Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Rocks, Hard Places and Writs of Attachment

Last night, Channel 2 KPRC's Jace Larson profiled the disturbing story of a sexual assault victim who had been placed in the Harris County Jail on a Writ of Attachment after having a nervous breakdown in the trial against her attacker.  The details of the story are mortifying:
After a rape victim named Jenny had an obvious mental breakdown while testifying against her attacker, Harris County prosecutors decided the best way to make sure she'd return to complete her testimony was to lock her up in the Harris County Jail.
From there, things went from bad to worse.  The report, paraphrasing the lawsuit filed on "Jenny's" behalf by attorney Sean Buckley noted:
Buckley says his client was put in jail without due process, given a black eye by another inmate while kept in jail for nearly a month over Christmas. Jenny also suffered injuries when she was punched by a jailer after she attacked the guard. Jenny was charged with assault but prosecutors later dropped the charge. 
The idea of arresting the victim of an Aggravated Sexual Assault on a Writ of Attachment is a PR nightmare, isn't it?  It certainly flies in the face of a District Attorney's Office mission statement to seek justice for the victims of crime, right?  Are prosecutors so desperate to win their cases that they will stop at absolutely nothing?  Even if it means locking up a mentally ill victim of rape?

Well, ultimately, although the actions taken by the District Attorney's Office may have been illegal, the motivation isn't quite as sinister as the news article would make it out to be.

The case surrounds the trial of Keith Hendricks, an accused serial rapist who was believed to have targeted homeless women in Downtown Houston.  His case had previously garnered media attention when the media was focusing on the backlog of DNA testing from HPD.  A glance at this article from March 2015 notes:

Another suspect, Keith Edward Hendricks, a homeless man convicted of a 1978 rape in Indiana, is now facing four sexual assault charges from 2006 to 2013.  Officials said Hendricks attacked homeless women, luring them to abandoned buildings and raping them, sometimes while brandishing weapons such as a box cutter.
A kit in the city's backlog first tied him to a 2006 sexual assault.  One year after that alleged rape, he was ordered to submit a DNA sample on another sexual assault charge.  Had officials tested the 2006 kit, it might have spared a victim in an alleged 2013 rape. 
But the women accusing Hendricks of rape may have been difficult to put on the stand, said Jane Waters, head of the district attorney's special victims bureau.  Many of the women were homeless, and some had drug or alcohol addictions. 
Although a brutal crime still is not ever justification for breaking the law, this does give some insight into the scenario that arose around "Jenny."  The D.A.'s Office had evidence indicating that Hendricks was targeting transient and mentally unstable women, and Jenny apparently fit that description.  The prosecutor tasked with handling that type of case has a tremendous challenge of getting his witnesses to just show up.  Obviously there is a public safety interest and justice needs to be served, but that can be easier said than done.

The prosecutor on the case was Nic Socias, who is named in both the KPRC story and Buckley's lawsuit.  I know Nic and I've worked on cases with him.  He is a good prosecutor and an ethical one.  In my experience, he's always been a standup guy.  Unfortunately Nic found himself in the middle of a trial where he was not only prosecuting a man accused of doing horrible things, but also one that was a continuing danger to people just like "Jenny."  Her breakdown on the stand may or may not have been expected, but her unreliability certainly had to have been anticipated.

To take a dangerous man off the streets, Nic had to have Jenny's testimony.  The problem he had was there was no legal mechanism for making sure that Jenny came to court.

As Buckley noted in his Complaint:
Texas state law authorizes a judge, upon request by a party, to issue an “attachment” order and/or a “witness bond” to hold a material witness in custody without bail, or release her subject to posting bail, respectively. An attachment order was unauthorized because [Jenny] was not subpoenaed as a material witness and was not a resident of Harris County. See Arts. 24.12 and 24.14, Tex. Cd. Crim. Proc. Nor could [Jenny] be held on a witness bond, since the applicable statute prohibits jailing witnesses who are, as [Jenny] was, financially unable to post bond. See Art. 24.24, Tex. Cd. Crim. Proc.
Article 24.12 states that a writ of attachment is possible for "a witness who resides in the county of prosecution," but in this instance, Jenny was apparently a resident of Gregg County.  I'm not sure about the allegation that she hadn't been subpoenaed as a material witness, but that jurisdictional issue could potentially be a big problem.  Additionally, Article 24.24 does clearly state that if "any witness is unable to give security upon such bail, he shall be released without security."

