofheinz and Bob Lanier.

Litt pledges to work to extend Houston’s parks and hike-and-bike trails and to establish a regional crime lab to replace the troubled Houston police facility.

I had guessed they’d pick Stephen Costello, but that was strictly a guess, as there are too many well-qualified candidates in this race to get a good feel for it. Litt is one of those strong candidates and a fine choice, and he does have a lot of backing, though Costello and Karen Derr have won plenty of group endorsements as well. Litt hasn’t done as well with fundraising as I originally expected, but perhaps he’ll get a late push from this. In any event, in a low-profile, low-dollar year like this, the Chron endorsement is likely to be a boost, so my congratulations to Herman Litt for getting it.

At-Large Position 4

• In this seat being vacated by outgoing councilman and controller candidate Ronald Green, one candidate stands out among the field of four. He is C.O. “Brad” Bradford, an attorney, veteran Houston police officer and department chief for seven years under Mayors Bob Lanier and Lee Brown. Not surprisingly, Bradford touts his law-enforcement career as the prime reason voters should put him on City Council.

He says the city needs a long term plan to control the rising costs of public safety, which consumes the bulk of the city’s operational budget. High on his agenda is closing the dilapidated city jail and establishing a joint booking and jail facility with Harris County.

This one surprised me. The Chron endorsed Pat Lykos over Bradford in the DA race last year, saying that Bradford’s “under-aggressive responses” to the HPD Crime Lab scandal “weakened his leadership credentials”. They were also scathingly critical of Bradford earlier in the year for his role in the K-Mart Kiddie Roundup after a settlement was reached in the last of the lawsuits. Add that to Bradford’s campaign finance report issues, and, well, I just didn’t expect them to endorse him. I guess you never know.

Meanwhile, the Chron also disposes of the last of the Constitutional amendments on the ballot by endorsing Prop 10, which would extend the term of office for the governing boards of Emergency Services Districts from two years to four.

Extending the terms is recommended for two reasons: cost and efficiency. Under the current system, in which members serve staggered, two-year terms, elections must be held annually. This is a pointless expense, considering the typically light turnout and, more importantly, the urgent need for longer terms, as Proposition 10 would provide.

Four-year terms are preferable because governing-board members need a threshold of knowledge about the areas of service covered by the ESDs. This is more likely to be achieved with a four-year term than a two-year term. The many ESDs around the state whose boards are appointed would be unaffected by this proposed change.

So it’s unanimous, the Chron says to vote Yes for all eleven props. I’m still not sure about some of the others, but this one seems reasonable enough to me.

Commissioners Court approves public defenders plan

The “hybrid” public defenders office that Commissioners Court had been considering was approved Tuesday by a 5-0 vote, though the details still need to be worked out in time for the February 2010 budget meeting.

“It’s going to take however long its going to take,“ Commissioner El Franco Lee said. “It’s now in the hands of judges, and bureaucrats and accountants who will tell us what that costs, can we afford it, and when we can afford if we can’t afford it now.”

Officials are hoping a public defender office will help reduce the backlog of jail inmates awaiting trial in the overcrowded county jail system — currently holding 11,430 inmates in jails from Houston to Louisiana — and divert others with mental problems from incarceration.

“At the end of the day this really isn’t just about money, it’s about justice. We have to ensure the public that defendants are getting an adequate defense,” County Judge Ed Emmett said afterward. “The court’s unanimous vote to move forward is a clear indication of an intent to establish a pubic defender’s office in next year’s budget.”

The 5-0 vote came during the court’s annual mid-year budget review. The court referred the implementation of the plan to the newly formed Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The council, chaired by Lee and drawn exclusively from elected officials, was created by the court this summer to help alleviate chronic jail overcrowding and streamline the county’s criminal justice system.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia, a member of the council, said he would support a public defender office if the council did. District Attorney Patricia Lykos has said she would support a public defender office or court-appointed attorneys, as long as indigents receive effective legal representation.

It’s a good start, and hopefully by having dedicated employees for the task of indigent defense we really can start to make a dent in the jail population. If they can succeed in getting more people out on bail, and getting those who need treatment for mental illnesses steered in that direction, it should have a real effect. I’m encouraged by this and look forward to seeing the final product. A statement from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, who is one of the champions of this effort, is beneath the fold.

