Looking for the latest crime and courts news? The VS News Desk keeps you current on the headlines, which are delivered by the defense attorneys at Varghese Summersett.
Prosecutorial Power and Wrongful Convictions
This week a Fort Worth man walked out of jail a free man after spending 24 years in prison after being over-charged and over-sentenced. Attorney Anna Summersett discusses the case and the tremendous power that prosecutors have in deciding whether or not to bring criminal charges against someone and what those charges and enhancements should be.
Tarrant Plans to Open Mental Health Diversion Center
Tarrant County will soon have a mental health diversion center to avoid jailing people who suffer from mental illness and are charged with low-level crimes. The County Judge has said that he would like the center to be open by October 1. In today’s VS News Desk, criminal defense attorney Anna Summer discusses why a mental health diversion center is a great idea.
Texas Gov. Abbott: ‘Broken Bail System?’
A controversial bill that would alter the way criminal defendants are released from jail is scheduled to be debated today on the floor of the Texas House. House Joint Resolution 4 would authorize magistrates and judges to deny bail for people accused of violent offenses. Attorney Anna Summersett explains how the bail system works and how this proposed legislation would make bad law.
‘Permitless Carry’ in Texas: Perspectives and Pitfalls from a Defense Attorney
Last week, the Texas Senate passed a ‘permitless carry’ bill that would allow Texans to carry a handgun without a license. The governor has previously state that if the bill makes it to his desk, he will sign it into law. So what kind of impact will this legislation have in Texas? Attorney Anna Summersett discusses the proposed law and gives some perspective and pitfalls you may not have considered.
Juror Misconduct in Chauvin Murder Trial?
There has been plenty of twists and turns in the Derek Chauvin murder case and, this week, there was another big one.
A photo has surfaced showing a juror in the Derek Chauvin murder trial at a rally wearing a Black Lives Matter hat and a shirt that reads, “Get Your Knees Off Our Necks.” Does this mean he was impartial? Will it change the outcome?
Attorney Anna Summersett shares some her thoughts in today’s VS News Desk.
Granbury Mayor Charged with Felony DWI
On Monday, Hood County prosecutors upgraded the misdemeanor DWI charge against Granbury’s mayor to a felony after learning he had two prior convictions for drunken driving.
Mayor Nin Hulett was arrested on April 25 following a traffic stop by police in Granbury. He was initially charged with DWI, a class B misdemeanor.
On Monday, that charge was upgraded to DWI Felony Repetition after police and prosecutors confirmed he had been twice before convicted of driving while intoxicated – including in Fort Worth in 2007 and in Missouri in 1999.
In Texas, a third DWI is a felony, punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine. Under Texas law, it does not matter how far in the past or where the previous DWIs occurred.
For example, the mayor’s first conviction was reportedly more than 20 year ago in Missouri. The second conviction is more than 13 years old in Texas.
The state can use those convictions – even though one is decades old and from another state – to enhance his most recent DWI charge.
It’s also important to point out that the priors must be convictions – not just arrests – before they can be used to enhance the charge. In this case, law enforcement are reporting that the mayor was previously convicted of DWI.
The mayor is currently free after posting bond.
Alcohol To-Go Heads to Texas Governor’s Desk
The Texas Senate passed a measure last week allowing Texans to permanently purchase alcohol to-go from restaurants.
House Bill 1024, which cleared the lower chamber last month, would allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be included in pickup and delivery orders, including from third-party companies like Grubhub and Door Dash.
The new, permanent alcohol to-go option is an effort to boost the restaurant industry that was devastated during the pandemic. Last March, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a waiver allowing restaurants and some bars to sell alcohol-to-go and has continued to extend it.
Now, lawmakers stepped in and made it permanent.
The legislation – which was filed by state Representative Charlie Geren, a restaurant owner in Fort Worth – was approved in an almost unanimous vote.
The Governor has said that if the bill makes it to his desk, he will sign it. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission reported yesterday that they expect the signature within the next 10 days. HB1024 will become law immediately.
It’s important to point out that the proposed legislation does not change Texas’ open container laws. The to-go beverages must be sealed in their original manufacturer-sealed container or in a tamper-proof container labeled with the business name. The beverage also cannot be transported in the passenger area of a vehicle.
Texas House Passes Bill Requiring Judges to Vet Jailhouse Informants
Last week, the Texas House passed a bill that would require judges to review the reliability and credibility of a jailhouse informant before allowing the inmate to testify during a trial. The bill – dubbed the John Nolley Act – aims to prevent false informant testimony and stems from a Tarrant County wrongful murder conviction.
On Tuesday, lawmakers passed House Bill 2631, which would require a judge to hold pre-trial hearings to review a jailhouse informant’s testimony before it is presented in court in serious cases. It would also require judges to issue cautionary jury instructions if the testimony is admitted.
The bill has numerous sponsors, but its main author is State Rep. Matt Krause, of Fort Worth. It was approved by 143 of the 150 members of the Texas House last week.
The bill aims to prevent wrongful convictions that stem from the erroneous testimony of jail house informants.
One of those wrongfully convicted was John Nolley. He was convicted of murder in 1996 in the death of his friend, Sharon McLane, who was found stabbed 57 times. During his trial, prosecutors presented no direct evidence or forensic evidence. He was convicted on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who lied.
Nolley was later exonerated after spending 19 years behind bars. He has become the face and name behind House Bill 2631.
Officials said more than a dozen Texans have been wrongfully convicted due to bogus testimony of jail inmates hoping for leniency.
Recently, a former Dallas police officer was arrested and accused of ordering two murders in 2017 based, in part, on the testimony of a prison inmate serving time for murder. A judge ordered the officer’s release, citing no probable cause to proceed on capital murder charges.
House Bill 2631 will now be taken up by the Texas Senate. If passed, it will take effect September 1.
Texas Senate Passes Bill Making Transgender Treatment Child Abuse
The Texas Senate passed a bill this week that would make it child abuse for parents to allow transgender children to get gender transitioning treatment or undergo a sex change before age 18.
On Tuesday, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1646, which would prohibit parents from providing puberty-blocking medication, hormone therapy or surgery to a transgender child while they are a minor. The bill is one of the Legislature’s attempts to prevent children from transitioning before their 18th birthday.
The bill, which was authored by Lubbock Republican Senator Charles Perry, passed in an 18-12 vote that was sharply divided along party lines.
In a Senate committee hearing, there was more than 4 1/2 hours of public testimony by LGBTQ Texans, their parents, and several state and national medical associations.
Opponents of the bill say it intrudes into intimate medical decisions.
Proponents of the bill say it is necessary to prevent children from making irreversible decisions they may regret later.
Parents who break the proposed law would be in violation of the state’s Family Code, which would trigger an investigation by Child Protective Services, resulting in the possible removal of the child from their home.
Doctors who perform sex change treatments would also be accused of child abuse, which could lead to a license investigation by the Texas Medical Board.
The bill now goes to the House, where its chances are unclear.
Tarrant County Defense Lawyers Calling for Investigation into Medical Examiner’s Office
The Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association is demanding an independent investigation into the medical examiner’s office in light of autopsy mistakes in dozens of homicide cases and false or misleading testimony in a death penalty case.
Benson Varghese, President of TCCDLA, presented a resolution to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court on Tuesday during its weekly meeting.
The resolution, which has been passed by the TCCDLA Board, calls for an “independent investigation into the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office and an external audit of the work performed by Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani and Deputy Medical Examiner Marc Krouse.”
It also calls upon the Court to consider whether Dr. Peerwani should continue as the Tarrant County Medical Examiner.
The resolution lays out the numerous issues that have defense lawyers in Tarrant County concerned including:
- In March 2021, a Tarrant County District Court judge found that Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Peerwani provided false, inaccurate, and misleading testimony in a death penalty case in 2006.
- That same month Dr. Peerwani’s Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Marc Krouse, was suspended from performing autopsies in homicide cases due to serious professional deficiencies. Krouse was found to have made at least 59 errors in homicide autopsies over a 10-month period. In one of the cases, a body had to be exhumed as a result of Krouse missing a bullet.
During the Commissioner’s Court meeting, Varghese provided materials to the County Judge, Commissioners Court, and District Attorney. The Medical Examiner is appointed by the Tarrant County Commissioners Court and taxpayers pay nearly $11 million annually for its services.
Varghese told the Court that they want a thorough investigation into Dr. Peerwani’s administration and that a retirement or resignation is not sufficient.
Tesla Facing Questions after Two Killed in Driverless Crash
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an investigation into Tesla following what is believed to be driverless crash earlier this month that left two people dead in a Houston suburb.
Telsa executives deny that autopilot was activated and contend that someone must have been in the driver’s seat.
Just before midnight on Saturday, April 17, two men were killed after the 2019 Tesla S they were riding in crashed into a tree and burst into flames near the Woodlands, about 30 minutes north of downtown Houston.
The crash made national headlines because officials said they were certain no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of the wreck.
One of the men was found in the front passenger side of the vehicle; the other was found in the backseat.
The crash is under investigation by the NHTSA and the NTSB who are trying to determine what caused the crash and if autopilot or full self- driving modes were involved.
Tesla owner, Elan Musk, and top executives are firing back. Musk said data logs recovered so far show the autopilot was not enabled. He said the media should be “ashamed” for saying otherwise.
Yesterday, top executives took it a step further and said the steering wheel was deformed and seat-belts were unbuckled, leading them to conclude someone was in the driver’s seat.
Officials are serving search warrants on Tesla to obtain and secure data from the vehicle. The NTSA has launched more than two dozen investigations into Tesla vehicle crashes.
Stay tuned. This one is worth watching.
Ghislaine Maxwell Pleads Not Guilty to New Sex Trafficking Charges
British Socialite Ghislaine Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to new federal sex trafficking charges accusing her of helping the late Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse a fourth victim.
