The tragic shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2015 by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered nationwide protests and the eventual trend to elect “reform-minded” district attorneys to deal with countless inequities in the country’s criminal justice system. Communities elected progressive prosecutors promoting reform the following year in states across the country, namely:
- Chicago, Illinois
- Tampa, Florida
- Birmingham, Alabama;
- Corpus Christi, Texas
- Denver, Colorado
- St. Louis, Missouri
- Santa Fee, New Mexico
Co-Founder of the Fair Punishment Project and Harvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan told The Intercept at the time that, “These results simply signify that overzealous prosecutors that resort to draconian sentences and pursue convictions with a win-at-all-costs mentality will see themselves being replaced with leaders who have rejected those failed policies of the 1980s and 90s, and are truly committed to reforming the justice system with proven, evidence-based, equitable solutions that increase public safety.”
Houston’s current district attorney, Kim Ogg, rode that “reform” wave into office. The Democratic district attorney received the lion’s share of the national media associated with the 2016 prosecutorial reform movement.
That was understandable. Harris County’s three previous Republican district attorneys had operated with lawless impunity—convicting innocent people and having them executed; prosecutorial misconduct through suppression of mitigating evidence, knowing use of perjured testimony, fabricating evidence; and personal corruption.
Ogg assured Houstonians that things would be different under her administration. She quoted in The Intercept article as saying shortly after the election that Harris County would have a criminal justice system that “treats people fairly and applies the law equally regardless of the neighborhood. This our time.”
The newly elected district attorney got so caught up in the victory moment that she declared indigent people of color, “this is Houston, in all of its glory and diversity, and I am so proud to be your DA. We’re going to have a system that doesn’t oppress the poor; we’re going to have a system that goes after the rapists and the robbers.”
The Lord of Acton once said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Harris County district attorney is one of the most powerful elected officials in the greater Houston area.
It did not take long for the power of the district attorney’s office to corrupt Ogg’s election night promises. Just one year after those election night promises to be fair and equal to all, the district attorney faced a scathing 193-page ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal which held that the Harris County cash bail system was unconstitutional because it daily abused the economically disadvantaged and people of color.
The Harris County cash bail system always has, as it continues to this day, favored wealth and penalized poverty—and Ogg had not done a single meaningful thing to address that “unfair” and “unequal” application of bail laws that “oppress] the poor.”
Although she initially voiced some support for the federal court ruling, Ogg quickly shifted her position, arguing the bail system ordered by the federal court did not keep the community safe and did not guarantee that the accused would appear in court. She joined right-wing “tough on crime” politicos, arguing that the poor and people of color could not be trusted to show up for court while people who could afford to post cash bail, charged with the same offenses, could be.
The “for-the-people” district attorney added that “there’s just no fairness in [the federal court ruling] for victims, for cops, or for prosecutors.”
So Ogg joined Governor Abbott to oppose meaningful bail reform that would have made the opportunity for pretrial release fair and equal to all people, regardless of their color or economic status.
The truth is that Kim Ogg has failed on the issue of bail reform and has joined those who use “crime” as a dog whistle for political gain.
Ogg also promised in 2016 to reduce the use of the death penalty. Yet the district attorney wholeheartedly endorsed the September 28, 2021, execution of 57-year-old Rick Rhoades—the first execution of a Harris County defendant since 2016.
In a statement issued after Rhoades’ execution, the district attorney said: “We hope the [victims’] family finds peace after nearly 30 years of waiting for justice for their loved ones. The death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst, and a Harris County jury determined long ago that this defendant fits the bill. Let us honor the memory of the victims …, and never forget that our focus has and always will be on the victims.”
The second execution of a Harris County defendant occurred on April 22, 2022.
78-year-old wheelchair-bound Carl Wayne Buntion was the oldest person ever executed by the state of Texas. His execution, like Rhoades, came after three decades confined on death row. Ogg personally attended Buntion’s execution to watch him killed. While she indulged herself in that moment of state-sanctioned revenge, a horde of execution-loving motorcyclists revved their engines outside the Huntsville prison walls.
