Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Justice Dismissed: Data Details Judges' Rampant Tossing of Cases

Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Justice Dismissed: Data Details Judges' Rampant Tossing of Cases

Article excerpt

Thousands of accused criminals in Bexar County, Texas, are off the hook because the county justice system couldn't get their cases to court fast enough.

We broke the story after four months of investigating, but fought more than a year for the data. No news organization in San Antonio had investigated the Bexar County court system with a database of its court records. And some county officials wanted to make sure we didn't.

The battle began in December 2000. We asked for all Bexar County criminal court records to be provided electronically. We already had access to criminal records through a dial-up system in our newsroom. But we needed a complete database of our own to see how judges run their courts.

At first, the County Information Services Department quoted a $17,000 figure for our request, citing costly programming since there was no pre-existing program for the job. After gathering advice from fellow members of the NICAR e-mail listserv, researching the cost, and seeking help from the state's General Services Commission, we negotiated the cost down to about $2,000. But the county information systems folks still dragged their feet.

Via the Texas Open Records Law, we monitored the correspondence between county officials regarding our request and bothered them constantly. Agreed-upon deadlines for providing the data were not met. So finally, we contacted the company that set up the county's computer records system and hired one of its employees to write and run the program for $ 1,000. Within weeks, we had a "flat file" we imported into an Access database.

Our first objective was to see how tough - or how lenient - the criminal court judges were on crimes like DWI, drugs, assaults or sex offenses. However, when we looked at the "court disposition" field, we kept noticing cases "dismissed for lack of speedy trial." That got our attention. So we isolated all those cases and counted them by the "disposition year" field we created from the "disposition date" field in the data table.

We noticed a dramatic increase from the 607 cases dismissed for "lack of a speedy trial" between 1996 and 1998 to the 5,200 cases dismissed for the same reason from 1999 to 2001. We decided to focus on the latter three-year period and filtered out those 5,200 records and put them in a separate table.

Through further query we calculated how long these cases were on file. Some were five, 10 or 15 years old. But it seemed strange that many would be less than two years - or even one year old. Law experts agreed.

Clearing the dockets

We then started looking through hundreds of individual case files, looking for answers, and people to help with our story.

In those files we found victims like Virginia, who had been beaten by her husband once and had a restraining order against him when he assaulted her the second time.

She didn't know, until we told her, that a criminal court judge had thrown out the case against her now ex-husband because he didn't get a speedy trial.

"Nobody even told me. Nobody ever contacted me," Virginia said.

She wasn't alone. A "count" query of the "offense description" field of our data table, showed more than 400 other assault cases that didn't get to court fast enough.

We also found 734 DWI-related cases in which the driver was never prosecuted, including the driver who hit Myrna Ellison.

"I assumed something was done," Ellison said.

Nothing was done, though. Even though it was the driver's second such arrest, Judge M'Liss Christian dismissed the case.

Christian wouldn't agree to an interview, but when we caught up with her outside the courthouse, she claimed the misdemeanor cases she was tossing didn't have victims.

The judge obviously never met Myrna or Virginia.

More than 1,200 bad-check cases also were thrown out as part of the docket-clearing dismissals.

Overall, we found Judge Tim Johnson, a judge with 14 years on the bench, tossed out the most cases with 1,528 speedy-trial dismissals. …

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