Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Jailhouse Informant In High-Profile Texas Murder Cases Comes Under New Scrutiny

Jailhouse Informant In High-Profile Texas Murder Cases Comes Under New Scrutiny

When Steven Shockey was arrested at a San Diego port of entry in December 2011, he knew his luck had run out. The 52-year-old was trying to re-enter the United States after jumping bail and fleeing to Mexico because of an arrest in Williamson County, Texas, for the aggravated assault of his ex-wife.

Because of his long criminal record — which included state and federal arrests and convictions in both Texas and California — Shockey was eligible for Texas’s “habitual offender enhancement,” which could have landed him a maximum sentence of life or 99 years in prison instead of a maximum of 20 years for the second-degree felony.

Shockey’s late 2011 arrest at the border sent him right back to the Williamson County Jail. And then, like many other defendants facing lengthy sentences, Shockey decided to become a jailhouse informant.

As luck would have it, Shockey was in an ideal jail to do so.

When Shockey was incarcerated in the Williamson County Jail between January 2012 and August 2013, not one but two defendants in separate, high-profile murder cases were housed there. One defendant, Mark Norwood, had been arrested in November 2011 for the 1986 murder of Christine Morton after Morton’s husband, Michael, was exonerated in the case. Morton spent nearly 25 years behind bars for his wife’s murder. In 2013, the lead prosecutor in the case, Ken Anderson, pleaded no contest to charges of criminal contempt of court for withholding evidence that could have exonerated Morton. It was a notorious wrongful conviction case and it led to the brief imprisonment of Anderson, one of the few times in modern American history that a prosecutor was jailed for misconduct. The Morton case also spurred far-reaching state reforms of prosecutors’ handling of evidence.

The other high-profile defendant at the Williamson County Jail was also held for a decades-old murder. In July 2012, Steven Thomas was arrested for the 1980 murder of 73-year-old Mildred McKinney, after a marijuana possession arrest that year led to a DNA match of crime scene evidence.

So, in March 2012, Shockey contacted the Texas attorney general’s office from behind bars and claimed to have information about the Morton murder. In a March 29 interview with a lieutenant from the Williamson County sheriff’s office and an AG investigator, Shockey said that Norwood confessed to Morton’s murder during a conversation with him in the jail. Shockey claimed Norwood told him that he “went looking for money in that house and killed that bitch,” and that he’d lost his “lucky red bandana,” a reference to a bloodstained bandana found at the crime scene.

That the bandana was actually blue was apparently no matter to prosecutors, who, according to post-conviction pleadings, cut a deal with Shockey to cooperate in the Morton case. The state never even had him testify against the accused killer, Norwood. As part of Shockey’s plea agreement, prosecutors declined to apply the “habitual offender enhancement” to him and on May 16, 2013, Shockey pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was given a 15-year sentence. He is currently eligible for parole beginning in April 2019. (When Norwood went to trial in the Morton murder in March 2013, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declined to review the Norwood case in 2015.)

But before the Norwood trial began in March 2013, an impatient-sounding Shockey told his sister on a jailhouse phone call that he was “working every angle I can to get out there and help” care for their ailing parents. In February 2013, Shockey contacted Lytza Rojas, an assistant district attorney with the Williamson County district attorney’s office. Shockey told Rojas that another alleged murderer — Steven Thomas — had confided in him at the Williamson County Jail.

While incarcerated in Williamson County, Shockey told his sister he would try to get out of jail to help care for his ailing parents.

“Think about how unlikely it is that the two most high-profile murder suspects in the Williamson County jail confessed for the first and only time to the same person,” Ashley Steele, one of Thomas’s post-conviction attorneys at the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs, an Austin-based public defender office that represents individuals in state post-conviction litigation, told The Appeal. “It just can’t be true.”

Shockey’s offer of information in the Thomas case, though, may have been particularly compelling to prosecutors because of the nature of the evidence against Thomas. DNA that allegedly tied Thomas to the crime scene only proved that Thomas couldn’t be excluded from a mixture of DNA found on medical tape on the victim’s thumb. At the time of the murder, according to his post-conviction attorneys, Thomas was employed as a pest control technician for a company that had the victim as a customer. In addition, according to post-conviction pleadings, Thomas’s DNA was not found in other DNA samples found in multiple places on the victim’s body.

Shockey testified at Thomas’s 2014 trial that Thomas confessed to the murder of 1980 murder of Mildred McKinney in “little outbursts and mumbles.”

