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President's Message

President’s Message: Happy Holidays!

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“We are so grateful for all the sacrifices that you have made this year to support and serve others. May this Holiday season be a time for you to rest and recover, and to reflect on all that you have achieved.”

‑Anonymous

I do not know about all of you, but everything seems to be so much more difficult in our law practice these days. What was once easy to obtain in discovery or in witness interviews or trial preparation now seems so much harder. It sometimes feels like we are in quicksand. Add to these difficulties the strange emergence of jury trials during the pandemic. Masks and plexiglass and Zoom permeate the courtroom. In 2019 and earlier, a court coordinator could accurately tell us whether or not our case was going to trial the following week. No more. Everything seems to be in flux. These stressors may lead some to feel that our service to our clients and others is not appreciated. Ours is not an easy profession. It is not easy, for example, to enter a courtroom filled with 80 venirepersons and conduct voir dire on a murder case or other difficult case. These many stressors can sometimes be overwhelming. We have attempted to survive the pandemic and countless Zoom settings. We have maintained our law practices in spite of the difficulties resulting from the pandemic. We should remember, however, that we have adapted and overcome these stressors and should not allow them to dampen our holiday season. We are a TCDLA family and know that we may rely upon each other to get through these difficult times.

As we enter this holiday season and prepare for New Years, I hope each of us takes a moment to reflect on how our sacrifices this past year have helped and supported not only our families and friends but also our clients, their families, and their friends. My hope is that each of us may take a moment this holiday season and enjoy our families and rest up for this coming year. We need this time to recover and reflect on all that we have achieved. I wish the best for you and yours this holiday season and in 2022.

Happy Holidays!

President’s Message: Happy Veterans Day

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Happy Veterans Day to all my fellow veterans and those who support them. We remember those who went before us, those with whom we served, and those who came after us defending our great country. In 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, World War I realized a temporary cessation of hostilities – an armistice – between Allied forces and Germany. In the following year, November 11, 1918, came to be known as Armistice Day as proclaimed by President Wilson: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…” After World War II and Korea, the 83rd Congress decided to change “Armistice” to “Veterans” resulting in November 11th becoming a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

I am in awe of my fellow veterans – past, present, and future. My fellow United States Marines have distinguished themselves for the last 246 years in Tripoli, Chapultepec, Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Inchon, Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh, Hue City, and Fallujah. My brothers and sisters in the United States Army have distinguished themselves in the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy, Saint-Mihiel, D-Day, Naktong Bulge, Baghdad, Basra, and Haditha. My brothers and sisters in the United States Navy have distinguished themselves in the Coral Sea, Java Sea, Midway, Bismark Sea, and the China Sea. My brothers and sisters in the United States Air Force have distinguished themselves in the Berlin Airlift, MiG Alley in Korea, Operation Bolo, and Desert Storm. My brothers and sisters in the United States Coast Guard have distinguished themselves as America’s maritime first responder and protects our economic, national, and border security. Approximately 1.4 million people serve in the U.S. armed forces. That means that approximately 0.4% of the American population is active military personnel, and only about 7.3% of living Americans have ever served in the military. Id. Such an awesome responsibility on so few.

I am also proud to have served with many past and present judge advocates in all our services. Over the years, Military judge advocates have provided sage advice for commanders in all aspects of the military from courts-martial to civil affairs to rules of engagement. After military service, many of these judge advocates continue to distinguish themselves in their legal careers in the civilian sector.

What amazes me is how our veterans continue to serve their country after they leave the military – whether it be in government service or the civilian sector. I believe that the military training our veterans received enables them to overcome any obstacles placed in their way. We were all required to read and be familiar with reading lists while in the military. One book on the reading list was The Art of War by Sun Tzu who listed nine varieties of ground: (1) dispersive ground; (2) facile ground; (3) contentious ground; (4) open ground; (5) ground of intersecting highways; (6) serious ground; (7) difficult ground; (8) hemmed-in ground; and (9) desperate ground. Sun Tzu defined desperate ground as, “Ground on which we can only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay, is desperate ground.”

I think all of us, veterans or not, have been on desperate ground be it in our lives, in court, dealing with the government or our clients and their families, or elsewhere. I think of the criminal defense attorney battling an extremely difficult trial – be it a DWI or a capital murder death case – while dealing with the prosecution, judge, jury, or others. We can all have a sense, in this way, of what our veterans have been through during their military service. To better understand the sacrifice our veterans have given to this country and to better understand Veterans Day, I would suggest reading an outstanding non-fiction book, On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides. This book provides you with a glimpse of our armed forces at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. This book also informs you about how our military forces have overcome extreme difficulties in the defense of our country and why we should, indeed, observe Veterans Day.

