Issues: Criminal Justice

Sen. Ellis statement on Orlando tragedy

(Houston, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement on the mass shooting in Orlando:

“I offer my sincere condolences to the family and friends of those who were impacted by today’s senseless violence in Orlando. More than ever, it is clear that hate can kill. All of us have a responsibility to join together in a unified response against hatred directed at any group – whether it’s because of what you look like, where you were born, or who you love.”

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Sen. Ellis reacts to Supreme Court agreeing to hear Duane Buck’s appeal

(Houston, TX) // Today, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Duane Buck’s appeal of his death penalty sentence handed down in 1997. Mr. Buck was condemned to death after his own trial attorneys introduced testimony and a report from a psychologist stating that Mr. Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black.

Senator Ellis offers the following response:

“I am encouraged to see the U.S. Supreme Court take up Duane Buck’s case,” said Senator Ellis. “The people of Texas deserve a justice system based on the core principles of equal justice under the law that is free from racial prejudice and discrimination – particularly when it involves the ultimate punishment.”

Ellis continued: “There is no doubt that racist ‘expert’ testimony was involved in sentencing Buck to death. I hope the Supreme Court will correct this egregious and indefensible error and grant a new sentencing hearing free of racial bias. That said, Harris County can fix this problem now by simply agreeing to a new sentencing hearing.”

On May 9, Senator Ellis joined with 31 other Texas legislators and sent a letter urging Harris County to agree to a sentencing hearing for Buck. That letter can be found here.

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It’s time to fix what’s broken

Dear Friend:

Two weeks ago, Harris County was sued to overturn an unconstitutional bail system that is jailing people just because they are poor. I stood with area leaders and advocates like the Texas Organizing Project and urged the county to work with all parties to fix the problem and settle the case – rather than use our tax dollars to defend this morally indefensible system.

It’s unfortunate that, despite repeated warnings and attempts to work with the County, this lawsuit was absolutely necessary. It’s necessary to protect the rights of Harris County residents who are kept in a modern day debtor’s prison – locked up because they’re poor. It’s necessary to save taxpayer dollars that are paying to ship inmates out of our overcrowded jail. And it’s necessary to spur needed reforms.

 TOP play

Click above to watch Sen. Ellis discuss needed bail reforms


The County’s failure to follow the law and principles of basic fairness when it comes to pre-trial bond and bail practices has translated into more than 70 percent of the jail population consisting of people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime. The vast majority of those people are stuck in jail solely because they are poor – not because they are threat to public safety.

So we’ve created two separate systems of justice: one for the rich and one for the poor. A system that keeps the Sandra Blands of the world, arrested for minor offenses, locked in cages with their lives at risk. And another that lets the Robert Dursts, arrested for murder, walk free just because they’re wealthy.

It’s a violation of our basic constitutional legal principles and our moral principles of justice. It doesn’t have to be this way.

On April 25, I sent a letter to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, Sheriff Ron Hickman, and Presiding Judge Susan Brown, urging them to advance more effective and efficient approaches to public safety that are proven to make our communities safer, reduce the County’s jail population creating significant savings for taxpayers, and result in fairer and more equitable treatment of our residents.

  • Let’s implement a program like Seattle’s successful LEAD program, which diverts non-violent, low-level drug users to community programs instead of jail.
  • Let’s reform our failed bail bond system so that we don’t have a jail where 70 percent of the inmates are sitting there merely because they can’t afford bail.
  • Let’s increase the use of personal recognizance bonds so that folks can maintain employment and support their family before trial.
  • Let’s actually take into consideration – like state law requires – the ability of someone to afford the bail amount before it’s set.

What was the response to this push for criminal justice reforms? Commissioner Steve Radack called me out by my name and told me to “shut up” about this issue. 

Here’s my promise: as long as I have the privilege of public service, I’m not going to shut up. I’m not going to shut up about our broken criminal justice system and people dying in jail. I’m not going to shut up about a bail system that puts people in a cage just because they’re poor. And I’m not going to shut up about the fact that the attorney you can afford too often determines the quality of justice you receive.

I’m going to speak up for the people and the most vulnerable in our society, just as I’ve always done. And I will not be bullied by a Commissioner into going along to get along, regardless of where my public service takes me.

Click here to read several articles about last week’s events.

