Harris County

HOUSTON — A review of Texas prison records shows juries around the state have sent 398 convicts to prison with no chance of parole in the six years since the life without parole law took effect.

Texas was the last state with capital punishment to adopt life without parole as a sentencing option in capital murder cases.

The Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday that 110 of the sentences of life without parole came in Harris County, more than a quarter of the state’s total. Harris County also has more offenders on death row than any other Texas county.

Since the law went into effect in September 2005, 11 convicted killers have wound up on death row from cases in the state’s most populous county.

“Harris County is a tough law and order county on the really bad actors,” Harris County First Assistant District Attorney James Leitner told the newspaper. “That hasn’t changed.”

To compare, Dallas County, No. 2 in population, has 51 convicts serving life without parole. Tarrant County has 26 and Bexar County 22.

About a third of all counties have at least one person serving life without parole.

Overall, the Chronicle analysis showed 66 convicts were sent to death row in the same six years.

Supporters of the life without parole option point to it being less expensive than following through a capital murder conviction with the death penalty. They also say the sentence offers the opportunity for being reversed if new evidence or other information leads to a finding of innocence for the convict.

The law was changed in 2009 to make juveniles ineligible for life without parole. In the four years ending September 2009, life without parole was given to 21 people under 18 who had been certified for trial as adults. Eight of them came from Harris County. Juveniles no longer are subject to the penalty.

The lifers also include 17 women, according to the newspaper.

HOUSTON — A judge on Tuesday denied a request to move the upcoming trials of four fired Houston police officers charged in the alleged beating of a teenage burglary suspect that was caught on videotape.

Attorneys for the ex-officers argued during a 1½ day hearing that their clients could not get a fair trial because of intense pretrial publicity in the case, including the release by a community activist to the media earlier this year of a surveillance video that appears to show the officers kicking and stomping the burglary suspect during a 2010 arrest.

But state District Judge Ruben Guerrero ruled that a fair and impartial jury can be chosen from among the more than four million residents in Harris County, home to Houston. He also said defense attorneys had not presented any testimony from potential jurors about whether their opinions have been influenced by the pretrial publicity.

“The publicity about this case is pervasive, it’s widespread, it’s continuing and it’s derogatory, incriminating to the defendants in this case,” Dick DeGuerin, the attorney for Andrew Blomberg, one of the four indicted officers, said during closing arguments in the hearing earlier Tuesday.

Prosecutor Clint Greenwood argued that other high-profile cases in Harris County within the last decade that have received more pretrial publicity than this one, including the case of Andrea Yates, the suburban Houston mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. That shows that fair and impartial juries can be chosen, he said.

“If the defense has its way, they are telling the residents of Harris County, ‘You are not to be trusted,’” he said.

The four ex-officers are set to be tried separately on various charges. Blomberg will be the first to be tried on April 16.

The video appears to show the officers kicking, punching and stomping on the then 15-year-old Chad Holley during his arrest in March 2010 at a self-storage business in southwest Houston. In the video, Holley is on the ground and surrounded by at least five officers. He appears to be kicked in the head, abdomen and legs by officers, even after he has been placed in handcuffs.

Police said the teen was arrested following a brief chase after he and three others had allegedly burglarized a home. The teenager’s mother has said her son’s nose was fractured, and he had multiple bruises and limped after the alleged beating.

The four officers were fired and later indicted. Holley was convicted in October in juvenile court of burglary and put on probation.

Blomberg, 28, along with former officers Phillip Bryan, 45; Raad Hassan, 41; and Drew Ryser, 30, each were charged with official oppression. Hassan and Bryan also were charged with violation of the civil rights of a prisoner. If convicted, each officer faces up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

After Tuesday’s hearing, about 11 protestors stood outside the courthouse and held up various signs, including one saying, “Stop Police Terrorism Houston We Have a Problem.”

“It is a small step toward justice,” Krystal Muhammad, one of the protesters with the New Black Panther Party, said about the judge’s decision to keep the trials in Houston.

Printed on Wednesday, August 24, 2011 as: Recording delays police brutality trial.

A district judge will decide if the Texas death penalty statute is constitutional for the first time in the state’s history in a hearing scheduled for Monday.

Harris County Judge Kevin Fine will oversee the case of defendant John Green, who faces capital murder charges following a 2008 shooting of a woman during a robbery. Harris County prosecutors asked for a death sentence, which led to the hearing.

Texas v. Green will examine risk factors that can occur during a capital murder case which could lead to wrongful executions — including faulty eyewitness testimony and a lower quality of lawyering — and the state’s method of fixing the systemic problems.

Andrea Keilen, executive director of Texas Defender Service, said Texas lacks the safeguarding procedures in execution cases used in many other states.

“The Texas system is so deficient — from top to bottom — in terms of its ability to protect innocent people from conviction and execution,” Keilen said. “And once the system makes a mistake, it is totally inadequate and unable to fix the mistake. Those exonerations happen out of a combination of luck and the involvement of people outside of the death penalty system.”

According to Death Penalty Information Center statistics, 12 of the 139 death row prisoners exonerated in the last 35 years were in Texas.

Fine declared the death penalty unconstitutional in March during earlier litigation of the trial. He retracted his statement after public criticism but acknowledged innocent people have been executed in Texas. Following the judge’s statement, the Harris County district attorney’s office filed a motion for Fine to remove himself from the case. A state appeals court denied the motion because Fine had not yet made a decision.

Prosecutors responded by filing a writ to stop the hearing two weeks ago, but all nine members of the state Criminal Court of Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, denied the motion. The prosecutors are trying to avoid having a hearing in which the truth about the death penalty is put into evidence, Keilen said.

“That says something in and of itself,” she said. “The prosecutors don’t want the public to realize how unreliable the system is because support for the death penalty would decrease.”

The Harris County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the upcoming hearing.
Green’s defense attorney Robert Loper said he is glad they have a chance for a hearing.

“If they were to uphold it, I think that would be the end of the death penalty in Texas,” he said.