President’s Message: October 2021

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As I write this article today, the second special session of the Texas legislature has ended, and the Texas Denial of Bail for Certain Crimes Amendment (2021) did not pass. As a result, this proposed constitutional amendment currently will not be on the November 2, 2021, ballot in Texas as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment. This amendment was designed to authorize a judge or magistrate to deny bail for certain crimes including violent or sexual offenses or continuous trafficking of persons. The Texas legislature, however, is scheduled to begin its third special session with five agenda items on September 20, 2021. Fortunately, this constitutional amendment is not on the current agenda. I want to thank our outstanding lobbyists – Allen Place, Shea Place, and David Gonzalez – and our excellent legislative committee for their wonderful efforts regarding this proposed amendment and many other legislative issues they successfully faced during this legislative year.

The Texas legislature, unfortunately, passed S.B. No. 6 “relating to rules for setting the amount of bail, to the release of certain defendants on a monetary bond or personal bond, to related duties of certain officers taking bail bonds and of a magistrate in a criminal case, to charitable bail organizations, and to the reporting of information pertaining to bail bonds.” This bill is forty pages in length and covers many bail issues. The bill requires a public safety report (risk assessment) on all offenses Class B and higher. The final version of this bill dropped the broad limitation on charitable bail organizations but retained some reporting requirements for charitable bail organizations. One concerning issue regarding this bill is as follows: “Except as provided by Article 15.21 (Release on personal bond if not timely demanded), Article 17.033 (Release on bond of certain persons arrested without a warrant), and Article 17.151 (Release because of delay), this bail bill amends Article 17.03 (Personal bond) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, effective September 1, 2021, by eliminating personal bonds for the following: (1) persons charged with an offense involving violence (murder, capital murder, kidnapping, aggravated kidnapping, trafficking of persons, continuous trafficking of persons, continuous sexual abuse of young child or disabled individual, indecency with a child, assault where the offense is a felony family violence or a second degree felony committed against a judge or peace officer lawfully discharging their duties or in retaliation, sexual assault, aggravated assault, aggravated sexual assault, injury to a child/elderly/disabled individual, repeated violation of certain court orders, continuous violence against the family, aggravated robbery, taking or attempting to take a weapon from an officer, aggravated promotion of prostitution, compelling prostitution, or sexual performance by a child); or (2) while released on bail or on community supervision for an offense involving violence, persons charged with committing any felony or with assault, deadly conduct, terroristic threat, or disorderly conduct involving a firearm. A citizen accused of these offenses, however, may still bail out with a surety or with cash bail for those listed offenses.”

It is very concerning how indigent citizens and minorities will be adversely affected by S.B. No. 6. Many citizens charged with these offenses are currently able to be released from jail only by using a personal bond because of the very low amount required to be paid for release. How many citizens will be denied bail merely because they will be unable to afford a surety or cash bond? This bill will have a dramatic impact on county jails and magistrates. Jail populations will be increased resulting in a financial burden on counties throughout Texas. With respect to these and other adverse effects resulting from this bill, it was recently reported that, “Last month, the ACLU of Texas sent a letter to all 254 counties in Texas informing them that following the law “might land them in court.” SB6 “conflict[s] with our constitutional right to pretrial liberty and the presumption of innocence,” it said in a statement.1 Time will tell how our brothers and sisters in the criminal defense bar will handle these changes to the bail system in Texas. I want to let all of you know, however, that the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association is here to help you with these and other challenges all of us face every day by providing the best continuing legal education possible.

President’s Message: September 2021

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On July 28, 2021, Texas Governor Abbott issued Executive Order No. GA-37 relating to the transportation of migrants during the COVID-19 disaster. GA-37 authorizes the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) “to stop any vehicle upon reasonable suspicion of” transporting illegal migrants and to impound any such vehicle. On July 27, 2021, Governor Abbott issued a letter ordering the Texas National Guard (TNG) to “assist DPS in enforcing Texas law by arresting lawbreakers at the border.” On August 3, 3021, Judge Kathleen Cardone of the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, El Paso Division, issued a temporary restraining order finding that the United States Department of Justice would likely prevail on its claim that GA-37 violates the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution because it conflicts with federal immigration law and that GA-37 “causes irreparable injury to the United States and to individuals the United States is charged with protecting, jeopardizing the health and safety of non-citizens . . .” United States v. Texas, Cause No. EP-21-CV-173-KC (W.D. Tex., August 3, 2021).