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The county’s proposal for a public defender’s office

Next week, a proposal for a “hybrid” public defender’s office will be presented to Harris County Commissioners Court.

It is considered a hybrid because it would allow courts to use both public defenders and private attorneys. For example, two of the county’s three juvenile courts are interested in assigning public defenders to represent 60 percent of the young defendants; the other 40 percent would get lawyers appointed by the judge.

Advocates say creation of a public defenders office can help quickly reduce chronic overcrowding in the Harris County Jail, where more than half of the 11,500 inmates are awaiting trial. The lawyers hired for the office would earn the same as prosecutors employed by the District Attorney’s Office.

The proposal, included in the county’s midyear review before Commissioners Court next week, was applauded by defense advocates who favor the county’s approach to modify the existing system.

“It’s an excellent step in the right direction,” said Jim Bethke, director of the Task Force on Indigent Defense, part of the Texas Judicial Council in Austin. “Ultimately, we want to help county government improve delivery of indigent defense services, and the work and effort they put into this is extremely commendable. They’re not trying to just jump into it and throw something together.”

The proposal, so far, appears to have less than full support among the county’s state district criminal judges.

Only 11 of the 22 state district criminal judges expressed interest in the use of public defenders for appellate work, while only five courts endorsed the concept for felony trials. Two of the three juvenile courts are interested in public defenders, while all 15 county criminal courts have agreed to a hybrid system to represent mentally ill or disabled indigents, according to documents from court administrators.

[…]

The public defender proposal, under study since April, was drafted by the Office of Court Management and will be referred to the county’s newly created Criminal Justice Coordinating Council after it’s presented to Commissioners Court on Tuesday.

The proposal was not endorsed by District Attorney Patricia Lykos, nor by the county’s criminal defense lawyers.

“The mission of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is to seek justice. Defendants are entitled to effective representation, and indigent defendants have the right to have counsel appointed,” said Lykos, in a statement released late Friday. “Whether counsel is court-appointed or provided through a public defender’s office is a public policy decision. This office will respect whatever decision is made.”

JoAnne Musick, president of the 600-member Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said her group is “split roughly 50-50,” and even lawyers who favor a public defender office are reserving judgment until they see how it would be administered. And the county’s judges are unlikely to agree on a program that will curtail their ability to select, and approve hefty legal fees, to private attorneys, she said.

Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coa­lition in Austin, said the county’s proposal “is one of the strongest proposals we’ve seen in a while.”

It also could provide another benefit, she said, noting that the Harris County Jail is overcrowded, “and what adds to overcrowding is not having a responsible, fast way of handling cases.”

The CJC sent a letter in support of a public defender’s office last week. Grits has more on the proposal itself. I’d be interested to know which judges are in favor of it and which are opposed. Is there a partisan divide? Are the judges who are up for re-election in 2010 more or less likely to favor it? I think we deserve to know the answers to those questions.

HISD set to hire Grier

But not without some drama first.

The Houston school board is expected to officially hire Terry Grier as superintendent Thursday and offer him a multiyear contract that is likely to top $400,000 a year in salary and perks over time.

Three weeks of intense negotiations on the deal dragged into Wednesday evening, with trustees trying to ensure they didn’t end up repeating the costly deal they had with Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, who stepped down last month.

Saavedra’s exit package cost taxpayers $978,967, according to the district. Much of the payout was for unused time off he had accrued over his career, plus extra vacation days the board granted him.

HISD Trustee Paula Harris said Saavedra’s contract served as a “lesson learned,” and this time around the board paid “a lot more attention to detail.”

“It’s a fair contract,” Harris said. “Both sides should be quite pleased.”

Harris said she expects the board to unanimously appoint Grier at its 5 p.m. meeting today — though state Sen. Mario Gallegos is threatening to derail the process.

Gallegos, D-Houston, said he is prepared to ask Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ office to investigate the school board for possible violations of the state’s open-meetings law.