What followed after the Writ of Attachment was executed on Jenny was a series of unfortunate events that continuously went from bad to worse.  Although initially Jenny was being housed in a mental health facility, she ultimately ended up in the Harris County Jail.  Once in the jail, Jenny was treated like any other inmate accused of a crime.  She was listed as being there for a Sexual Assault case, and apparently jail personnel missed the designation of her being there as a Witness, rather than as a Defendant.

As Buckley notes in his Complaint, what happened to Jenny after that does truly resemble a Kafka novel.
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” —Franz Kafka, The Trial.
Ultimately, what happened to Jenny is what we risk when we follow the adage of "well, we've always done it this way."  Uncooperative witnesses who prosecutors know (or believe) won't show up for trial get Writs of Attachment filed on them.  Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that the parties involved looked at the Code of Criminal Procedure before taking Jenny into custody.

In most instances of Writs of Attachment, the witness is held overnight or for a few days at most.  In Jenny's case, there was a break in the trial for the Christmas holidays that led to an extended stay for her.  That's how all Hell broke loose.

Whether or not the D.A.'s Office and all the named parties in Jenny's lawsuit are protected by governmental immunity is something that will be decided by the Federal courts.  I don't practice civil law, so I won't make any predictions.  I do think Jenny's rights were violated and what happened to her compounded an already tremendous tragedy.

That being said, I have a hard time throwing any stones at Nic Socias or the District Attorney's Office.  Prosecutors often have to proceed on cases in the interest of justice, even when the victims don't want to cooperate.  I can recall more than one case I prosecuted where a child was being sexually abused by an adult relative and nobody in the family wanted it prosecuted.  To accuse Nic or the District Attorney's office of not caring about Jenny or other victims of sexual assault is just simply not true.

Unfortunately, the road to Hell is often paved with good intentions, and this whole incident reminds me of the infamous quote from Vietnam that said, "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it."

Whatever the outcome is of this case, I feel sorry for all involved.


Anonymous said...

Not sure where to go with this one. The DA may have used the only tool he had, but to a DA that's almost always a hammer. And when all you have is a hammer, everyone else looks like a nail.

For sure the Sheriff screwed up. Maybe that's why, for once, Hickman is keeping his head down.

Lee said...

Couldn't Nic have just gotten a hotel room for her for a few weeks and had her treated with outpatient counseling services?

Good luck with getting any more victims to come forward after this. Potential incarceration of victims and this prosecutor are now a deterrence to victims coming forward.

Nick should be sent strait to hell for this lack of compassion in dealing with this victim. Should I ever be a witness in any criminal proceeding I will remember Nic and think that since there is a possibility I will be incarcerated, I might err to the side of caution and remain silent.

Lee said...

Another question is what Hickman expected to happen when he locked up someone whom was not only raped and traumatized, but suffering from bipolar, and then finally raped all over again by the system. Did he expect for her to have a pleasant and safe stay in jail?

Lee said...

When I was helping a colleague at work today who was have a difficult and frustrating time operating our postage machine, it made me think about a parallel to our justice system. I have been using this machine for more than a year and frequently do troubleshooting on it when everyone else has problems with it. For me (because I actually read the instruction manual that I keep on the shelf next to the machine, which is too much trouble for everyone else) the machine has always worked great.

It took me this moment today to realize that the machine of justice system isn't perfect but it works really well. Sur we could always raise the standard of proof and eliminate the death penalty but the machine is the best in the world.