Caught in the middle of all this are hundreds of indigent migrants. In Val Verde County, Del Rio, Texas, DPS has installed chain link fences on private property at the border and, when migrants breach the fences or enter private property, the migrants are arrested by DPS for the misdemeanor offenses of trespassing or criminal mischief. (https://www.texastribune.org/2021/07/30/texas-greg-abbott-border-security/) Governor Abbott has converted the Briscoe state prison in Dilley, Texas into a state jail to house these arrested migrants. Id. This is approximately 100 miles from Del Rio, Texas. Id. These indigent migrants are charged, magistrated with a bond set at a processing tent, and then transported to Dilley, Texas to await the outcome of the charges. Id.

There exists marked confusion by DPS in Del Rio regarding how these Texas laws are affected by migrants who are seeking asylum. Id. For instance, on July 30, 2021, it was reported that a migrant husband-wife couple from Venezuela were seeking asylum when DPS arrested the husband for trespassing. Id. It was the understanding of the local sheriff that families and children were supposed to be handled by Border Patrol and not DPS. Id. A local Border Patrol agent was confused about why DPS arrested this family member. Id. The sheriff intervened resulting in the husband being reunited with his wife and turned over to Border Patrol for asylum processing. Id.

Hundreds of people have been arrested by DPS, and the Val Verde County Attorney’s office is now overwhelmed with these cases. Id. It has been reported that the County Attorney expects to offer time served to most of these defendants. Id. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission has begun to direct funding to help with court-appointed attorneys for these defendants. Id. Val Verde County, however, does not have enough attorneys to cover this number of new cases. Criminal defense attorneys from around Texas will be needed to help these indigent, migrant defendants.

The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association has many wonderful attorneys who would be willing to assist with these cases. The concerns of TCDLA, however, are that a quick guilty plea of time served may not be appropriate for these cases. Our concerns are many. How fairly was the bail amount determined? How quickly will a pre-trial habeas motion to decrease bail be heard? What are the effects of a plea on the asylum or immigration situation for the migrant? How will Padilla letters be obtained for the migrant to answer immigration concerns and who pays for this? Who will pay for travel and lodging at Del Rio to examine the alleged crime scene and to then travel to Dilley to meet with the client? Who will pay for the investigators needed to help prepare the case? Who will pay for mental health experts and other potentially necessary experts to help prepare the case? Who will set the court-appointed rates?

These are questions we in TCDLA have for our clients every day. These are questions that should also be answered for these indigent, migrant defendants in Del Rio. TCDLA attorneys are always up to the task for providing an excellent defense for clients in these situations. I look forward to seeing how TCDLA attorneys are again up to the challenge and how they will provide excellent defenses for these defendants in Del Rio.

President’s Message: July/August 2021

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I would like to highlight a few of the many benefits our members receive from TCDLA. One example is, during the pandemic, a fantastic group of TCDLA members agreed to help our membership with the COVID-19 Response Task Force. This committee was led over time by Clay Steadman, Allison Clayton, and Nicole DeBorde Hochglaube. It provided wonderful motions, cheat sheets, and other items to assist our membership with handling the specter of virtual trials during the pandemic. This committee proved to be a life line to our membership especially during the trying and lonely times of the pandemic.

Another example is the TCDLA Judicial Conduct Committee. Our brothers and sisters in the criminal defense bar sometimes encounter questionable actions by the judiciary. I have personally witnessed defendants on bond being placed into the court’s holding cell when the defendant refused to accept a plea offer so that the defendant would reassess whether or not to take the plea offer. In situations where you question actions by the judiciary, it is helpful to have a resource to whom counsel may report legitimate concerns without being subject to repercussions from the judiciary. The Judicial Conduct Committee acts as a buffer in such situations and provides counsel with the welcome assistance of very capable attorneys from other jurisdictions. The following is an example of when counsel may possibly encounter questionable actions by the judiciary and stems from the published opinion of Ex parte Gomez, Nos. PD-0724-20 & PD-0725-20 (Tex. Crim. App., June 9, 2021). A citizen was charged by complaint in Harris County with two felonies – burglary and assault by impeding airway. A magistrate set bail on the cases at $25,000.00 and $15,000.00, respectively, for a total of $40,000.00. The citizen accused made bond on the cases and, the same morning, he appeared in the district court to which the cases were assigned. The district judge, without a reporter’s record of the proceedings, revoked the bonds, ordered he be rearrested, and set bail at $75,000.00 on each charge, for a total of $150,000.00 – more than three times the amount set by the magistrate. Days later, the accused moved that the bonds be reinstated, but the district judge claimed she had heard probable cause, weighed several factors in determining the bail amounts, and denied the request. A writ was then filed to reinstate the bonds, but the judge denied relief by claiming that she evaluated the circumstances and adequacy of the original bonds and had discretion to increase the bail amounts. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that courts do not have unlimited discretion to hold that bonds are insufficient because a trial judge must consider relevant circumstances pursuant to Article 17.15 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and a court’s “discretion does not allow it to use bail as an instrument of oppression or to ignore the accused’s ability to pay.” If a trial court arbitrarily found “insufficient bond,” the trial court’s action would be reversible for abuse of discretion. This case was remanded to the court of appeals to determine if the district judge acted arbitrarily. The excellent appellate team on this case consists of Thomas Branton “Brent” Mayr, Sierra Tabone, and Stanley G. Schneider. Time will tell what happens on this remand to the court of appeals.