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A new opportunity for reform: the MacArthur Foundation Grant

In late April, the Harris County Commissioners Court voted to approve a plan to reform the county’s criminal justice system, including accepting a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. As described by the Foundation, the grant is “part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative supported by the Foundation with an initial $75 million to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails” and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

I first brought the grant opportunity to the attention of the Harris County Commissioners Court via a March 10, 2015, letter to the late Commissioner El Franco Lee, then Chairman of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In the letter, I urged Commissioner Lee to “consider taking advantage of this opportunity to build upon the progress you made improving public safety and the efficiency and effectiveness of justice in Harris County.”

The county’s plan is a first step toward improving our broken criminal justice system, but the plan disappointingly fails to address the most serious issues including smart-on-crime alternatives for low-level, non-violent drug possession offenses, our bail bond system, and pre-trial release reform.

As the largest county in Texas housing the fourth largest city in the nation, Harris County should be at forefront of advancing a fairer justice system that ensures the innocent are protected, the guilty brought to justice, and all its residents are treated equally and fairly under the law.

With the MacArthur grant, we have a unique opportunity to fix our broken criminal justice system. So let’s do more. I don’t want to sell ourselves short and end up with some of the same racial and income disparities that plague our system today.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Flooding update

Our region continues to be slammed with heavy rains, resulting in more flooding affecting thousands of residents. Those seeking federal assistance can receive help at one of four flood recovery centers in Harris County. These recovery centers will have representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who can help people register flood damage, apply for aid, and answer questions. City and county officials will also be available to offer referrals to legal aid and local social services.

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Please note that individuals must apply for FEMA Disaster Assistance by Friday, June 24, 2016, to receive aid. The four recovery centers will be open from 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday, and 9 am to 2 pm on Saturday. Please review the list below to see which recovery center is closest to you:

  • Bayland Community Center, 6400 Bissonnet St., Houston, TX 77074
  • Greenspoint Commercial Office Building, 16800 Imperial Valley Dr. Houston, TX 77060
  • Cypress Creek Christian Church and Community Center, 6823 Cypresswood Dr. Spring, TX 77379
  • Lone Star College Cy-Fair Library, 9191 Barker Rd, Cypress, TX 77433

Come prepared! Applicants will be asked to provide:

  • Social Security number
  • Address of the damaged primary residence
  • Description of the damage
  • Information about insurance coverage
  • Current contact telephone number
  • Address where they can receive mail
  • Bank account and routing numbers for those preferring direct deposit of funds

Even if you are not 100 percent certain whether you qualify for aid, please apply. You can apply at the new recovery centers, by visiting www.disasterassistance.gov, or by calling 1-800-621-3362. If you or a loved one is hearing or speech impaired, please call 1-800-462-7585.

Do you need legal assistance?

The State Bar of Texas, American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, and FEMA are providing assistance to survivors who need help dealing with issues related to the flooding but have no means to hire a lawyer. A confidential, toll-free hotline (1-800-504-7030) is available 24/7 to help low income individuals with legal assistance on issues such as:

  • Life, medical, and property insurance claims
  • Landlord-tenant problems
  • FEMA and other government benefits available to disaster survivors
  • Help with home repair contracts/contractors
  • Replacement of wills and/or other legal documents lost or destroyed in the disaster
  • Consumer protection issues such as contractor scams
  • Mortgage-foreclosure problems

Additionally, Lonestar Legal Aid is offering free legal assistance to those who qualify.  Please review criteria for obtaining free legal aid by visiting www.lonestarlegal.org or calling 1-800-733-8394.

Texas Workforce Commission Unemployment Assistance

Individuals can apply for benefits by calling a TWC Tele-Center Monday through Friday between 8 am and 5 pm at 1-800-939-6631.

Additional resources can be found at www.houstonrecovers.org.


Graduation certificates

For many students, the end of May indicates the conclusion of a school year and the start of summer vacation. But for some lucky students, the end of their school year is especially exciting because they will soon be graduating from high school. I was extremely pleased to learn that 7,884 students in Senate District 13 will be graduating this year. I congratulated these accomplished youths by sending each graduate a congratulatory certificate applauding them for their hard work and dedication.

Along with the certificate, I included a voter registration card to encourage them to exercise their right to vote. I want to make it one step easier for people of all ages in my district to exercise their constitutional right to vote and have their voice heard at the ballot box.

I’m so proud of these students for accomplishing the important milestone of high school graduation. Congratulations to all of the graduates across Texas!