Ghilsane Maxwell appeared in a Manhattan federal court on Friday for the first time since her arrest last summer. During the brief hearing, she pleaded not guilty to a new sex trafficking conspiracy charge and an additional sex trafficking charge.
The charges have been included in an eight-count indictment that was unveiled on March 29.
The new charges allege she recruited and groomed a 14-year-old girl to engage in sex acts with Epstein.
Maxwell previously pleaded not guilty to charges she helped Epstein groom three other girls for him to sexually abuse. She also has pleaded not guilty to two perjury counts.
Epstein, 66, was found hanged in a Manhattan jail cell in August 2019, one month after he was arrested on sex trafficking charges.
Maxwell’s trial is scheduled for July 12, but her attorneys have asked for a delay in light of the new charges and more than 3 million pages of discovery that have been turned over.
The lawyers have also cast doubt on whether she can get a fair trial, saying she is being treated as a monster in the media due to the so-called “Epstein Effect.”
Maxwell faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
The judge has not said whether or not she will delay the trial.
Fort Worth Makes it a Crime to Watch Illegal Street Races, Stunting
The Fort Worth City Council has approved an ordinance that makes it a crime to gather to watch an illegal street race or stunts.
The ordinance makes it illegal for people to gather, watch, support or take pictures and videos of street racing or stunting in the city.
Violators of the ordinance face a fine of up to $500.
Texas already criminalizes illegal street racing through the offenses of racing on a highway and reckless driving, but no state statute prohibits spectators from watching an illegal street race.
Racing on a highway is generally a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine. Reckless driving is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and up to a $200 fine.
The Fort Worth Police Chief said the new ordinance will hopefully deter people from attending races in the first place, which will lead to fewer races.
The new ordinance was passed in response to a rash of deaths last year due to illegal street racing.
Fort Worth Police have reportedly fielded more than 2,500 calls over the past 17 months related to street racing or reckless driving stunts. Dallas also has a problem and established a street racing task force.
The Fort Worth Police Chief said the new ordinance will enable officers to track down and issue tickets to participants after the race. The department plans to identify spectators through social media posts and security cameras.
The new ordinance takes effect immediately.
Derek Chauvin Conviction: What Happens Next?
Jurors deliberated a little over 10 hours on Monday and Tuesday before finding Derek Chauvin guilty of all counts in George Floyd’s death.
The former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of second degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
After the verdict, Chauvin – who has been out on a bail – was taken into custody. He will now await sentencing while in jail.
Chauvin is expected to be sentenced in the next eight weeks. His sentence will be decided solely by Judge Peter Cahill, the judge who presided over his trial, because Chavin waived his right to have a jury decide his sentence.
He could face up to 40-years in prison for second-degree murder, up to 25-years for third-degree murder and up to 10 years for manslaughter.
Under Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines, the recommendation for a person with no criminal record is about 12. 5 years in prison for each murder charge and about 10 years for the manslaughter charge. Prosecutors are expected to ask for a tougher sentence, however.
Offenses and criminal penalties vary from state to state. In Texas, for example, Chauvin would have likely faced charges of murder, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. A murder conviction in Texas carries a maximum life sentence.
As for the three other officers facing charges in Floyd’s death?
They are expected to be tried together this summer with aiding and abetting murder and aiding and abetting manslaughter.
Texas House Passes “Constitutional Carry” Bill
Last week, members of the Texas House of Representatives passed House Bill 1927, which allows citizens over the age of 21 to carry a handgun without a license – a win for gun activists but a blow for many state Democrats and gun-reform advocates.
Texas law currently requires citizens to obtain a license to carry in order to carry a handgun openly or concealed. If passed into law, the new bill would remove that restriction, allowing Texans to carry guns without having to pass a background check or go through training.
Texas would become the 14th state to implement such a law.
Supporters of permitless carry, including gun rights groups and conservative Republicans, contend that the measure simply allows Texans to exercise rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment.
Democrats, joined by some law enforcement officers and faith leaders, argue against the legislation, citing the need for stricter gun safety measures following the 2019 mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa.
The bill, spearheaded by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, comes in the wake of at least 45 mass shootings in the past month, including three in Texas alone. The bill passed the Texas House just hours after a deadly mass shooting at a Fed-Ex facility in Indianapolis killed at least eight people.
The “Constitutional Carry” bill now moves to the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain.
Meanwhile, Texas republicans are also vowing to defy any new federal gun rules. They are pushing to make Texas a “Second Amendment” sanctuary state.
There’s a lot to follow locally and nationally. We’ll be watching all fronts.
Officer Charged with Manslaughter in Daunte Wright Fatal Shooting
The Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, after reportedly mistaking her handgun for her taser has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.
While it is rare for police to mistake their sidearms for stun guns, it’s even rarer for charges to be brought against them.
Officer Kimberly Pott was arrested on Wednesday, one day after she and her police chief resigned from the Brooklyn Center Police Department, a Minneapolis suburb. She is free after posting $100,000 bond and is expected to appear in court today.