If a TCDLA member encounters issues during a case for which assistance may be needed, such as a trial judge arbitrarily finding insufficient bond, revoking the bond, rearresting the client, and improperly raising the bail, know that TCDLA is here to help you. Remember that you are not alone in this stressful profession of ours. TCDLA has many committees that are here to assist you in times of need. Put them to use and get the full benefits of your membership. We value your membership in TCDLA and look forward to helping you.


Holcomb Strong
Cindy Holcomb & Randy Gilbert

Honor, integrity, and service defined Weldon Holcomb’s life. He was not only a superb lawyer, but also a friend and mentor. As a charter founding member of TCDLA, Past President, Hall of Fame recipient, and TCDLEI fellow, he had an unwavering commitment to the profession and its future. He willingly gave his time, expertise, and money to leave his profession in a better place than he found it.

His early years as the son of a barber and a child of the Depression taught him the value of hard work. He served as a B-17 bomber pilot in WWII, then used his GI Bill to get him through the University of Texas and UT Law School. Through his experiences he found a profound sense of gratitude which motivated him to constantly “give back” in all areas. As a Christian gentleman, his love of God, family, hometown and the law defined him. He practiced his faith demonstrably to everyone both high and low, with ethics and integrity going hand in glove with his Baptist faith.

Weldon loved practicing law first as an Assistant Attorney General, then as District Attorney of Smith County, and eventually as one of the top-rated Criminal Defense Attorneys in Texas.  He had several firsts including seating the first African American and first female on a Smith County jury.  He tried many notable cases, including the first use of TV cameras in the courtroom (Billy Sol Estes), and took a court-appointed case to the US Supreme Court and won (Wade vs. US). With his Stetson hat, suit, TCDLA lapel pin, cowboy boots, and pockets full of Peppermint sticks (Baptist cigars), he was the quintessential Texan.

He was fond of folksy sayings like “if syrup goes to five dollars a sop” and many young prosecutors fell into the trap of judging the book by its cover. They often discovered too late that behind the facade was a steel trap mind that could quote a governing case without a moment’s pause and left no stone unturned in the pursuit of justice for his client.

When asked in an interview how he wanted to be remembered, Weldon said that he wanted to be known as a lawyer that followed the law and the Constitution fairly for everybody regardless of who they were, what their race was, or what position they occupied in the community. He wanted it to be known that he was good for his word, and if he told you something you could put it in the bank. 

Weldon made a difference in his community and the practice of law. His involvement with TDCLA vastly upgraded the quality of Criminal Defense in the State of Texas. To use one of his favorite sayings… he never took more water out of the bucket than he put back in.