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Sen. Ellis responds to Harris County Commissioner Radack

(Houston, TX) // On Tuesday, Commissioner Steve Radack said during a public session of the Harris County Commissioner’s Court that Senator Rodney Ellis should “shut up” about criminal justice reform. Click here and scroll to the 30 second mark of the Executive Session.

 Today, Senator Ellis offers the following response:

“In an outburst more in the style of Donald Trump rather than the more staid Commissioner’s Court, Commissioner Radack called me out by name and told me to ‘shut up’ about criminal justice reforms in our community,” said Senator Ellis. “As long as I have the privilege of public service, I’m not going to shut up.”

Ellis continued: “I’m not going to shut up about our broken criminal justice system and people dying in jail. I’m not going to shut up about a bail system that keeps people in a cage just because they’re poor. And I’m not going to shut up about the fact that the attorney you can afford too often determines the quality of justice you receive.”

“This isn’t an argument about statistics –  it’s an argument about whether or not Harris County continues to needlessly destroy lives, jeopardize our communities, and waste taxpayer dollars with its broken justice system. I’m going to speak up for all people and especially the most vulnerable in our society, just as I’ve always done. And I will not be bullied by any Commissioner, regardless of where my public service takes me.”

“I challenge Commissioner Radack to sit down for a public debate about the criminal justice reforms needed in our community.”

 

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Sen. Ellis reacts to lawsuit against Harris County’s broken criminal justice system

(Houston, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding the lawsuit brought against Harris County due to its broken criminal justice system:

“Harris County’s overreliance on the inefficient and ineffective use of mass incarceration as a means of dealing with low-level and non-violent offenses continues to result in some of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the U.S. and the world. It’s an approach that wastes countless taxpayer dollars, has been ineffective at making our communities safer, and has a particularly devastating effect on communities of color and the poor.
 
The County’s continued failure to follow the law and principles of basic fairness when it comes to pre-trial bond and bail practices has translated into more than 70% of the jail population consisting of people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime. A vast majority of those people are stuck in jail solely because they are poor, not because they are threat to public safety. We’ve created two separate systems of justice: one for the rich and one for the poor. A system that keeps the Sandra Blands of the world, arrested for minor offenses, locked in cages with their lives at risk, and lets the Robert Dursts, arrested for murder, walk free. It’s a violation of our basic constitutional legal principles and our moral principles of justice.
 
It doesn’t have to be this way. Someone’s danger to the community should determine bail, not their wealth. The county can start fixing the this broken bail system and advancing a fair, effective, and efficient justice system today by simply following pre-trial services recommendations, requiring risk assessments, and utilizing proven alternatives to incarceration for low-risk arrestees like personal bonds, electronic monitoring, or simple check-ins. The county must also use more PR bonds, cease using a bail schedule, comply with Texas law, and assign counsel at magistration.

It’s unfortunate the County has failed to act on its own, despite repeated warnings and attempts from advocates and elected officials to work with them. I stand with the plaintiffs who brought this lawsuit and hope to be County Commissioner next January so that I can help take action to fix our broken justice system.

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Flooding recovery & Texas Fair Defense Act event

Dear Friend:

These past few weeks have been trying times as our community recovers from the tragic floods that cost eight people their lives and displaced thousands of others. President Obama was quick to issue a disaster declaration for Harris County. Because of his prompt declaration, Harris County residents are eligible to apply for federal assistance to supplement local recovery efforts. Federal assistance can be used on home repairs, temporary housing, replacement of personal property, medication, funeral expenses, small loans and transportation, among other things.

Those seeking federal assistance can receive help at one of four newly opened flood recovery centers in Harris County. These recovery centers will have representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who can help people register flood damage, apply for aid, and answer questions. City and county officials will also be available to offer referrals to legal aid and local social services.

The four recovery centers will be open 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday, and 9 am to 2 pm on Saturday. Please review the list below to see which recovery center is closest to you:

Applicants will be asked to provide:

  • Social Security number
  • Address of the damaged primary residence
  • Description of the damage
  • Information about insurance coverage
  • Current contact telephone number
  • Address where they can receive mail
  • Bank account and routing numbers for those preferring direct deposit of funds

As of Monday, FEMA had already approved $13 million in assistance to flood victims in four Texas counties, including Harris.  Even if you are not 100 percent certain whether you qualify for aid, please apply. You can apply at the new recovery centers or at www.disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362.  If you or a loved one is hearing or speech impaired, please call 1-800-462-7585.