He said he believes trustees unlawfully deliberated about Grier’s contract before naming him the lone finalist for superintendent last month, and he has requested documents from the district to try to prove his case.

“I’m serious about this,” said Gallegos, who sent a letter with his demands Tuesday to HISD’s outside counsel, Chris Gilbert. “I believe the public was shut out.”

I doubt Sen. Gallegos will get any joy out of this, but as one who’s on record opposing the secret superintendent search, I am interested in seeing what he finds out. I do think the Board should have been more open, and if they say that makes their job of finding superintendents too hard, then it’s on them to lobby the Lege to write a new law that explicitly allows them to do it their way. I hope in the end that Dr. Grier will be such a success that all of this will some day be looked back on as a mere trifle, but in the meantime we ought to know if all the rules were followed in hiring him.

Grand juror disagrees with dismissal of arson charge against Francisca Medina

Given the grand jury issues that surrounded the original indictment of Supreme Court Justice David Medina in the matter of the fire that destroyed his house, this seems only fitting.

A grand juror who sat on one of two panels to indict the wife of Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina for setting their home on fire said Saturday he was disappointed that charges against her had once again been dismissed.

“There were two independent grand juries, and from the facts determined, there was sufficient probable cause to retain indictments,” said Steve Howell, a retired oil and gas executive. “I would like to have a jury hear the facts. I am perfectly contented once a jury has heard the facts, to abide by a decision of a jury … I trust juries.”

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos denied politics had anything to do with her decision Friday to dismiss the charges against Francisca Medina. Instead, she said it was strictly new evidence that earned her approval.

Prosecutor Steve Baldassano said neither of the grand juries that heard the case had the new information.

Expert evidence recently given to Baldassano by the defense team – and agreed upon by at least one official from the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office – indicates it could have been an electrical fire.

“If you can’t rule out an electrical fire as the cause, then you can’t prove arson,” said Lykos.

Arson cannot be ruled out either, said Baldassano, who emphasized that the defense’s expert witnesses were “highly regarded” in the field and also serve as experts for the state in other cases.

Howell, the grand juror, said the new information indicating the cause of the fire could have been electrical would have had little effect, if any, on his decision to indict because he had access to other evidence and testimony, which he would not discuss.

I presume that nothing precludes the possibility of charges being refiled in the future if the evidence warrants. This has been a truly weird case from the beginning. Murray Newman has more.

The exodus from the DA’s office

The Chron writes about disgruntlement in the DA’s office.

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos promised to clean house when she was elected in November and promptly fired seven senior prosecutors. Now other experienced prosecutors, including a member of Lykos’ upper echelon, are leaving, citing a lack of communication and a toxic work environment.

With career prosecutors leaving without being asked, some are worried Lykos is driving away those she’d hoped to keep, leaving the office hurting for experience, institutional memory and mentors for newer prosecutors.

Lykos said there is no problem. Employees leave jobs for a number of reasons, and space at the top gives rising stars room to advance.

“Turnover is normal and it gives younger, eager prosecutors upward mobility,” Lykos said.

Murray Newman, who used to be an assistant DA and who has been one of the biggest critics of Pat Lykos and her office around, hails the story and piles on to it. I obviously have no insider knowledge here, but in fairness it must be noted that there’s always some turmoil when there’s a change at the top of an office like the District Attorney. There’s been a certain amount of disgruntlement at the Sheriff’s office as well, with Robert Goerlitz, the Secretary/Treasurer of the Harris County Deputies Organization being a leading critic – see these two documents, which Goerlitz forwarded to Carl Whitmarsh’s listserv awhile ago, for an example. Having said that, there’s not been anything like the exodus from the HCSO’s office that there has been from the DA’s office. Even to an outsider like me, it seems clear that something different is going on there.

Speaking in political terms, I’d say this is mostly inside baseball until such time as a former employee announces an electoral challenge to Lykos, or current and former ADAs publicly back an opponent to Lykos, much as the deputies’ organizations supported Adrian Garcia over Tommy Thomas last year. Until then, it’s interesting but not really predictive of anything. The next election is a long way off, after all.