President’s Message: Michael C. Gross

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I am humbled and honored to have been selected to work with all TCDLA members as your incoming TCDLA President for this upcoming year. With all of us working together, we can make this a great year for our outstanding organization. Thanks to Kerri Anderson Donica and Grant Scheiner for your hard work and dedication the last two years in guiding us through the pandemic challenges. What wonderful leadership and fortitude. We have an excellent and resilient organization with members from El Paso to Texarkana and from Booker to Brownsville who continue to amaze me with their dedication to TCDLA even during the pandemic. TCDLA is the largest state criminal defense organization in the nation and continues to lead the way. Our 3,200 members are among the best criminal defense attorneys in the nation. Melissa Schank has been superb as the TCDLA Executive Director, and Melissa and her staff continue to amaze me at how well they keep our more than 40 CLE seminars running smoothly throughout the year. I want to thank all the hard-working TCDLA members who have agreed to act as committee chairs this coming year. We could not continue to provide our members with helpful and useful assistance without our committee chairs and their committee members. Each of our committees works extremely hard and are superstars and deserve our admiration and respect. For instance, as the courts begin to further open up for criminal jury trials, TCDLA will be there for our members as new issues arise and must be addressed to protect the citizen accused. I am always in awe, for instance, at the tireless work from the COVID-19 Response Task Force Committee chairs – Allison Clayton and Nicole DeBorde Hochglaube (and Clay Steadman who paved the way forward as the first chair of this committee). It is amazing to see an email from Allison or Nicole that was sent at 4:00 a.m. for an important issue that arose and needed a quick resolution for our TCDLA members.

Our TCDLA committees will continue to be a vital life line for our members in the coming year. Just last week, I was in a federal criminal jury trial here in San Antonio which used three court rooms and had remote access in the courthouse basement for the public present in the courthouse to watch the proceedings. The public was not allowed in the courtroom where the trial was proceeding because the jury was scattered throughout the gallery during trial rather than in the jury box. Key issues will continue to arise in these jury trials such as the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial and right to a fair cross section representation of the community. While jury trials become more prevalent thereby raising important issues for our members, the Texas legislature continues to address issues that are also important for our members and the citizen accused. I personally witnessed last month the wonderful dedication of our TCDLA lobbyists – Allen Place, Shea Place, and David Gonzalez. These three outstanding individuals were at the State capitol until after 3:00 a.m. on a Tuesday night ensuring that TCDLA interests and the interests of the citizen accused were properly represented in testimony before the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee regarding stringent bail legislation that had been proposed. What an outstanding job.

With the assistance of our members and committees and staff, I am confident that TCDLA will continue to lead the way for our members to address any concerns that will develop in the coming year. All of this is possible because of how we work together for TCDLA. I thank all of you for this opportunity to work with you and to serve you this coming year as your TCDLA President.

President’s Message: Texas Defense Lawyers Are Entitled to Broader Criminal Discovery

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There’s a case name Texas criminal lawyers should memorize because we’ll probably be citing it for decades: Watkins.

“Your honor, I object. This is a Watkins violation.” “Objection, your honor. Watkins.”

Watkins involved the admission of 33 of 34 state exhibits during the sentencing phase of a drug trial. The exhibits were a collection of booking records, pen packets, and judgments of prior convictions. The state offered them for purposes of enhancement (making Watkins subject to a 25‑year minimum) and proving extraneous offenses.

Before trial and in accordance with Tex. Code Crim. Pro. Art. 39.14 (a.k.a. the Michael Morton Act), defense attorney and TCDLA member Michael J. Crawford sent a timely written request to the prosecutor for “any other tangible things not otherwise privileged that constitute or contain evidence material to any other matter involved in the case.” The prosecutor provided notice of the State’s intent to introduce evidence of these prior convictions and extraneous offenses at sentencing. However, the prosecutor did not disclose copies of the exhibits themselves until it was time to introduce them. The defense attorney objected to the admission of the exhibits, citing Article 39.14.

In Ralph DeWayne Watkins v. The State of Texas, No. PD‑1015‑18 (Tex. Crim. App. March 3, 2021), the Court of Criminal Appeals held, in a 7‑2 opinion, it was error for the trial court to admit the state’s exhibits.

The gist of the CCA’s 55‑page slip opinion is that “material to any matter involved in the action” — a phrase contained in both the original text and the current version of Article 39.14 — includes the sentencing phase of a trial. “Material” simply means having “some logical connection to a consequential fact.” Watkins, slip op. at 3. In this case, the exhibits at issue were material because they had “a logical connection to subsidiary punishment facts.” Id.1

Worth noting (and it should prove instructive to all Texas prosecutors), the state, in this case, provided the defense with neither copies of the exhibits nor access to them in advance of trial. The prosecutor apparently “did not believe Article

39.14 applied to punishment …” Watkins, slip op. at 5. In disabusing the prosecutor of his mistaken belief, the CCA left open the door to full discovery of independent accusations (i.e., subsidiary punishment facts) which form the basis of prior convictions or alleged extraneous conduct.