Fighting for families

This past weekend, I joined the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) to fight for displaced residents in the Greenspoint area whose apartments were recently flooded. Despite the fact that their apartments are completely unlivable and full of mold, apartment managers are demanding full rent. TOP helped to organize residents to demand that managers allow residents to forgo rental payments until FEMA and insurance payments can be secured.

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As a Houston Chronicle article explains:

State. Sen. Rodney Ellis joined tenants and advocates outside The Woods of Greenbriar, a complex of more than 170 units in the 900 block of Greens Road, to encourage landlords to waive May rent. […]

Ellis, who is running for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner, implored property owners to go further than a discount.

“It is totally reasonable to ask the landlords to give one month free rent, because there is nothing that they could do with the unit I just left and most of these units while they’re being repaired,” the state senator said. “If these great folks were not in these units, they wouldn’t make a dime. The units would be empty.”

After the managers felt the pressure, they offered tenants a 25 percent rent reduction on May rent, the first such offer from management. That’s a good first start – certainly better than the threats of penalties residents had previously received from landlords.

But let’s be clear: charging residents in crisis to stay in unlivable, mold-filled apartments is cruel. As residents attempt to secure different housing, landlords should recognize the severity of this situation, expedite repairs, and waive rent and penalties for families in unlivable apartments.


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15th Anniversary of the Texas Fair Defense Act

I want to invite you to join me at this Friday’s 15th anniversary celebration of the Texas Fair Defense Act at Houston’s Fourteenth Court of Appeals (301 Fannin St.). The event runs from 12:30 to 3:30 pm, and it is free and open to the public. Plus, attorneys can receive 2.25 MCLE hours from the State Bar for attending.

Click here to RSVP and get more information.

Fifteen years ago, I passed the Texas Fair Defense Act to improve our state’s criminal justice system and ensure that poor Texans are not sentenced to a poor defense. While the Act has helped to move Texas’ justice system forward, quality of justice is still too contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford. We have long way to go on the path to providing Texans the reliable, effective, and fair justice they deserve, which is why this symposium is so important.

After all, the promise that every person, rich or poor, stands equal before the law is at the root of the American ideals of liberty and justice. Ensuring that promise is a reality requires that all people have their rights equally protected by quality legal representation when they are accused of a crime.

From 12:30 to 3:30 pm, the event will include two panels and a keynote address from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Director of Access to Justice, Lisa Foster. Also in attendance will be Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen), Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, as well as numerous legal leaders throughout the state.

Following the symposium, there will be a reception at Hearsay Gastro Lounge (218 Travis) from 3:45 to 5 pm.

I hope to see you there.

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Legal leaders to gather in Houston to celebrate 15th anniversary of the Texas Fair Defense Act

(Houston, TX) // On Friday, May 6, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Senator Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen), and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller will gather in Houston at the Fourteenth Court of Appeals to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Texas Fair Defense Act.

The Fair Defense Act, passed in 2001 by Senator Ellis and Senator Hinojosa as Senate Bill 7, is landmark legislation that overhauled the state’s criminal justice system to improve the quality of justice that all Texans receive when they are accused of a crime. Senator Ellis authored Senate Bill 7, which was sponsored by Senator Hinojosa – then a member of the Texas House of Representatives.

Also speaking at the event are Lisa Foster, Director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Access to Justice division, and leading attorneys from across the state. This free event is open to the public.

 “The promise that every person, rich or poor, stands equal before the law is at the root of the American ideals of liberty and justice,” said Senator Ellis. “Ensuring that promise is a reality requires that all people have their rights equally protected by quality legal representation when they are accused of a crime.”

Senator Ellis continued: “Fifteen years ago, I passed the Texas Fair Defense Act to improve our state’s criminal justice system and ensure that poor Texans are not sentenced to a poor defense. While the Act has helped to move Texas’ justice system forward, quality of justice is still too contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford. We have long way to go on the path to providing Texans the reliable, effective, and fair justice they deserve, which is why this symposium is so important.”

When:       Friday, May 6, 2016 from 12:30 pm to 5:00 pm

Where:     Fourteenth Court of Appeals, 301 Fannin Street (North Courtroom), Houston, Texas 77002

Info:          For more information and to register, click here.