On a related note, I’d like to thank Murray for pointing me to the Fake Pat Lykos Twitter feed, and for reminding me again just what a goober HCRP Chair Jared Woodfill is. I guess he hasn’t paid much attention in all those doing it in the Facebook with the Twittering classes the local GOP is teaching.

When county officials cooperate

I was sent a copy of this story as a PDF a few days ago, and I’m glad to see (via Hair Balls) that it’s available online. It’s about the level of cooperation between Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and County Attorney Vince Ryan, and the positive effect it’s having on the operation of those offices and other areas of county government. It’s great to see, and a large turnaround from before, when Chuck “Right Ear” Rosenthal and Mike Stafford were in charge. Check it out.

The DA’s new DWI program

The Harris County District Attorney’s new driving while intoxicated diversion program appears to have some problems.

Under the new program, those accused of a first-time DWI will be offered the diversion program or 30 days in jail and a $750 fine. Defendants who do not want either choice can take their cases to the judge or to trial.

Currently, some first-time DWI defendants are given the option of pleading guilty, paying a $100 fine and taking three days in jail, plus two days, which they do not have to serve if they behaved during the first three.

Known around the courthouse as a 3/2/$100, the deal will not be offered after the diversion program begins.

Those who take the diversion program will plead guilty and get a maximum of two years probation, including treatment and community service. If they successfully complete the probation, their records will not show a conviction for driving while intoxicated. If they fail, they will be sentenced to at least 30 days in jail under a contract signed when they take the deal.

JoAnne Musick, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said the program is coercive and appears to thwart the intent of the Legislature, which prohibits deferred adjudication for DWI offenses.

“It could have been a good program. It could have been an exceptional opportunity for people who have made a mistake and driven when they shouldn’t have,” Musick said. “At the same time, I think it’s very poor planning and execution on how to conduct the program.”

She said the plan is coercive because defendants have to waive their rights, sign a contract and plead guilty. She said defendants could be sent to jail at the smallest amount of evidence of a mistake or if they fail to fulfill every requirement.

Problem One, as Musick points out, is that this looks an awful lot like a deferred adjudication program, which the Lege outlawed for DWI infractions back in the 90s. Problem Two, as noted later in the story, is that it’s not clear this will actually reduce the jail population, which would seem to be the point and which constitutes a deal-breaker for me. Remember, a lot of defendants prefer to choose jail time over probation now because the probation requirements are so onerous. Problems Three and higher are enumerated by Grits, Mark Bennett, Paul Kennedy, and Murray Newman; I’ll leave it to you to see what they have to say. I’m thinking this one needs some more time on the drawing board.

Interview with CO Bradford

C.O. "Brad" BradfordNext up in the interview series is C.O. “Brad” Bradford, who is running for At Large #4, currently held by the term-limited Ronald Green. Bradford was the Democratic candidate for Harris County District Attorney last year, and though he lost in a very close race, a number of the ideas he campaigned on have been adopted by the victor, DA Pat Lykos. Bradford is a 30-year resident of Houston who served in HPD for 24 years, including a stint as Chief of Police under former Mayors Bob Lanier and Lee Brown.

Download the MP3 file.

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Karen Derr

The jail czar

I think the whole “czar” thing is overdone, but if it takes hiring a person whose only job it is to focus on jail overcrowding to get something done in a real and lasting way about it, then so be it.

Commissioners Court is expected today to appoint a former state District Judge Caprice Cosper serve as “jail czar” to head a council of elected officials grappling with overcrowding that has plagued the Harris County lockup for years and prompted the county to send more than 1,000 prisoners out of state.

A criminal justice coordinating council — comprised of 11 elected county officials — was one of 28 recommendations made last month by Justice Management Institute, a Denver-based consulting firm that authored an exhaustive, $150,000 study of the county’s troubled justice system.

The study noted the rising jail population — which more than doubled in five years — is driven largely by an upsurge in arrests for possession of trace amounts of illegal drugs, as well as a lack of facilities and services for large numbers of mentally ill, who make up 25 percent of the jail population. The county’s over-reliance on antiquated record-keeping in paper files and outdated computers was cited, as was the need for coordinated oversight of all related criminal justice operations.