Does your client have a prior DWI conviction or arrest the state intends to offer in its case‑in‑chief or during sentencing? Don’t just request copies of convictions, judgments, and sentences. Ask for offense reports, DIC forms, videos, chemical test results (and all of the underlying data) that were evidence in the prior case. Robbery conviction, arrest, or allegation? Get all the standard evidence, plus that unfairly suggestive photo spread that led to your client’s unjust conviction or arrest. Underlying evidence in virtually every type of prior conviction, arrest, or alleged extraneous conduct should now be fully discoverable. A prosecutor who elects not to search for and produce requested material in advance of trial does so at his or her peril. Keep in mind that even if a prosecutor claims he or she doesn’t plan to use certain evidence at trial, you might. Criminal defendants now have a recognized “general statutory right to discovery in Texas beyond the guarantees of due process.” Watkins, slip op. at 52 (emphasis added).

TCDLA member, Jason Edward Niehaus, handled Watkins’s appeal to the CCA. He briefed and successfully argued the case. TCDLA Amicus Committee member Lane Hagood wrote TCDLA’s amicus brief – specifically mentioned in the CCA’s opinion ‑‑ and participated in oral argument as well. (A slew of other TCDLA members pitched in at the intermediate level.) Finally, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Justice David Newell and staff should be congratulated for authoring an extremely thorough and impeccably reasoned opinion.

The criminal discovery playing field is now a little more level in Texas, and that is something for citizens and practitioners alike to celebrate. Remember the case name–Watkins!

President’s Message: Pandemic Jury Trials

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It has been nearly a year since Texas and the nation’s courts began scaling back in-person operations due to the pandemic. It has been well more than a year since the pandemic became a major problem. This is but an example of a shortcoming with large governmental systems: They often react late to a crisis.

As of February 2021, I would be less than candid if I were to tell you that state and federal jury trials are unsafe and pose an unacceptably high risk of viral transmission. But it would be equally misleading to state that trials and other in-person court proceedings are safe. The truth is, no one really knows.

Here is another stubborn truth I’ve discovered during the past year through consultation with administrators, judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and even some scientists: Many of the important stakeholders in the criminal justice system have strong opinions about the “best” path forward and there is little we criminal practitioners — the ones on the front lines of the legal system due to frequent contact with inmates, clients, courthouse personnel, and many others — can do to change their minds.

The time has come to paddle our own boat.

If as a TCDLA member you believe it is unsafe to participate in a court proceeding or that your client’s constitutional rights are not adequately protected, this organization has your back. We have a COVID-19 Committee and a Strike Force to help you with legal and strategic assistance when a judge is dragging you and your client into trial against your will. If you believe there is no reason to postpone a court proceeding and your client has demanded a speedy trial, the same TCDLA people will assist you with the full force and intelligence we’ve assembled. You can reach me personally by text or email 24/7 and I will work for you as well.

Many among us believe that in-person court proceedings are unwise and possibly unsafe until vaccinations are widely distributed and the population has achieved herd immunity. That’s a reasonable position to take. As a single parent of a small child, I will not permit a judge to bully me into something I don’t think is safe and I wouldn’t ask any of our members to allow it, either.

It is not as though the criminal defense bar isn’t trying to improve the situation. In December I sent a letter on behalf of TCDLA to Governor Greg Abbott and vaccine administrators. We asked them to prioritize criminal practitioners in the vaccination pipeline. Not jump ahead of frontline healthcare workers, nursing home residents, medically vulnerable people, and the elderly. Just put us into a group of essential workers with vaccination priority. While that may indeed happen, the Governor’s Office has yet to respond.

During a State Bar Task Force Zoom meeting on February 8, 2021, I suggested that trial judges give priority to defendants who affirmatively demand a speedy trial, so we could possibly avoid situations in which attorneys, clients, and even some prosecutors are dragged into trial against their will. Several of the judges in the meeting (including two regional presiding judges) made it clear it was a hard no. For judges who are bent on going to trial during the pandemic, it’s not about incrementally shrinking trial dockets or safeguarding the accused’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. It’s about running their courtrooms however they see fit.

Worth noting, the vast majority of judges I’ve encountered in my small pocket of the universe (mostly Greater Houston) are doing the right thing and waiting until conditions are safer and not pushing cases to trial unless all parties are willing. When you see a judge doing the right thing, be sure to thank him or her. They’re under a lot of pressure, too.

Trials are about to ramp up, whether it’s the right path forward or not. My advice to colleagues is to follow your conscience. No matter which path you choose, TCDLA will make sure you do not have to walk it alone.

President’s Message: Time for Bail Reform, But Only If It’s Done Right

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As the 87th Texas Legislative Session begins (and is scheduled to run through May 31, 2021), Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht has weighed in on an important and surprising topic: bail reform.