Agenda:

12:30 pm        Welcome and Opening Remarks

  • Senator Rodney Ellis and Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Sponsors of the Fair Defense Act of 2001

12:45 pm        Commencement and Presentation of Awards

  • Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, Chair and Jim Bethke, Executive Director Texas Indigent Defense Commission

1:15 pm          Keynote Address

  • Lisa Foster, Director, Access to Justice, United States Department of Justice

1:30 pm          A look back over the 15 years: Programs that are making a difference

  • Moderator: Jim Bethke / Texas Indigent Defense Commission
  • Jack Stoffregen / Regional Public Defender Office for Capital Cases
  • Alex Bunin / Harris County Public Defender Office
  • Judge Elisabeth Earle / Capital Area Private Defender Service, Travis County
  • Donnie Yandell / Texas Tech Law/Caprock Public Defender
  • Jordan Pollock / Immigration attorney, Dallas Public Defender Office

2:30 pm          A look forward to challenges that lie ahead

  • Moderator: Andrea Marsh / University of Texas School of Law and Texas Fair Defense Project
  • Michael Young / Chief Public Defender Bexar County
  • Cathy Burnett / State Bar of Texas Legal Services to Poor in Criminal Matters Committee
  • Andrea Keilen / General Counsel, Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association
  • Jim Allison / General Counsel, County Judges and Commissioners Association

3:30 pm          Closing Remarks / Adjourn

  • Senator Rodney Ellis and Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa

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Sen. Ellis celebrates $2 million criminal justice grant for Harris County

Yesterday, the MacArthur Foundation announced that Harris County would receive a $2 million grant to reform and improve its criminal justice system. As described by the Foundation, the grant is “part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative supported by the Foundation with an initial $75 million to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails” and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

Senator Ellis brought the grant opportunity to the attention of the Harris County Commissioners Court via a March 10, 2015, letter to the late Commissioner El Franco Lee, then Chairman of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In the letter, Senator Ellis urged Commissioner Lee to “consider taking advantage of this opportunity to build upon the progress you made improving public safety and the efficiency and effectiveness of justice in Harris County.”

In response to the grant, Senator Ellis issues the following statement: “I’m proud to have worked with Commissioner Lee to help advance this effort to work toward a more fair, equal and effective justice system in Harris County.”

“Harris County’s  overreliance on the inefficient and ineffective use of mass incarceration as a means of dealing low level and non-violent offenses has resulted in one of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the US and the world,” Ellis continued. “It wastes countless taxpayer dollars, has been ineffective at making our communities safer,  and had a particularly a devastating effect on communities of color and the poor.”

“I hope this first step will inspire our county to work to fix our broken justice system through more effective and less discriminatory law enforcement, jailing and sentencing practices, and ensure all people, no matter what color, ethnicity or income, are treated equally and fairly under the law.”

More information on Harris County’s grant proposal, including a fact sheet, can be found here.

About the MacArthur Foundation

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is the tenth largest private foundation in the United States. It supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.

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Sen. Ellis supports Dewayne Brown’s efforts to seek compensation for wrongful conviction

(Houston, TX) // This morning, Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) joined Dewayne Brown and his attorneys in support of Dewayne’s efforts to seek compensation for the 12+ years he wrongfully spent behind bars, including nine on death row.

“I am proud to stand with Dewayne Brown as he seeks the compensation he is rightfully owed under the law,” said Sen. Ellis. “Let’s face it: there is no amount of money that can repay someone for being on death row for 9 years for a crime they did not commit. But the provisions of the Tim Cole Act, which I passed in 2001, exist to try to remedy the injustice that Dewayne suffered.”

“It is days like today that make me so proud that I led legislative efforts to increase compensation for the wrongfully imprisoned,” Ellis continued. “Since I changed the law in 2001, the state has paid more than $92 million in compensation to wrongfully convicted Texans. Why? Because these men and women deserve some semblance of justice. After all, Texas leads the nation in the shameful category of proven wrongful convictions.”

While in the Texas Senate, Ellis has “led legislative efforts to increase compensation for the wrongfully imprisoned,” according to the New York Times. In 2001, Ellis authored and passed legislation that increased the amount of compensation, increased the statute of limitations for claiming compensation, and allowed convicted persons found to be innocent to seek relief and compensation from the courts, rather than by pardon. In 2011, Ellis sponsored and passed comprehensive exoneree compensation reform legislation, which provided health care to the wrongfully convicted, established standards for attorney’s fees in compensation claims, and helped exonerees to receive compensation.