“There’s a misconception that’s there one single thing and there’s not, there’s not a silver bullet,“ said Caprice Cosper, an executive assistant to Commissioner Steve Radack and a former district judge who is expected to be approved as council director.

“There are a lot of puzzle pieces that need to be looked at,” Cosper said. “Harris County is lucky in that it has a lot of (criminal justice) data … but we don’t have it in the form we need to answer questions we need answered.“

[…]

Leaders of the county’s defense bar were disappointed at not getting a seat at the council table.

“When you get all stakeholders together to discuss the issue, you’ll formulate the very best plan. If you leave out a major stakeholder, I think you plan to fail,“ said Earle Musick, past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer’s Association. “We’re kinda used to it.”

Sheriff Adrian Garcia said he was eager to work with other county officials to find alternatives to sheltering large numbers of mentally ill, as well as those who are in jail awaiting trial because they cannot make bail.

I think that covers most of the important points. Obviously, this is going to take coordination, and cooperation from the District Attorney and the various judges as well as from Sheriff Garcia. I do think not having a member of the defense bar on the council is a mistake, but it doesn’t have to be a fatal one. In the end, the results will tell the story. I should note that Grits wasn’t all that impressed with Sheriff Garcia’s Sunday op-ed – he thought it was vague and unspecific. As the Harris County jail situation has been a regular beat of his, I’ll be very interested to see his take on this.

What about Dwayne?

The Lone Star Project turns its attention to Ed Johnson‘s partner, State Rep. Dwayne Bohac.

[Friday], the Lone Star Project formally submitted open records requests of Dwayne Bohac, Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez, Harris County DA Pat Lykos -a CDS client, and others. Given the refusal of Harris County Republican officials and Dwayne Bohac to respond responsibly to media inquiries about Ed Johnson, they must be compelled to produce records before evidence is destroyed or otherwise withheld from public or legal scrutiny.

[…]

To this point, Dwayne Bohac has said nothing to the press about his company, his activities or his employees, despite all being implicated in the scandal.  Bohac owes Harris County voters answers to at least the following questions.

Why does Bohac only sell to Harris County campaigns?
CDS claims to sell voter lists and software services, which should be applicable all over the state.  However, CDS only sells to Republican campaigns in Harris County. Is this because Ed Johnson is only available to help in Harris County?

What Harris County voter information has Bohac and Johnson obtained?
The Campaign Data Systems’ website claimed that, “Most data providers allow you to target using only registered voter data and voter history. However, CDS gives you two additional lists—drivers license data and property tax records.” (See the website) Ed Johnson’s position the with the Harris County Tax Assessor Collector, who oversees the voter registration department, may give him access to property tax data, vehicle registration data and other information in addition to the voter data for which he has full access. Bohac should tell Harris County residents what public data he has obtained and where he obtained it.

Why is Dwayne Bohac routing money through Decide Consulting?
Dwayne Bohac has never paid Campaign Data Systems from his campaign account.   Instead, he has suspiciously paid Decide Consulting more than $27,000 since 2004. Decide Consulting was founded by another Bohac business partner, David Moise.  This firm is described as a, “software management and consulting business.” Decide has no other political business listed on its website or on Texas Ethics Commission filings. These payments may be an effort by Bohac to steer profits to his business and business associates, while circumventing Texas Ethics Opinion 35 which prohibits payments to a business when the candidate owns more than a 10% stake for more than actual expenditures. As the opinion says, “the business may not make any profit on such a transaction.”

Good questions. I wonder when someone other than Pat “Conflict? What conflict?” Lykos or Leo Vasquez’s spokesperson will answer any of them. Campos has more.

Chron reports on Ed Johnson

Here’s their story about Ed Johnson and his questionable side venture as a Republican consultant. It doesn’t add much to what we already know, but it does get some local reaction, including from Johnson’s boss, Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez.

Leo Vasquez, Harris County tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, issued a statement that dismissed complaints that Johnson’s job, which can include approving or rejecting voter applications, conflicts with his side business.

“Ed Johnson is an honorable man,” Vasquez said. “It is slanderous and absolutely reprehensible to suggest without evidence that he is involved in inappropriate activity with regard to voter registration in Harris County.”