Chief Justice Hecht, along with David Slayton, Administrative Director of the Office of Court Administration, submitted an opinion piece to the Dallas Morning News (DMN). Entitled, “If Texas doesn’t reform its bail system, federal courts likely will,” it is really worth a read.

Now you may be asking yourself, why is a civil appellate justice – whose legal background includes partnership at a white-shoe firm in Dallas — wading into the mostly criminal law issue of bail reform? That’s a fair question. Perhaps the answer lies in the landmark settlement in November 2019 of a federal lawsuit successfully challenging the automatic wealth-based detention of tens of thousands of impoverished people every year in misdemeanor cases in Houston. Chief United States District Judge Lee Rosenthal approved an agreement aimed at releasing 90-95% of misdemeanor arrestees in Harris County, without substantial cash money or a surety. Unfortunately for taxpayers, it was not before Harris County spent $9.1 million on outside legal help defending an obviously unconstitutional bail system. The settlement also required Harris County to pay an additional $4.7 million in legal fees for the plaintiffs.

Whatever the motivation for what appears to be a bipartisan effort to address bail reform at this moment in our state’s history, Chief Justice Hecht’s opinion is a welcome addition to a debate that has raged for many years. He is the top state jurist in Texas and our governor and state legislators listen to him. We criminal practitioners should, as well.

Chief Justice Hecht’s and Administrative Director Slayton’s well-written, five-point proposal for bail reform raises some difficult questions. Here is how criminal defense lawyers and our many allies should respond to each point in the DMN piece:

  1. “[G]ive judges validated pretrial risk assessment information for all defendants to make better-informed decisions about bail.” – Putting aside the difficulty of confirming underlying information in a pretrial risk assessment and statistically tracking it for validation, I think we can all agree that more information is better. The problems here are, (a) it might be enormously expensive to implement systems in all 254 Texas counties and, (b) getting risk-assessment information into the hands of judges, magistrates, prosecutors, and defense lawyers (when the accused has counsel), might slow down the process of bail and release. Even an extra day in jail might mean the difference between a person going back to work versus losing their job. Risk assessments hardly seem worth it for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Perhaps risk assessments — which are already done in many Texas jurisdictions — should only apply to certain categories of felony offenses, where the nature of the alleged crime dictates a heightened scrutiny of the bail process.
  2. “[A]sk voters to amend the Texas Constitution to allow judges to hold high-risk, potentially violent defendants without bail.” – This is a non-starter. Article 1, Sec. 11a of the Texas Constitution provides a laundry list of situations in which potentially dangerous arrestees may be held without bail. These include arrestees with multiple prior felony convictions, defendants who commit a felony while out on bail for an indicted felony offense, arrestees accused of using a deadly weapon after being convicted of a prior felony, and arrestees who allegedly commit certain types of violent or sexual offenses. Additionally, Article 1, Sec. 11b allows for detention without bail of arrestees accused of felonies or offenses involving family violence, when bail is subsequently revoked or forfeited for a violation of a condition of release. Texas already has enough legal tools to hold people without bail. We don’t need any new ones. Bail reform must not be predicated upon activist measures to hold presumptively innocent people indefinitely, while their cases await trial. Doing so would defeat a major purpose of bail reform — namely, to make it easier for the accused to gain their freedom while awaiting resolution of legal matters.
  3. “[P]rovide pretrial supervision for those released.” – This is another expensive and unnecessary proposal. Texas judges already have authority to set conditions of bail and place defendants on pretrial supervision. What’s the point of mandating it? We should trust trial court judges to order pretrial supervision only in cases where it is most appropriate.
  4. “[C]ollect data to verify that the system is working as it should.” – This is an excellent proposal, provided we can all agree on criteria for determining when the system isn’t working and what to do about it. Any data collection and verification provision in bail reform legislation should not include some automatic solution that kicks in when, say, a certain percentage of arrestees miss their court dates. You don’t fine-tune an expensive vehicle with a sledge hammer.

Bail reform is an achievable and worthy goal, but it must be done right. We should be prepared to wait if it’s not. There is no question that Chief Justice Hecht and Administrative Director Slayton are correct when they say, if Texas doesn’t reform its bail system, federal courts likely will. In that vein and based on what we’ve seen thus far in federal lawsuits, Texas criminal lawyers and our allies should be willing to let this play out in federal courts if we can’t get reasonable proposals. TCDLA’s Legislative Committee, leaders, and lobbyists are interested in hearing more.