When Shockey told Rojas that he had evidence against Thomas, Thomas’s post-conviction attorneys said, Rojas listened. On the day before the state rested its case in Thomas’s October 2014 trial, Shockey testified that Thomas confessed to him about the McKinney murder when they were incarcerated at the Williamson County Jail. Shockey told the jury that Thomas made inculpatory statements about the case in “little outbursts and mumbles,” describing a drug-addled robbery and murder scene. Under direct examination from Rojas, Shockey also told the jury that he hadn’t entered into any kind of deal with prosecutors.

“Do you recall … that I couldn’t promise you and would not promise you anything in exchange for the testimony and the things that you told John Foster [a Williamson County Sheriff’s Office detective] you heard?” Rojas asked.

“Correct,” Shockey replied.

Thomas was convicted three days later, and then sentenced to death on Nov. 18, 2014. Three months later, Shockey was transferred to a unit less than two hours away from his family.

When Thomas’s court-appointed attorneys began working on his appeal that November, they discovered a letter from Rojas to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Correctional Institutions Division, charged with overseeing state prisons, stating, “In exchange for his testimony, I informed Mr. Shockey that I would reach out to TDCJ and the Parole Board to make it known he provided truthful testimony. I also told Mr. Shockey that I would request he be placed in a unit that would allow his elderly mother the chance to visit with a little more ease.”

After Shockey testified at Thomas’s trial, ADA Rojas requested that Shockey be moved closer to his family.

Under Brady v. Maryland, the state must disclose such promises, rewards, or inducements given to government witnesses, and a failure to do so represents a violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights. And under Napue v. Illinois, the government cannot knowingly elicit false or misleading testimony from witnesses during a trial.

Thomas’s post-conviction lawyers believe that the state’s failure to disclose its deal with Shockey, as well as its elicitation of false testimony from him, should earn Thomas a new trial.

In their February 2018 response to Thomas’ petition, the state does not assert that it informed the defense counsel about the scope of the deals before or during trial. And in a sworn affidavit, one of Thomas’s trial attorneys said that, “I have no recollection of the fact that the prosecutor had agreed to send a letter recommending that Mr. Shockey be incarcerated near his mother’s residence. Nor do I recall being informed that Mr. Shockey had been an informant in another capital murder case during the course of our representation of Mr. Thomas.”

In contesting the allegation that it failed to disclose its deal with Shockey, however, the state claims that Shockey’s trial attorneys still haven’t proven that it didn’t know about the extent of the arrangements.

“The inability to remember being told does not affirmatively establish that they were not told,” Williamson County ADA John C. Prezas wrote in a response to Thomas’ Habeas petition. “Instead, Applicant has merely demonstrated that his counsel cannot recall whether or not the very fact upon which he bases this claim ever occurred.”

Shawn Dick, the current district attorney of Williamson County, declined to comment to The Appeal about the case because it is still ongoing. Dick took office in 2016, and since his election, the prosecutor’s office has seen a large amount of turnover.

In cases that go unresolved for decades, the prosecution often can’t rely on witnesses, Jennifer Laurin, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, explained to The Appealbecause witnesses either can’t be located or can’t recall specific details with certainty — so prosecutors often bring an informant in to grease the wheels in the case.

But while there is a growing awareness in Texas and nationally about the dangers of using jailhouse informants, juries are still not sufficiently skeptical of them and, perhaps as a result, prosecutors continue to rely on their testimony to prop up their cases.

“One of the challenges of jailhouse informants is how entrepreneurial they can be,” University of California, Irvine law professor Alexandra Natapoff, whose 2009 book, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justiceexplored the use of informants in the criminal justice system, told The Appeal. “What we have seen, is that they often come forward, or are invited to come forward, precisely when the other evidence in the case might not support conviction.”

Compounding the problems with prosecutors’ use of jailhouse informants is the fact that, according to Natapoff, “jurors are not that good at sorting out the significance of informant incentives. You see over and over again, jurors both in actual trials and also in research experiments are told that a witness is compensated and yet, they take that witnesses’ word anyway.”

On March 15, a District Court judge in Texas issued an order in response to Thomas’s Habeas petition, saying that several issues merit further investigation — whether Shockey testified in exchange for placement near his mother, whether prosecutors had made clear his involvement in the Norwood case, and whether his testimony at the Thomas trial was false and, if it was, whether that was material to the finding of guilt. The court will then hold a hearing on these issues and, if the court were to then find that any of these impacted the jury’s verdict, it’s possible that Thomas will be given a new trial.

According to a list compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center, of 15 defendants executed since 1976 despite their possible innocence, nine of them were in Texas. Carlotta Lepingwell, another attorney working on Thomas’s appeal, believes that given the new information they received about Shockey and his deals with the state, a new hearing is more than justified. “The people of Texas deserve to hear from ADA Rojas and Steve Shockey about this on the record, and have that tested in court.”