The problem is the operators of this machine that are faulty. Devon Anderson for example is an operator within this system that needs to be replaced and many others including Ron Hickman should also be replaced. We have many operating this system whom either have no since of justice, have not educated themselves on the instruction manual, abuse the system, and try to obtain ends that the system was not designed to produce.

My point is to get out and vote to replace those faulty operators. Since often the choice is between two poorly qualified operators, we must choose the least of the two evils however marginal the difference may be.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing that preempts the sitting DA from responding to the accusations directly even though there is a lawsuit pending. There is no gag order in effect. Perhaps they should start acting like the "trial lawyers" they claim to be instead of hiding behind some perceived white hat.

Tom said...

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Jenny did not disobey a subpoena. I looked in the district clerk's on-line files in both cases and didn't find a subpoena for Jenny. I might have missed but I didn't find it.
Jenny had a mental breakdown. She is bi-polar. She needed mental health treatment and if fact the writ of attachment says she was in a mental health treatment facility on a mental health warrant.
Then, she's taken in handcuffs to the jail where she is booked in under the cause numbers for the defendant, showing she's charged with two aggravated sexual assaults. Then, as a person just released from a mental health treatment facility, she's thrown into general population.
You bet Jenny was raped. By the Harris County District Attorney's Office and the Harris County Sheriff. The DA's Office has a victim-witness division. A competent Jenny was necessary for the State to make it's case. Someone should have thought about how to get her the mental health treatment she needed, not just throw her into jail and deprive her of her mind meds. She could have been put up in a hotel with a babysitter from the DA's office.
No one was thinking. It is indefensible.

Anonymous said...

The only person needing sympathy in this situation is the twice abused victim. A "higher class" witness would have been put up in a hotel. You can't justify the unjustifiable. The ADA and the DA deserve to spend at least the same amount of time in the Harris County jail, booked in under a serial rapist's charges. An eye for an eye is a good starting point. Devon Anderson should resign. Nick should be fired......just as soon as they finish their jail vacation. Maybe the Feds will step in and mete out some appropriate justice.

Murray Newman said...

Anon 4:55 p.m.,

Your position is just stupid.

You can make all of the anonymous rulings that you want about Devon and Nick, but when was the last time you had to care for an extremely mentally ill person for 27 days?

Stupid comments like this aggravate the hell out of me. The entire reason I started writing this blog 8 1/2 years ago was to explain to people things that the press gets wrong. If you bothered paying attention to anything other than your own opinion, you might realize that things aren't always so black and white.

What happened to her was wrong, but you are targeting the wrong person and you are painting in brush strokes that are entirely too wide.

Eddie Cortés said...

You kinda glance over a couple of things here that I think are emblematic of the fundamental problem with this case:
1. "Jenny was treated like any other inmate accused of a crime." &
2. "there was a break in the trial for the Christmas holidays that led to an extended stay for her."

If I've said this once, I've said it 100 times: no one knows the true value of a day until they've spent 24 hours behind bars. The sheer insensitivity of going off to Christmas vacation and assuming that 30 days in jail is no big deal is what shocks the conscience of those not in the system.

And why would she HAVE to be treated differently because she's a witness? What does that say about how they're treating the other inmates? There is so much tunnel vision in this case it is hard to watch.

E. Cortés, Esq.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Couldn't the Judge have refused?

MF65 said...

Criminal charges should be filed against the prosecutor for kidnapping this women, already a victim of a crime, re holding here against her will = criminal definition of kidnapping. And the others from judge to sheriff, to jailers should also be charged as accessory to the crime.


1. Did the prosecutor visit her in jail to ascertain her status in jail and conditions? No.

2. Did he report to his superiors his actions? Per Devon, no.

3. Once the sheriff became aware of her situation did he leave his office and immediately go to her cell and release her? No. Per sheriff processed release through normal channels = an additional day in jail. See E. Cortes comment about time in a jail.

The system's defense of this horrific crime is not enough mental health care / facilities in Houston = victimizing the woman again. The mental health we should all be concerned about are those running the system that think, at any time, but especially 2016 in America this type of behavior by the criminal justice system is acceptable.