Officials said Potter, who is white, shot and killed Daunte Wright – a 20-year-old black man – during a traffic stop on Sunday night after she drew and fired her gun instead of her taser.
Potter, a 26 year veteran officer, was training a younger officer when they pulled Wright over for expired registration. When officers found Wright had a warrant out for failing to appear in court on a gun charge, they attempted to handcuff him outside his car. He twisted away to get back in his car.
In body-camera footage, Potter warned that she would use a stun gun on Wright and then shouted “Taser!” three times before firing once into his chest. Potter could be heard swearing and saying, “I just shot him.” The police chief later described the killing as an “accidental discharge.”
The second-degree manslaughter charge suggests that prosecutors believe that Potter didn’t intend to kill Wright but mixed up her weapons. Second-degree manslaughter charges often stem from offenses that are not planned — such as hunting accidents.
Under Minnesota law, someone is guilty of second-degree manslaughter if that person causes the death of another through “culpable negligence” and “creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.” The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
Prosecutors may have a difficult time proving this case. The New York Times reviewed 15 other cases of so-called weapon confusion over the past 20 years and found only five of the officers were indicted. And only three were found guilty.
Second-degree manslaughter is also among the charges that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is facing in his trial in George Floyd’s death, which is nearing its closing arguments and is being held just miles away.
Police Chief, Officer Resign in Wake of Protests Over Daunte Wright Killing
Police Officer Kim Potter resigned Tuesday, two days after fatally shooting Daunte Wright, an unarmed black man during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb. Police Chief Tim Gannon also resigned after revealing Potter likely shot Wright by accident, believing she was firing a taser instead of a pistol.
Protests erupted in Minnesota and across the country last night as demonstrators express outrage over another police killing of a black man. The latest death occurred just 10 miles away from where the murder trial of officer Derek Chauvin is being held in the killing of George Floyd.
Prosecutors have said they expect to have a decision today regarding whether Office Potter will face charges. Potter, who is white, shot and killed Daunte Wright – a 20-year-old black man – during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on Sunday.
Body camera footage shows a struggle as officers tried to handcuff Wright. During the struggle, Potter drew her and fired her gun instead of a Taser, killing Wright.
By resigning – instead of being fired – Potter could potentially keep her pension and later work for another department.
The community is calling for justice, but will they be satisfied?
Officers involved in police shootings are rarely held accountable for killing someone.
Earlier this month, another police officer who shot a black man returned to work. Rusten Sheskey, a Wisconsin police officer who shot Jacob Blake multiple times in the back in front of his children last August, is back on the job and will not face any discipline charges. Blake survived the shooting and it was determined the officer acted within the law.
The world is watching how the latest officer involved shooting – and the Derek Chauvin trial just miles away – will play out.
Racist Bullying: Aledo Students Punished for ‘Slave Trade’ Posts
A group of ninth-grade students in Aledo ISD have been disciplined after it was discovered they set up a group chat and pretended to sell their black classmates. The chat, labeled “Slave trade,” contained racial slurs including the “N” word.
Officials said the students attend Daniel Ninth Grade Campus and were communicating on Snapchat and playing a “game” that put prices on classmates of color and trading them.
In the auction, one student was worth $100, while another was only worth $1 because they he didn’t like his hair.
This story hit the press as racial tensions across the country continue to rise. Protests swarmed as in Minnesota as another black man was killed this week during a routine traffic stop, and the trial against George Floyd’s killer trudges on.
Aledo Independent School District leaders sent a note home to parents and have posted a statement on their website.
The statement said that an immediate and thorough investigation was launched that involved law enforcement. They determined that racial harassment and cyber bullying had occurred and assigned disciplinary consequences in accordance the Student Code of Conduct.
To date, no criminal consequences have been announced. However, cyberbullying and harassment are illegal in Texas.
Cyberbullying is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine. The offense becomes a Class A misdemeanor, one level higher if the offender has a previous conviction for cyberbullying or if the victim was under 18 years old and targeted with the intent to make the victim commit suicide or hurt themselves.
Cyberbullies can also face expulsion or be sent to alternative school.
If any students is arrested and they are under the age of 17, they would be handled through the juvenile system.
Could a defense exist?
Law enforcement will need to prove the identity of the alleged offenders. It is not enough that a post came from a specific social media profile. They need to confirm the person on the other end of the post is one in the same. With automatic log-ins due to saved passwords, it would be easy to see how seemingly innocent exchanges of phones or tablets between students could lead to incriminating posts that were not the words or intentions of the alleged offender.
Identity issues aside, some parents have said the discipline was not enough and some have even called the incident a hate crime. Parents are planning on showing up at the next school board meeting to demand the community do more to address racism.
Crackdown on Counterfeit Purses, Shoes at Worlds Largest Flea Market
Two women were arrested last week on accusations of selling fake designer purses, shoes, sunglasses and caps at the First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas, which is located about 60 miles east of Dallas.