Why would any reasonable-minded district attorney choose to be part of such a shameful spectacle?
The district attorney’s job is to prosecute a death penalty case—not celebrate the execution of those sentenced to die, along with a gaggle of blood-thirsty execution enthusiasts. The truth is that Kim Ogg has also failed on the death penalty issue.
The month before the Buntion execution, the Texas Monthly featured an article about Ogg and her disdain for anything that smells of reform.
The article, written by Michael Hardy, pointed to a Zoom conference nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic between Ogg and members of her staff with Harris County criminal court judges. During that Zoom meeting, Ogg’s top lieutenants, David Mitcham, warned the judges that if they did not stop their liberal bail bond practices, there would be a “day of reckoning” for them. It was a stunning moment for all those attending the meeting, including Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association President Joe Vinas, whose reaction was expressed in the Texas Monthly piece: “My reaction was like, ‘Wow, that was bold.’ One of the judges asked if Mitcham was threatening him.”
It was a threat, a direct threat from an arrogant district attorney’s office that has been at odds with most, if not all of the reform-minded Harris County judges that swept into office in the 2018 “blue wave.”
Michael Hardy described Ogg’s ongoing battle with criminal justice reform this way:
“Many in Houston’s legal community have thought back to that moment, now that fourteen Harris County prosecutors and one DA investigator have filed to run for criminal court judgeships this year—eight in Democratic primaries, seven in Republican primaries. It is not unusual for prosecutors to run for judgeships, but the high number in this election cycle has raised eyebrows. In 2020 not a single Harris County prosecutor ran in any of the nine local criminal court races; in 2018, which featured 31 races, just one prosecutor ran. But with Ogg linking a sharp rise in homicides to the bail practices of reform-minded judges elected in recent years, perhaps it’s no surprise that so many of her prosecutors are challenging the 29 Democratic incumbents up for reelection this year.”
Ogg has declared a politically-motivated revenge war on the Harris County Democratic Party—the very people responsible for her 2016 election and 2020 reelection. The war came to a head when 10 incumbent Democratic judges lost their primary bids for reelection this past March.
These election defeats can be directly tied to Ogg, who, in October 2021, took to the television airways to warn Houstonians that “Democratic judges” were letting “murderers [run] around on multiple bonds, people who have killed other people go back and kill the witnesses. It’s a scary time, and I’m here to warn people – we don’t have to live like this. We need an urgency.”
That so-called “warning” was nothing more than fear-mongering.
Granted, the number of homicides in Houston has increased since 2019, and there has been a spike in the number of offenses committed by people on bail since 2015. However, the hardcore truth is that there is absolutely no responsible data linking the increase in violent crime to bail reform.
The truth is that the overwhelming majority of homicides in Houston during 2020 and 2021 were committed by people who were not on bail. The same is true for the rise in other “violent” crimes. The overwhelming majority of these crimes are committed by people who are not on pre-trial release.
For whatever reasons (and there are plenty to go around), the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic stressors have unquestionably spawned a dramatic increase in violent crime, especially homicides, in virtually every major city in the country.
But these increases have nothing meaningful to do with “bail reform” or “reform-minded judges.” Trying to link increased violent crime to bail reform or “Democratic” judges is nothing more than politically motivated “law-and-order” politics fueled by conservative Republicans and rogue Democrats like Kim Ogg.
The truth is that Kim Ogg has failed to make promised common-sense reforms to make the courts fair to all, both defendants and victims of crime. She has taken the slippery slope of her predecessors by using dog whistles and blame to spiral into a dark hole with no policy other than political survival. Meanwhile, the office is in disarray, with prosecutors “bailing out” in droves and joining DA’s offices in surrounding counties where they can practice law without oppressive micromanagement and plummeting office morale.