Past Abuses, Hopes for Better Future

By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair


Three recent stories in the Houston Chronicle exposed serious flaws in the Harris County criminal justice system. The first story concerned a 60-year prison term imposed on Andrew Wayne Hawthorne, a serial child molester. Hawthorne molested an eight year old boy in the fall of 2002. A crime for which a wrongly accused man, Ricardo Rachell, was convicted and sentenced to prison.  Ricardo Rachell was convicted for this sexual assault and spent more than six years in the Texas prison system before readily available DNA evidence at the time of his arrest was finally tested and established his innocence.


We have written about this travesty of justice in previously but what disturbed us most about the recent Chronicle article (June 5, 2009; ) were the photos of Rachell and Hawthorne. Rachell’s face at the time the photo was taken, and as it appeared at the time of his arrest and subsequent conviction, was horribly disfigured by a shotgun blast. There is no way these two men could have been mistaken for each other.


Unless, of course, the child victim was influenced into making the mistaken identification by someone bent on revenge and who was convinced that the disfigured Rachell, a neighborhood “freak,” was the man who molested the boy. The Houston Police Department accepted the child’s mistaken identification without any meaningful independent investigation to determine if the identification was correct. As a result, an innocent man spent six years in prison for something he didn’t do – and even with his innocence established through DNA testing, he will forever have the haunted memories of years in Texas prison labeled as a child sex offender.


The second Chronicle story (June 6, 2009) involved the release of a U.S. Justice Department report that found poor access to health care in life-threatening situations, unnecessary use of physical force, denial of mental health care, and inattention to suicide prevention violates the constitutional rights of inmates in the Harris County Jail.

“The [DOJ] found that the jail fails to provide detainees with adequate: (1) medical care; (2) mental health care; (3) protection from serious physical harm; and (4) protection from life-safety hazards,” Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Mayer informed the Chronicle via email.


It was under these conditions that Ricardo Rachell spent nearly one year awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit. It was also under these conditions that inmate Clarence Freeman was, for all practical purposes, choked to death by a jail officer who was later fired for his conduct in the brutal effort to restrain the inmate.


The third Chronicle story (June 7, 2009) dealt with a report from the non-profit group Texas Appleseed which found that over the past decade Harris County has “certified” juveniles to be tried as adults in an “assembly line” manner. The report found that in 2007 and 2008 alone Harris County judges transferred 162 teenagers from the juvenile justice system to the adult justice system, forcing some to face sentences as long as life imprisonment.


The report charged that this vicious process of punishing children as adults resulted in the “virtual destruction” of dozens of kids placed in the adult system and sent off to state adult prisons where they were terribly abused. They are now “damaged goods” because callous judges who wanted to appear “tough on crime” at reelection time denied them an opportunity “turn their lives around” as the nonprofit report put it.


Houston attorney Christene Wood represents one teenager who has mounted a legal challenge, along with Texas Appleseed, of the county’s certification process. She told the Chronicle that the judge who sent her client into the adult system laughed, surfed the Internet, and never once made eye contact with the boy before certifying him as an adult. “The certification process [in Harris County] is an absolute joke,” the attorney told the newspaper.


Wood’s criticism is definitely warranted. With its 162 juvenile-to-adult certifications in 2007-08, Harris County alone certified 19 more juveniles as adults than in the state’s nine other leading counties which altogether certified just 143 juveniles as adults. These shocking figures alone beg that the Harris County judges involved in the juvenile-to-adult certification process be indicted for “child abuse.”


These three stories, which ran on consecutive days in the Chronicle, do not speak well of the Harris County criminal justice system. Innocent people wrongfully convicted, prisoners so routinely abused that some opt for suicide to escape jail conditions, and children systematically punished as adults are all benchmarks of a failed justice system.


But there may be a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Virtually all of these human rights abuses occurred before last fall’s county elections. Today we have a new district attorney in Pat Lykos who has said that she will not tolerate the “conviction at any cost” policy maintained under her predecessor Charles “Chuck” Rosenthal who was forced out of office by scandal before he could complete his final term in office. And we have a new sheriff in Andy Garcia who has already taken significant steps to correct the jail problems he inherited from former Sheriff Tommy Thompson who also left office under a cloud of scandal.


Beyond the damage to Houston’s national and international reputation, these human rights abuses have not served any legitimate public safety interests. The city, and county, is just as dangerous—if not more so—despite these “tough on crime” approaches. People do not respond to abuse. They fight back – and when dealing with the criminal element, this means the first responders are the ones placed in “harm’s way” because even a cornered rat will fight before surrendering.


We hope that 2009 and the years that follow under the current crop of newly elected officials will create a justice system that all Houstonians can be proud of, not afraid of.


By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair