At the beginning of the new year, it’s worth taking a moment to recall some of the biggest Texas criminal justice stories of 2009. It’s a partial list, cut short by babysitting duties this morning, so let me know in the comments what I missed.
Sharon Keller on the dock: The Commission on Judicial Conduct ordered a fact finding hearing to determine whether Presiding Judge Sharon Keller deserves to be removed from the bench for rejecting a last-minute death penalty appeal on bureaucratic grounds (“We close at 5”) without notifying the duty judge whose job it was to evaluate it. The results should be reported in 2010.
Asset forfeiture shakedown: The East Texas town of Tenaha made national headlines for using asset forfeiture laws to shake down passing motorists of whatever they happened to be carrying with them in exchange for not filing trumped up criminal charges. Legislation to remedy those abuses died as a result of the end-of-session voter ID meldtown in the Texas House of Representatives.
No more juvie LWOP: The Texas Legislature abolished life without parole for juveniles, setting the max sentence for juvenile offenses at 40 years.
“Zero tolerance” on contraband fails spectacularly: TDCJ spent most of the year combating contraband – especially cell phones – at Texas prison units, only to have an inmate successfully smuggle a gun onto a prison medical transport and escape from custody. (He was recaptured without incident a week later.) TYC’s Ombudsman, a former judge from Dallas, was indited for intentionally sneaking contraband including a weapon onto a TYC facility. Federal legislation to allow cell phone jamming was filed by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and passed the US Senate.
Death sentences decline: Only nine new additions to death row in 2009; none of them from Houston, notably, despite its long-time reputation as the nation’s death penalty capital. Twenty-four men exited through the execution chamber.
Sex Parte: In the Charles Dean Hood case, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a judge and prosecutor sleeping together during a capital murder trial isn’t enough to force a mistrial if they successfully conceal their misconduct for a long enough period of time. Likely this ruling was more personal favor than policy decision: the judge involved, Verla Sue Holland, was
appointed after the case by Gov. George W. Bush elected in 1996 and served with 8 of the 9 current CCA members as a Court of Criminal Appeals Judge.
Juarez at war: El Paso’s sister city has all but turned into a war zone, with cartels fighting both one another, for access to the bridge, and also the Mexican military, which has been occupying the city for the last two years under what amounts to martial law.
Timothy Cole’s posthumous exoneration: Tim Cole died in prison before his name was finally cleared, even though the real offender had claimed credit for the rape he was convicted for in correspondence to Lubbock prosecutors from prison. DNA testing finally confirmed the real offender’s story, and soon-to-be-retiring Travis County District Judge Charlie Baird presided over the state’s first ever posthumous exoneration hearing. In the aftermath, the Legislature improved its compensation package for the falsely convicted in legislation bearing Cole’s name. The Lege also created an advisory panel named after Cole that will evaluate potential innocence reforms for the 2011 session.
Innocence legislation needlessly dies: This is how I spent my spring, working at the time as Policy Director for the Innocence Project of Texas. Several bills proposed to prevent future false convictions – including eyewitness ID reforms, requiring policies on recording interrogations, and lowering barriers to accessing the courts for writ procedures – all died an ignominious death when the Texas House melted down in an unrelated debate over voter ID. In particular, the Criminal Justice Integrity Unit established by the Court of Criminal Appeals had said the eyewitness ID legislation should have been the highest priority for preventing future false convictions: However, it wasn’t a high enough priority for partisans to put aside their differences and allow the bill to proceed.
Politics prevents arson reconsideration: A discussion that should have been about faulty arson science morphed into a pointless death penalty debate. Days before the Forensic Science Commission was to receive a commissioned report on shoddy arson science used to convict Todd Willingham (who was executed in 2004), Gov. Perry ousted Chairman Sam Bassett and appointed Williamson County DA John Bradley in his stead, who promptly canceled the meeting and shut down all the commission’s ongoing activities. Bassett was one of the Dallas News’ “Texan of the Year” finalists.
Dog scent lineups: DNA exonerations and an Innocence Project of Texas report demonstrated erroneous “scent lineups” run by Deputy Keith Pikett of the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department are unreliable, and dog experts say he fails to use best practices. The Court of Criminal Appeals recently accepted a case to evaluate whether Pikett’s dogs’ testimony is acceptable as evidence.
DPS leadership in transition: After long-time Col. Tommy Davis retired under duress in the wake of the Governor’s mansion fire, his replacement Stanley Clark resigned abruptly over allegations of sexual harassment. He was replaced with Gov. Perry’s homeland security advisor Steve McCraw, solidifying the Governor’s grip on the historically independent department.
Assigning ‘Condition X’: Federal District Judge Sam Sparks ruled that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles violated parolees due process rights when it labeled them sex offenders without due process, even when the offense for which they were convicted was not a sex crime. Sparks said of parole board chair Risssie Owens, “Her inattention is mystifying, and it shows her to be some combination … of ‘indecisive, insensitive, inattentive, incompetent, stupid, (or) weak-kneed.'”
See also Jordan Smith’s Top 9 criminal justice stories from the Austin Chronicle and her list of top nine drug policy stories.