Political Intelligence

The Leaky Roof of Justice


Justice for Jackson?

Derrick Jackson sits on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, thinking about a moment during his capital murder trial in 1998. Jackson stood accused of the 1988 double homicide of Houston Grand Opera singers Richard Wrotenbury and Forrest Henderson. The case languished until 1995, when Harris County upgraded its computer fingerprint database. Jackson, fingerprinted earlier and in prison on unrelated charges, suddenly became a suspect. Police officers visited the prison, drew Jackson’s blood, and sent it for testing to the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory. Using the killer’s blood taken from the scene, HPD’s forensic analysts matched Jackson’s blood with the sample.

His lawyers questioned the prosecution’s DNA evidence. Judge Bob Burdette of the 230th District Court in Houston granted a hearing outside the presence of the jury to review the lab’s scientific methods and the reliability of the specialists who interpreted the evidence. So that later, when the jury convicted Jackson, they had not heard Elizabeth Johnson, a forensic scientist formerly with the county medical examiner’s office, try to tell the court that the bloodwork produced by HPD in Jackson’s case was suspicious. Judge Burdette interrupted her testimony because she had only “questions” for the HPD scientists, instead of hard evidence of a flawed methodology. Burdette overruled the defense’s objection. “You simply want to satisfy yourself that the methods used were, in fact, consistent with scientific standards,” he said as he affirmed the evidence’s validity for the jury. On direct appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in May 2000, Judge Tom Price didn’t dispute the judge’s position and, speaking for the whole court, confirmed Jackson’s death sentence.

Fast forward three years. The HPD crime lab is mired in scandal and, as a result, Jackson’s case is the first death penalty case flagged for review. At least several hundred cases–perhaps thousands, some going back as far as 1992–are now in question. Among other problems, for years the lab’s roof leaked rainwater onto easily contaminated crime scene evidence. Growing public concern, articulated by the Texas House Committee on General Investigating–with all the power of a grand jury save indictment–has begun a full scale inquiry into the problems with the lab. Josiah Sutton, convicted of rape, has been released from jail because retesting excluded him as a suspect. Assistant DA Marie Munier said her office has reviewed 32 cases of people already put to death, concluding that none of them were wrongly executed. The conflict of interest inherent in having the prosecutorial office in these cases essentially investigate itself has drawn a barrage of criticism. Even HPD Chief C. O. Bradford and Mayor Lee Brown say they don’t want the nation’s leading death penalty prosecutors reviewing their own handiwork. (It’s worth noting that Mayor Brown was police chief of Houston when many of these cases were prosecuted.)

There still is time to save those on death row who might be innocent. At the beginning of March, Derrick Jackson received a short letter from the DA recommending that he and his attorney file with the judge to have the DNA evidence retested. In a recent letter, Jackson wrote that he can’t understand why people haven’t believed him from the start. “No one came to ask my side of the story before my conviction,” Jackson wrote. But he also said he lacks confidence in the DA’s investigation and will file for an independent review. “Right now, this retesting means as much to me as when Bush said that all those convicted or accused would get a fair trial.”

Morales Calls Collect

The taint of alleged wrongdoing surrounding former Attorney General and recent gubernatorial candidate Dan Morales threatens to grow. Now, in addition to Morales and lawyer Marc Murr, San Antonio-based SBC could be added to the mix.

Morales was indicted March 6 in federal court on 12 counts for allegedly defrauding the state of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the tobacco settlement, and for using his campaign fund as a personal ATM.

According to the 32-page indictment, Morales swiped roughly $500,000 from his campaign fund and deposited the cash into his checking account. Morales then put at least $70,000 of that money toward a down payment on a $775,000 house in Travis County that he otherwise never could have afforded. He then used the rest of his “misappropriated” campaign cash to make mortgage payments and improvements to the house, and for other expenses.

According to the indictment, after Morales left the AG’s office in 1998, his successors started snooping into his activities. So Morales decided it was time to cover his tracks. For that, he turned to SBC. Between March 1999 and August 2001,SBC paid Morales $832,332 for contract legal work. Morales dumped $500,000 of his SBC income into his campaign fund to hide the money he’d stolen to buy the house. Why did SBC pay Morales exactly $832,332? Well, the tax on $832,332–including federal income, Medicare and social security taxes–is about $300,000. Once Morales paid the $300,000 or so in taxes, he was left with $500,000–precisely the sum he needed to replenish his campaign fund. Coincidence?

The folks at SBC claim it is. “We had no prior knowledge of how [Morales] was using his compensation from us,” said SBC spokesman Selim Bingol. “He was paid to perform legal services that included a one-time retention payment plus monthly payments, and what he did with that was his decision.”

But it certainly raises the possibility that Morales, who’s done plenty of favors for SBC in the past, talked the San Antonio-based company into bailing out the hometown boy. Bingol said SBC is not a subject of the current federal investigation. But word has it SBC execs are getting jittery. And rightly so.

Foxes Running the Hen House In an only-in-Texas moment, the oldest and largest Hispanic rights organization in the state has called for the abolition of the Texas Commission on Human Rights. The Texas League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) argues in a report submitted to legislators that the commission is not only wasteful and inefficient but that it discriminates against minorities. “The TCHR has utterly failed simply to do its basic job and it has become a practitioner of the very evil that it was established in 1983 to combat” says Ana Yanez Correa, public policy director for LULAC.

The commission is currently being sued by as many as 10 of its past and present employees for job discrimination. TCHR labels all of their allegations as “baseless, without merit, and unfounded.” LULAC alleges that not only has the agency consistently failed to hire qualified minorities, but that the current leadership has shown itself unqualified to perform its job functions. LULAC also notes that the agency has failed to translate complaint forms into Spanish or install a telephone system with options in Spanish.

The agency, whose board is appointed by the governor, subsists in part on federal funding through contracts to handle housing and equal employment opportunity cases. TCHR’s failure to complete its allotted number of cases threatens its EEOC contract, LULAC concluded after an analysis of documents obtained under the open records act. During this contract year, the state is projected to lose approximately $384,000. The agency’s inability to successfully investigate and close cases has also limited the number of such investigations it will be paid to perform for the federal Housing and Urban Development department (HUD). The report estimates that all told the agency has been unable to capitalize on almost a million dollars of federal funding.

Mary Banks, the chair of the commission, disputed the LULAC allegations in a March 17 letter. Banks argued that LULAC had misread contracts and not taken into account grants whose funds have yet to be dispersed.

LULAC is urging the commission be dissolved and merged into the state attorney general’s office as a way to increase oversight and save the state money. Several Hispanic legislators are interested, including Rep. Kino Flores (D-Mission). Banks claims that because of the TCHR’s responsibility to investigate the civil rights compliance of state agencies, TCHR must remain an independent agency. LULAC disputes this by noting that when the commission takes a case to court, it is the attorney general’s office that represents it. Furthermore, in the past ten years, the agency has never prosecuted a case against a public university or state agency.