Vasquez’s spokesman, Fred King, said Johnson has been in this type of business since the mid-1990s, so his involvement in voter registration data was no secret.

“His knowledge of compiling lists and his programming expertise are the reasons Paul Bettencourt (Vasquez’s predecessor) hired him,” King said. “Vasquez may have heard of Ed’s outside business before taking office since many candidates and campaign workers knew of it.”

If it weren’t for the fact that Bettencourt did so much, especially in recent years, to politicize the Tax Assessor’s office, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. If it weren’t for the fact that there had been so many complaints, especially last year, about the way voter registration forms and provisional ballots were being handled, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. If it weren’t for the fact that Johnson had spent so much time parroting Republican fairy tales about the need for voter ID legislation in testimony before the Lege, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. Put it all together, though, and you come to the inescapable conclusion that Johnson’s moonlighting is in fact a big deal. Vasquez needs to get his head out of the sand about it.

Though it should be noted that he’s not the only Republican elected official doing the ostrich thing:

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ campaign paid more than $7,000 last year to CDS. She said late Wednesday her campaign hired CDS for targeted campaign mailers but she did not know about Johnson’s job with the county.

She insisted she saw no compromise of the elections office’s mission.

“I saw no conflict,” Lykos said.

So if it turns out that one of your ADAs has a side gig with a jury consultant who does a lot of work for criminal defense attorneys, that’ll be all right with you, Pat? I’m just checking.

Two immigration stories

Governor Perry writes a letter to the Department of Homeland Security.

Perry asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano this week to take a series of steps to improve information-sharing between federal, state and local law enforcement. The Homeland Security-related issues “seriously affect public safety in Texas,” Perry wrote earlier this week in a letter to Napolitano.

A spokeswoman for Napolitano, Sara Kuban, said Napolitano would respond directly to Perry and declined to comment on the specific issues raised in the letter.

The governor’s requests include:

  • Giving all Texas jails access to a database that automatically checks suspects’ immigration history. So far, 19 of the 252 jails in the state with electronic fingerprint booking participate in the program, including the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department.

    Those 19 jails have checked 37,000 people through the database since last fall, and have identified 8,844 with fingerprints on file with immigration officials, according to Perry’s letter.

    Perry specifically cited the case of Wilfido Alfaro, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who avoided deportation after multiple arrests in Texas and last month shot and critically wounded a Houston Police officer.

  • Requiring ICE officials to notify the state when they deport a foreign national with a Texas driver’s license, which would close a gap that has allowed illegal immigrants to keep valid state identification. For example, according to local investigators, Alfaro had a Texas driver’s license, even though an immigration judge ordered him to leave the country in 2001.
  • Keeping illegal immigrants convicted of crimes in federal custody until their deportation. Perry cited a recent case involving two Cubans convicted of robbery in Florida and dropped by immigration officials at a bus stop in Willacy, Texas, after being released from custody.

Based on a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, immigration officials have about six months to deport or release immigrants after their immigration case is decided. To hold someone longer, the federal government must show that a foreign government will issue the detainee travel documents in the “reasonably foreseeable future” or certify that the person meets stringent criteria to be classified as a danger to society or national interest.

In cases involving immigrants from countries like Cuba, which lacks a repatriation treaty with the U.S., the detainees routinely are released from immigration custody within six months because they cannot be deported.

Other than number three, which raises some Constitutional issues and really needs to be resolved by the US growing up and re-engaging with Cuba, these strike me as perfectly reasonable requests. There’s a big difference between verifying the immigration status of someone who’s already been arrested for something, and verifying the immigration status of someone who’s been pulled over or stopped on the street by the cops for whatever arbitrary reason. Maybe there’s something here I’m not seeing, but offhand I don’t have any objections to the first two items.

The earlier story about DA Pat Lykos’ “no plea bargains unless you confess your immigration status to us” proposal is a different kettle of fish. Mark Bennett gets into some of the problems with this idea, which he also sums up in a simple question, but it’s John Nova Lomax with a truly impressive deconstruction of the Lykos Plan. I can’t really add anything to what he wrote, so go check it out for yourself.