President’s Message: Texas Inmates Are Dying of Coronavirus

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If it were revealed that Texas prisons and jails had failed to prevent more than 200 people (and counting) from suffocating during 2020, it would be an international outrage. Yet that’s what appears to be happening, according to a new study from the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs (UT-LBJ-PA).1 Will this disgrace continue or will the State of Texas put a stop to it?

Some of the lowlights of UT-LBJ-PA’s study, released in November 2020, are:

  • As of early October 2020, at least 231 people have died in Texas correctional facilities. This includes staff, jail and prison deaths. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 6.
  • Prison deaths account for 93% of deaths among people in custody. Id.
  • In the Duncan Unit in Diboll (south of Lufkin), almost 6% of the incarcerated population has died. Id.
  • The average age of death is 64 for people in prison. It is 56 for people in jail. Id.
  • 21 people had served 90% or more of their sentence at the time of their death. Id.
  • 11 of the 14 inmates (approximately 80%) who died from COVID in Texas jails were not convicted of a crime. Id.
  • 58% of people who died in prisons from COVID were eligible for parole. Id.
  • 9 people who died in prisons from COVID were approved for parole but not yet released. Id.

Even accounting for the massive size of Texas’ incarceration population, the Lone Star State appears to be in much worse shape than other American states. Texas prison systems have more COVID infections than any other state, including significantly more than California and the entire federal system. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 9. Texas also has more COVID infections among staff than any other prison system. Id. Not surprisingly, as of early October 2020, Texas has significantly more COVID deaths of incarcerated people (190) than any other prison system. Id. at 10. Florida is second with 134. The federal system is third with 133. Id.

Texas has significantly more staff deaths from COVID than any other prison system. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 10. This not only paints a damning picture of conditions inside the state’s prisons, but shows an apparent tendency to spread infections beyond prison walls and into surrounding communities.

People in Texas prisons are testing positive for COVID at disproportionately high rates. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 11. A whopping 490% higher than the state of Texas as a whole. Id. It is 40% higher than the national prison population average. Id. And, it is 620% higher than the national average of people in the United States. Id.

People in Texas prisons are dying from COVID at disproportionately high rates. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 11. The death rate is 140% higher than the state of Texas as a whole. Id. It is 35% higher than the national prison population average. And it is 115% higher than the national average. Id.

Texas is not the worst in every single category. Of the ten largest prison systems in the U.S., Texas has the second highest rate of COVID infections. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 12. Florida is 1,663 per 10,000 people and Texas is 1,623 – a difference of less than a percent. Id. Even accounting for our size, Texas has one of the highest death rates.2

One final statistic gathered between April – August 2020: Other states (including Ohio and Michigan) that started with a high number of COVID prison deaths have done substantially better than Texas in bringing down their death numbers. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 13. It appears that Texas is not on par with most of its peers in combatting the virus and saving lives.

The statistics are shocking, disturbing, and admittedly a little numbing. Reading through pages and pages of numbers almost causes one to forget that the figures – especially those relating to deaths – represent actual human beings who weren’t sent to jail or prison for execution. They were fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Their lives meant something to people on the outside. The fact that more of our elected officials are not outraged by what’s happening in our Texas prisons and jails during the pandemic is, itself, an outrage.

I do not claim to have all of the answers for what may be done. But we should at least consider a few possibilities. I call on Governor Greg Abbott (who has the power and certainly the willingness to issue Emergency Orders), the Texas Legislature (which is scheduled to meet January 12, 2021 – or earlier, if the Governor so directs), TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier (who is the top manager responsible for the care and custody of all TDCJ inmates) and county sheriffs (whose job includes the protection of inmates at county jails across the state) to consider doing the following: (1) segregate older and medically vulnerable inmates from the rest of prison and jail populations and administer daily, rapid testing to the protected groups; (2) increase training for prison guards and inmates, in order to avoid contracting and spreading COVID, and institute a “zero tolerance” policy for prison and jail employees who violate safety protocols; (3) speed up the parole process and instruct the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to show more flexibility in allowing release (with appropriate conditions) — especially for non-violent offenders; (4) encourage release of county jail inmates who are eligible for bond. This should include withdrawing Executive Order No. GA-13 relating to detention in county and municipal jails during COVID-19 disaster

Texas can do this. We can do whatever works in other states and we can supplement with our own approaches. The current situation in Texas prisons and jails is unacceptable and must be addressed immediately. People are dying.

As it stands, Texas detention facilities are losing the war against COVID-19 and losing it badly.

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