The arrests stemmed from an undercover investigation by Homeland Security Investigations, a federal agency tasked with keeping counterfeit products off U.S. streets.
Over 1,000 counterfeit luxury items, including Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci and Hermes, with a retail value of $1.3 million were confiscated. In addition to federal agents, local, county and state authorities also played crucial roles in the seizure.
The women will be prosecuted by the Van Zandt County District Attorney’s Office.
They are facing charges of trademark counterfeiting. Under Texas law, trademark counterfeiting occurs when a person copies a company’s mark and uses it with the intent to sell, advertise or manufacture a product or service. The punishment depends on the retail value of the item or service.
One of the women is facing a third-degree felony, which applies when the retail value is between $30,000 and $150,000. The other women is reportedly facing a state jail felony, which applies when the retail value is between $2500 to $30,000.
Officials said the crackdown on counterfeit goods is an effort to maintain the integrity of the First Monday trade days, which began in 1850 and has become the largest flea market in the world.
The crackdown should also serve as a caution to others who sell counterfeit designer items from their homes or on the Internet.
Pandemic Liability Bill Passes Senate
April 9, 2021
On Thursday, the Texas Senate passed a pandemic liability protection bill that would prevent certain businesses and organizations from COVID-related lawsuits.
Opponents say the bill goes too far and could give negligent caregivers and nursing homes a free pass.
Senate Bill 6, also known as the Pandemic Liability Protection Act, was introduced by state Senator Kelly Hancock, a Republican from North Richland Hills.
The bill, which was passed by the Senate on Tuesday, seeks to provide COVID liability protections for health care providers, businesses, religious institutions, schools and non-profit organizations that attempt to follow safety protocols with respect to COVID.
Simply put, the legislation would prevent certain organizations, including nursing homes, from being sued by individuals or their aggrieved families for contracting COVID at their facilities or under their care.
It also makes it harder for residents and their families to hold facilities accountable for injuries and death that occur due to substandard, negligent care provided during the pandemic due to staff shortages.
Some legal experts counter, however, that the legislation would not prevent lawsuits in cases where plaintiffs can prove reckless or willful misconduct or malice.
Governor Abbott named pandemic liability protection an emergency item, which means its journey through the legislature can be expedited. On Thursday, the Senate approved the legislation. It now moves to the House of Representatives for further consideration.
This one hits close to home.
My grandmother died of COVID, which she contracted inside a nursing home facility by a staff member who didn’t follow basic CDC guidelines approximately 10 months into the pandemic.
I’m opposed. At the very least, Senate Bill 6 must be revised to protect nursing home residents.
Ex-Cop Accused of Capital Murder is Released for Lack of Evidence
April 8, 2021
On Wednesday afternoon, former Dallas Police Officer Bryan Riser was released from jail after a judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him on two charges of capital murder.
Judge Audrey Moorehead ordered his release after listening to about three hours of testimony from a Dallas homicide detective. The hearing – called an examining trial – was to determine whether the case should move forward to the grand jury.
The hearings are not common, and yesterday there was a surprising twist.
Prosecutors took the unusual step of publicly disagreeing with the lead homicide, and told the judge in open court that they didn’t believe there was sufficient probable cause in the two capital murder cases against Riser.
The judge agreed and ordered his release from the county jail.
Riser was arrested on capital murder charges on March 4 in the separate slayings of Liza Saenz and Albert Douglas in 2017. Riser, who was fired from the force five days later, was alleged to have hired three men to kill the victims.
One of those men – who is already serving a life sentence for a different double murder – came forward and said Riser ordered the killings. However, prosecutors say they don’t have evidence to corroborate the inmate’s story that Riser was behind the murder-for-hire plots.
Texas law prohibits jurors from convicting someone solely on the testimony of an alleged accomplice.
During the hearing, Riser’s defense attorney, Toby Shook, also pointed out several errors in the first affidavit used to arrest Riser. Shook has maintained his client’s innocence.
So what happens next?
The Dallas County District Attorney said that, although there is not enough evidence to prosecute, the investigation will continue. The judge’s ruling, however, means the case will not go to the grand jury without additional evidence.
As for Riser? His attorney and his family are calling for an audit of the police department’s investigation and the decision to arrest.
Two Children Killed in Bizarre Backhoe Accident
April 7, 2021
Two children were killed and others were injured over the weekend in a bizarre backhoe accident. A family member has been charged in connection with their deaths.
On Saturday evening, emergency personnel responded to a tragic scene in Roanoak Texas, where two children were killed and several other people were injured while riding on various part of a John Deere backhoe.
Officials said several adults and children were riding on the backhoe when the front bucket dumped forward, spilling the people inside to the ground.
Authorities said two children, ages 7 and 11, were run over and died at the scene. Two other children and an adult suffered injuries and were transported to nearby hospitals.
The deceased children have been identified as students of Trinity Valley, a private school in Fort Worth.
The driver of the backhoe was arrested. Officials have not said how he is related to the victims, but he shares their last name. Social media is identifying the driver as the children’s father.