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About Dewayne Brown

Alfred Dewayne Brown – his family and friends call him Dewayne – was convicted of capital murder on October 18, 2005 for a crime he did not commit. Dewayne was wrongly accused of robbing a check cashing store located off 610 in southeast Houston with two other individuals in April 2003, which left a cashier and a police officer dead. Dewayne, however, was at his girlfriend’s apartment sick in bed at the time of the murders. Indeed, he called his girlfriend’s workplace from her apartment at around 10 a.m. that day, which was shortly after the murders took place and while the actual killers where on the run elsewhere.

Dewayne’s girlfriend and her employer both testified at trial that Dewayne had called about 10 a.m., but there was no evidence showing from where Dewayne made the call. Despite his alibi, which Dewayne maintained since the day of his arrest, the jury convicted him of capital murder, and he was sentenced to death on October 25, 2005.

Nearly eight years later in 2013, one of the Houston police detectives originally assigned to Dewayne’s case was cleaning out his garage and found subpoenaed phone records from the phone company that the DA’s office had obtained during their investigation but had never been turned over to Dewayne’s lawyers at trial. Those phone records showed that a call had been made from Dewayne’s girlfriend’s apartment to his girlfriend’s place of employment at the time Dewayne, Dewayne’s girlfriend, and Dewayne’s girlfriend’s employer all say Dewayne called – thus proving Dewayne’s alibi.

Once Dewayne’s lawyers obtained the phone records (8 years after the State should have turned them over) they eventually were able to secure a reversal of his conviction and his eventual exoneration.

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Sen. Ellis to urge Waller County to enact criminal justice reforms

(Houston, TX) // Tomorrow, Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) will speak to the Waller County Commissioners Court regarding the county’s criminal justice system, urging reforms to the county’s indigent defense system in response to Sandra Bland’s tragic death while in custody at the Waller County Jail.

“In light of the continued litigation and community unrest involving the untimely death of Sandra Bland, I am encouraged Waller County is taking the initiative to examine their indigent defense system,” said Sen. Ellis. “Many of the students at Prairie View A&M University come from my Senate district, and I want to ensure that my constituents, rich or poor, have equal access to justice regardless of whether they’re at school or back home in Houston.”

“The unfortunate reality is that the quality of justice one receives is too often contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford,” continued Sen. Ellis. “That’s why reforms to the indigent defense system are so crucial.”

In particular, Sen. Ellis will urge Waller County to focus on three key reforms:

  1. Reducing unnecessary pre-trial incarceration. More than 60 percent of people in Texas jails, and more than 75 percent of the people housed in Waller County Jail, aren’t there because they’ve been convicted of a crime. Instead, they’re in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to get out. An individual’s danger to the community should determine whether they stay behind bars awaiting trial – not their wealth.
  2. Providing counsel early. The US Constitution requires that all persons have the right to counsel, and Texas law requires that requests for counsel be acted on and attorneys appointed in a timely manner. Respecting these rights is especially critical for people who are distressed or may be suffering some mental illness.
  3. Pursuing a more coordinated approach to indigent defense through a public defender office. Most Texas counties, including Waller County, utilize a court-appointed counsel system where a judge chooses your lawyer if you’re poor and even decides whether an attorney gets resources to investigate a case. This creates an inherent conflict. Public defenders, on the other hand, improve the quality of representation because they are independent of the judiciary and provide an institutional infrastructure like a prosecutor’s office.

Also speaking before the Commissioners Court will be James Bethke, executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC). TIDC is a permanent standing committee of the Texas Judicial Council that provides financial and technical support to counties to develop and maintain quality, cost-effective indigent defense systems that meet the needs of local communities and the requirements of the Constitution and state law. Mr. Bethke will discuss TIDC’s upcoming review of the Waller County indigent defense system.

On September 29, 2015, Sen. Ellis  joined with Representatives Senfronia Thompson and Ron Reynolds to write TIDC and request that the Commission “conduct a thorough indigent defense program assessment in Waller County … [because] Waller County is home to one of the largest historically black universities in Texas, where many of our constituents attend.”

What:       Waller County Commissioner’s Court meeting

When:       Wednesday, February 10, 9:00 am

Where:     Waller County Courthouse, 836 Austin St, Hempstead, TX 77445

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