NYC Mayor Remains Intent on Restricting Legal Help for Immigrants with Felony Convictions

Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses New Yorkers at a rally in Battery Park opposing President Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, the morning after a large-scale protest at John F. Kennedy Airport in January 2017.
NYC Mayor’s Office

NYC Mayor Remains Intent on Restricting Legal Help for Immigrants with Felony Convictions

Legal defense for immigrants has long been central to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s anti-Trump messaging. “We will use all the tools at our disposal to stand up for our people,” he assured immigrant New Yorkers during a high-profile speech at Cooper Union immediately following the 2016 election. His tone was similar during his 2018 executive budget announcement, when the mayor doubled funding for immigrant legal services to $31 million. “We need them to have some confidence that there will be support for them,” he said.

But his support doesn’t extend to all immigrants. As de Blasio first made clear last spring, he believes non-citizens convicted within the last five years of any of 170 felonies deemed “violent or serious” should be excluded from certain taxpayer-funded legal services, freeing up aid for the increasing number of vulnerable immigrants without criminal records. The same felonies — which include burglary and drug possession, as well as rape, murder, and arson — also exempt undocumented immigrants and green card holders from New York City’s sanctuary provisions.

“Those are all serious, and in many cases violent, crimes,” the mayor told The Appeal at an unrelated press conference Thursday. “I believe fundamentally that if someone has been convicted of one of those crimes, and we’re going to cooperate with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] in their deportation, then it is contradictory to say that we are then going to offer legal services. I won’t do it.”

During last year’s budget negotiations, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, immigrant rights groups, and public defenders opposed the so-called “criminal carve-out” as it pertained to the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP). The first-of-its-kind program, established in 2013 and almost entirely funded by the city, offers legal services for all immigrants in deportation proceedings, closing a legal loophole as the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee legal representation in immigration court. The debate over the carve-out was temporarily resolved last year when an anonymous donor provided $250,000 in unrestricted funds.

But this year, there’s no indication that the private donation will be renewed and the de Blasio administration has confirmed that the carve-out applies to all immigrant legal service contracts from FY 2018 forward. That includes help with citizenship, lawful permanent residency, and asylum through the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative; free legal consultations in multiple languages through Action NYC; and removal defense for adults and unaccompanied minors.

Critics say exempting immigrants with criminal records bolsters anti-immigrant stereotypes and undermines due process. “We know who generally has these criminal system interactions: low-income Black and brown people, people who are poor, who have mental illnesses,” says Nyasa Hickey, supervising attorney of the immigration practice at Brooklyn Defender Services. “With this carve-out the city is further exacerbating the perception that these individuals are less valued.”

And while City Hall insists the message has been consistent since last spring, public defenders told The Appeal that they did not know the carve-out would extend beyond NYIFUP to other contracts until December 2017. That month, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that he considered the restrictions “common sense.”

At a budget hearing Monday, Acting Commissioner Bitta Mostofi of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs reiterated his logic. “These are certain individuals who the administration has determined pose a public safety risk for all New Yorkers,” she said. City Hall estimates that fewer than 10 percent of immigrant clients will be impacted by the carve-out.

But critics say the mayor’s restrictions go far beyond any actual public safety concern, particularly since the disqualifying crimes include charges like drug possession. Not only does the carve-out eliminate crucial services for some of their clients, they say, it could scare many more potential clients away from the community organizations set up to help them.

More in Explainers

Houston Police Chief Who Called Michael Bennett ‘Morally Corrupt’ is Quiet on Police Brutality

NFL defensive lineman Michael Bennett
Jeffrey Beall / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Houston Police Chief Who Called Michael Bennett ‘Morally Corrupt’ is Quiet on Police Brutality

On Sept. 6, 2017, then-Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett penned a letter describing, in excruciating detail, how Las Vegas police officers physically assaulted him while investigating shots fired in the area of the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight. According to Bennett, officers ordered him to the ground, placed a gun to his head, threatened to blow it off, and jammed a knee into Bennett’s back. “Las Vegas police officers singled me out and pointed their guns at me for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he wrote. Bennett’s letter sparked another massive national conversation about racial profiling and police violence towards people of color.

Shortly thereafter, a Houston detective started investigating a seven-month-old incident purportedly involving Bennett. Police alleged that in February 2017, while trying to get onto the field at NRG Stadium to celebrate his brother’s Super Bowl win, Bennett shoved past two women, including a 66-year-old paraplegic woman in a wheelchair. According to the police, the women tried to stop Bennett from getting on the field, but he forced his way past them while shouting expletives, spraining the 66-year-old’s shoulder.

Police did not start their official investigation that night, or the next night, or even the next. They did not search for or talk to Bennett, even though they could have easily found him taking photos and giving interviews on the field. They did not take pictures of the complainant on the scene. Only in May — four months later and after memories had faded — did the case get assigned to the investigating detective. And only in September, after Bennett went public with his story about the state of policing in America, did the Houston Police Department actually start investigating the case.