He faces numerous charges, including two counts of manslaughter, three counts of endangering a child and one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
In Texas, a person can be charged with manslaughter if they recklessly cause a person’s death. Manslaughter charges often stem from tragedies that occur unintentionally, but where a substantial and unjustifiable risk was present.
Manslaughter is punishable by two to 20 years in prison.
The question we have to ask is why, in the face of unimaginable tragedy, would criminal charges be piled on so quickly? And what defense could potentially apply?
It is going to come down to the defendant’s mental state and whether his actions were intentional, reckless or negligent. The mechanics of the backhoe will also be a strong consideration and whether the machine was in proper working order.
There is still a lot we don’t know about this incident, including why so many people were riding on the backhoe and what exactly went wrong.
Dallas Police Chase Suspect in Stolen Ambulance
April 6, 2021
A man is in custody after police said he stole an ambulance from a Dallas fire station and led police on a chase through several North Texas counties.
Police said the man, who has not yet been identified, took the ambulance Monday morning from Fire Station No. 53 in east Dallas. He was later spotted by police driving the ambulance in the southeast Dallas.
The driver refused to stop, and led police on a chase for more than an hour, including off-road and through neighborhoods.
Police eventually disabled the ambulance with spike strips, causing the ambulance to bottom out on a curb.
The driver bailed out and tried to outrun police. He was taken into custody a short time later.
No one was injured during the police pursuit, which was captured live by news helicopters.
The man is likely facing a number of charges, including evading arrest in a motor vehicle, evading on foot, and felony theft of a vehicle.
If convicted of the theft, the suspect could also face increased punishment because the offense occurred during a disaster declaration.
Last year, Governor Abbott issued a disaster declaration due to COVID, which increases punishments by one level for a handful of offenses, including theft. Yesterday, that disaster declaration was renewed once again by the governor.
Although it may seem bizarre and rare, there have been numerous cases of stolen ambulances in Texas. Earlier this year, another ambulance was stolen in Dallas. And last year, an ambulance was stolen in Fort Worth.
In an even stranger coincidence, last year an ambulance was stolen from the exact same fire station as the one yesterday. It was later recovered in Louisiana. No word on whether the two cases are connected.
So the entire incident was caught on camera, but is it defensible? The question you have to ask it why this happened? Was the driver suffering a mental health episode at the time? Does he have a history of mental illness or substance abuse? Is his background mitigating enough to warrant leniency from the state?
All of this remains to be seen.
Plano Police Change Marijuana Arrest Policy
April 5, 2021
Last week, Plano Police Chief Ed Drain announced that his officers will no longer arrest people for possessing two ounces of marijuana or less, which is normally a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to a 180 days in jail.
Instead, officers may, at their discretion, issue a ticket for possession of drug paraphernalia. That is a reduced charge punishable by up to a $500 fine paid in municipal court.
The department changed its policy after a review of costs and trends stemming from marijuana arrests. The Chief said the review showed racial disparity, specifically more African Americans are arrested for minor amounts of marijuana – even though surveys show white, black and hispanics use marijuana at a similar rate.
The Chief said it also not cost-effective to arrest people for low-level amounts of weed. Now that hemp is legal in Texas, police must pay to have marijuana tested to determine its THC content before cases are accepted for prosecution.
So where do other North Texas cities stand on low-level marijuana arrests?
Under Texas law, police departments can implement a cite and release policy for possession of marijuana under four ounces. Dallas police already follow a “cite and release” policy. And late last year, Fort Worth police announced they are no longer arresting or citing people for low amounts of pot.
Decriminalizing marijuana is a growing trend in the lone star state.
More than 50 marijuana related bills have been filed so far this year in the Texas Legislature, covering a range of issues from decreased penalties to outright legalization.
Well, keep an eye on them to see which ones gain traction.
Audit: Tarrant County Coroner Made Dozens of Mistakes in Autopsies
April 1, 2021
A jaw-dropping audit has revealed that a suspended Tarrant County coroner made 59 mistakes in 40 death investigations – and there were mistakes in the audit as well.
Dr. Marc Krouse, who has been with the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office since 1981, has been suspended and his last day will be April 24.
The audit was ordered after investigators realized Krouse missed a bullet in a homicide investigation during an autopsy in September. The victim’s body had to be exhumed.
The audit, which was conducted by Tarrant County Chief Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, reviewed 40 death investigations handled by Krouse over a 10-mnth span and found 59 mistakes.
According to the audit, Krouse repeatedly failed to request or review ambulance reports and hospital records. In some cases he failed to confirm a victim’s identity by fingerprint or other scientific means. In two cases, Krouse’s mistakes were called “egregious.”
What’s more, numerous mistakes have now also been found in the audit itself. Some ages, dates and addresses are inaccurate, according to NBC 5. In one instance, the audit claimed the autopsy of the 15-year-old boy was done on June 22 — four days before his death was reported on June 26.
Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani has said the mistakes will be corrected and a new audit will be sent by the Tarrant County District Attorneys Office to defense attorneys.
The Dallas District Attorneys Office has been appointed to do an independent full-scale review of Krouse’s work.
The ramifications of the Krouse’s errors are far-reaching. More than 400 pending cases in Tarrant County could be impacted.
Qualified Immunity for Police: Where Does Texas Stand?
March 31, 2021
The New York City Council has passed legislation that effectively ends qualified immunity for police officers in cases of excessive force, making it easier for people to sue officers.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that, for decades, has prohibited police officers from being sued for alleged misconduct – unless the officer clearly violated an established constitutional right. The concept has made it nearly impossible to hold officers personally accountable.
Qualified immunity has become a focus of police reform across the country in the aftermath of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.
Floyd, who is black, died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. That officer, Derek Chauvin, is currently on trial for murder.
So where does Texas stand on qualified immunity and police reform in the wake of the civil unrest?
A sweeping police reform bill, called the George Floyd Act, was presented last week to the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. The bill – House Bill 88 – seeks to ban chokeholds and required deadly force to end the “moment the imminent threat of death” is eliminated. It would also create the duty for officers witnessing excessive force to intervene and render aid.
The bill also addresses qualified immunity – and that has become a sticking point in the Republican-led legislature. Some police officials want that part of the bill removed and that issues was heavily debated last week during the hearing.
The bill’s author, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat, says qualified immunity is a problem and it needs to stay in the bill.
After six hours of testimony, lawmakers left the matter pending without voting on the bill.
George Floyd: Testimony Underway in Murder Trial of Ex-Officer Derek Chauvin
March 25, 2021
Jurors are entering their second day of testimony in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death. The trial is one of the most closely watched court cases in decades.
Opening statements got under way on Monday in downtown Minneapolis, where the former police officer is accused of killing George Floyd last year by kneeling on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.
Prosecutors wasted no time showing jurors the video that was taken by a bystander and captured Floyd’s final moments.
They played the video during their opening statement, calling the white officer’s actions against a black suspect “murder.” The jury heard Floyd say “I can’t breathe” 27 times.
Defense attorneys countered during their opening statement that Chauvin was doing his job and what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career.
The defense attorney disputed that Chauvin was to blame for Floyd’s death. He pointed out that Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system and suggested his drug use, combined with heart disease, high blood pressure and adrenaline, caused a heart rhythm disturbance that killed him.
After opening statements, the jury heard from several witnesses as prosecutors began laying out their case:
- They heard from a cashier at a gas station across the street who filmed the encounter.
- They heard from a 911 dispatcher who testified that she saw part of Floyd’s arrest on a city surveillance camera and was so disturbed about the use of force she called a duty sergeant.
- They also heard from a bystander who was trained in martial arts, including chokeholds. He testified that Chauvin appeared to increase the pressure on Floyd’s neck several times.
The mixed martial artist returned to the stand this morning.
Fourteen jurors or alternates are hearing the case – eight of them white and six of them black or multiracial. Only 12 will deliberate.
Barbed wired and concrete barriers surround the Minneapolis courthouse where the trial is being held. There is also a heavy presence of the National Guard, who will attempt to keep the peace over the next four weeks.
Texas HB 228: Replace Court Reporters with Electronic Recording Devices?
March 25, 2021
A Texas bill that would allow electronic recording devices to replace live court reporters has people in the legal community up in arms.
Hundreds of people in the legal community are voicing opposition over a bill in the Texas legislature that, if passed, would allow electronic recording devices to replace live certified court reporters.
House Bill 228, which is sponsored by Representative Andrew Murr of Kerrville, would allow county commissioners to decide whether to use electronic recording devices in lieu of certified court reporters.
The intent behind the bill is to save money and time – but many say it would do neither.
The bill has sparked outrage among court reporters and others in the legal community who say there is no substitute for live, certified professionals.
Last week, there was a public hearing before the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence and hundreds of court reporters from around the state sent in comments opposing the proposed legislation.
They pointed out that many states that have implemented electronic recording devices returned to court reporters after a long list of problems occurred, including
- Complaints of quality transcripts
- Lack of real-time transcription during proceedings
- Missing or inaudible records
- Retrials of cases due to lost digital recordings
- Lack of confidence in the system by attorneys
- Violation of clients’ rights in criminal matters due to inaudible portions of their records
- And unexpected costs and additional personnel and equipment to perform all the functions a certified court reporter
The attorneys at our law firm have also voiced our opposition to House Bill 228. Forcing courts to use electronic devices in place of a certified court reporter would be detrimental to the litigants and the judicial process.
Certified court reporters are required by law to make verbatim records of a proceeding to ensure accuracy of what was said. An electronic recording device cannot ensure this accuracy, no matter how good it is.
Court reporters are also ethically bound to maintain these records and protect their authenticity.
We side with the court reporters on this one.
Texas Chief Justice: Zoom is Here to Stay
March 24, 2021
Texas’ Supreme Court Chief Justice delivered his state of the Judiciary speech yesterday. What was the big takeaway? Zoom is here to stay for court proceedings.
On Tuesday, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht delivered his biennial State of Judiciary address and called on the Texas legislature to update laws to ensure remote access to courtrooms will continue long after the coronavirus is tamed.
Hecht said an “unexpected benefit” of switching to remote proceedings was increased participation in the legal process.
He said the remote proceeding are more efficient and cost-effective and will continue to play a role in the “new normal.”
According to Hecht, appearance rates in high-volume dockets, such as traffic cases and child custody cases, went from 80 percent no-shows to 80-percent appearances during the pandemic. He said people limited by income, child care, transportation or job needs were able to go to court by clicking on a link or dialing on a smart phone.
Another advantage to remote proceedings? You can watch them online, he said, giving the public a ringside seat in every courtroom, increasing transparency and accountability.
However, Hecht acknowledged that felonies and complex criminal matters that require jury trials can’t be handled remotely. He said jury trial dockets are backlogged and will take three years to catch up.
In 2019, Texas courts tried roughly 9000 cases to verdict. In the past year of the pandemic, only 239 were tried.
Hecht said he asked the Legislature for increased funding for courts to allow safe in-person jury trials and visiting and retired former judges to help decongest dockets.
The chief justice also outlined a number of other legislative priorities. He renewed his previous calls to reform the cash bail system. He said the current system allows potentially dangerous defendants with more money to await trial out of jail, while incarcerating low-risk defendants facing minor offenses who simple can’t afford bail.
Finally, Hecht said the justice system would begin collecting data and self-reflect on potential racial biases in the justice system and encourage better training for judges.
Hecht’s State of the Judiciary speech – which is normally delivered to a joint session of the legislature – was instead streamed online yesterday.
That’s a true sign of the times.
Mass Shooting: Colorado Grocery Store
March 23, 2021
Ten people were killed in a mass shooting yesterday at a Colorado grocery store, rekindling the debate about guns in the United States.
On Monday, a gunman opened fire at a grocery store in Boulder, killing 10 people – including a police officer.
A suspect carrying a long gun was arrested, but his name and a possible motive has not yet been released.
The shooting comes on the heels of last week’s spree in Georgia, which left eight people dead – six of them of Asian descent.
The back-to-back mass shootings have already spurred a discussion about gun control in the U.S.
In Colorado, people are allowed to carry guns into businesses as long as they are in plain view. But in 2019, the grocery store where the latest shooting occurred asked shoppers to “no longer openly carry firearms” inside.
So, what is the law on open carry in Texas?
Texas permits open carry of long guns, including assault-styled guns, in public places, except in places where it is specifically prohibited by law, including courthouses, schools, polling places and racetracks. No license is required.
Private businesses, however, may ban guns from their premises by posting a sign.
As for handguns, license holders may openly carry them in non-prohibited places as long as they are secured in a hip or shoulder holster.
It’s also important to point out that Texas laws also allows people to shoot in self-defense or defense of others.
For example, back in 2019, a gunman opened fire inside a Fort Worth-area church and fatally shot two people before being killed by an armed member of the congregation’s security team. In Texas, licensed handgun owners are also allowed to carry in places of worship.
In the coming days, we expect to hear a lot of debate about gun control across the United States.
Well, keep you posted on any proposed changes, especially in Texas.
Online Solicitation Stings: Legal or Entrapment?
March 22, 2021
Six people were recently arrested in Tarrant County during an undercover online child solicitation sting.
Are these types of operations legal or entrapment?
On Friday, several adults were jailed after undercover investigators posing as minors used personal ads and social media to communicate with them about having sexual relations.
The suspects were all charged with online solicitation of a minor.
Online solicitation is a serious felony offense in Texas that occurs when an adult communicates with a person under age 17 – or someone who the adult believes is a under 17 – and has a sexual explicit conversation, sends a sexually explicit picture or video, or asks to meet the minor to engage in sexual contact.
Online solicitation is generally a third-degree felony punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison. However, it can be a second-degree felony, punishable to 2 to 20 years in prison, if the alleged “victim” is under age 14.
To many, the most surprising fact about this offense is that suspects are often arrested and charged with online solicitation of a minor even if they never had contact with an actual child.
In fact, most online solicitation charges stem from an undercover officer posing as a minor using a website or app to lure in suspects.
That’s precisely what happened last week, which was a joint operation between the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department, Arlington Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Many people charged with this crime want to argue entrapment or that they were set up by the undercover detectives.
That is not a viable defense in Texas. Police, themselves, are not engaging in illegal activity. In September 2015, the Texas legislature made amendments to the law and established that it is not a defense if the actor never intended for the meeting to happen.
In other words, mere conversations with an undercover agent are often enough for a conviction. Most importantly, the police are allowed to lie during these investigations.
For example, if the actor asks the person on the other end of a chat if they are a police officer, the officer can – and will – lie and say “no.” Additionally, the alleged actors never have to leave home to meet up with the victim.