Last Friday, over a year after the alleged incident and just before Bennett’s release of his book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, a Harris County grand jury issued an indictment charging Bennett with “injury to an elderly individual,” a third-degree felony that carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The basis for this potentially long sentence? “[P]ushing her arm and body with his hands.” Bennett turned himself in on Monday, and after being taken to the Harris County jail, posted a $10,000 bond.

Bennett’s supportersincluding Olympic medalist John Carlos and author Cornel West, have accused the police and District Attorney Kim Ogg of charging Bennett because he is a Black man who speaks his mind and regularly brings attention to issues of police brutality.

“Michael Bennett follows the long history and tradition of athlete activism, from working to transform the justice system to advocating for women’s rights,” Mike de la Rocha, co-founder of Revolve Impact, a social justice group, told The Appeal. “Legendary athletes such as Muhammad Ali and John Carlos were disparaged by many in their day for using their platform to speak out against racism and injustice. Unfortunately, the tactics of the past continue today as Michael is being vilified for speaking out.”

And there are serious reasons — even beyond the timing of the investigation and the indictment — for his supporters’ vocal concern.

For one thing, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo held what critics consideredan outrageous press conference on Friday, during which he called Bennett “morally corrupt” and “morally bankrupt.” The Texas Rules of Professional Responsibility require lawyers to refrain from public attacks on “the character” of a potential defendant — lest their statements poison the public perception and a jury pool — and they also require the DA, where “feasible,” to “make reasonable efforts to discourage [law enforcement] from making statements of that kind.” Either Ogg didn’t follow this rule, or Acevedo ignored her. Either way, critics say, the police chief should know better. Acevedo did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Appeal.

Acevedo also misrepresented the incident during his press conference, claiming that Bennett knocked the 66-year-old woman “on her butt.” That description seemed to surprise reporters. And it was false. Moments later, the detective on the case carefully walked back the claim, explaining that the woman sat in an 800-pound wheelchair that did not, in fact, fall or topple over. Bennett instead “pushed her back and kind of strained her shoulder,” the detective said.

Bennett’s supporters say Acevedo’s characterization of him as “morally bankrupt” is not just unfair, but wrong. Bennett runs free sports camps for underprivileged families, his foundation works to combat child obesity, and, in 2017, he pledged to donate all of his endorsement money to aid programs focused on communities of color and women of color.

Acevedo’s comments were particularly striking given that he has refrained from using such harsh language when describing other serious incidents — notably, those involving police use of force. In Austin, where he previously served as police chief, an eyewitness saw officers forcing a jogger to the ground after stopping her for jaywalking. Video then captured her screaming as they forced her, handcuffed, into the police car. But Acevedo was shockingly dismissive of public scrutiny of his officers: “Cops are actually committing sexual assaults on duty, so I thank God that this is what passes for controversy in Austin, Texas.” (He later apologized.)

Nor did Acevedo publicly lash out after several officers in Austin shoved a Black man to the ground and punched him, and then took another Black manto the ground for, again, jaywalking, an incident captured on video that went viral. Instead, Acevedo, at the recommendation of the Internal Affairs Division, eventually dismissed the complaint lodged against the officers. And when other officers got caught making a joke about rape in their police car, Acevedo suspended them briefly but stated that their “participation in an unprofessional and inappropriate conversation,” which he also characterized as “inappropriate humor,” was not reflective of [their] total work performance or work product.”

Acevedo himself has also come under fire. In 2004, he was accused by a female co-worker with whom he allegedly had an affair of taking naked photos of her and then showing them to his co-workers. The woman sued, and the two settled out of court. (Acevedo has claimed this was a smear campaign.)

Acevedo aside, the district attorney’s behavior in this case has also raised concerns that law enforcement is singling out Bennett. District attorneys have enormous discretion. They can always dismiss a case if they decide it’s a waste of resources and the suspect isn’t dangerous — a label that many say obviously fits Bennett given that no one rushed to arrest him for 14 months. Here, the DA could have easily charged the case as a misdemeanor assault, an offense carrying a penalty of up to one year in jail and no more than a $4,000 fine. But instead, Ogg’s office requested an enhanced charge — injury to the elderly — which would result in a felony conviction and up to a 10-year prison term. Her office did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.

There is much about this case that remains uncertain. The public does not have access to the medical records or police report. And critically, the defense is just starting its own investigation — albeit one hampered by the passage of time. But one thing is certain, critics say: This is not a normal case, and like many Black men in the justice system, Michael Bennett is not getting a fair shot.

More in Podcasts