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Open DA seat in Fort Bend Co., TX is an opportunity for change

John Healey

Open DA seat in Fort Bend Co., TX is an opportunity for change

Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey will be departing at the end of his term in 2018, ending a 26 year tenure as the elected prosecutor for Texas’ 10th largest county.

Healey, a Republican, was originally appointed to office in 1992 and has been reelected six times. He faced a general election challenger only once; in 2014, former assistant prosecutor Wilvin J. Carter ran against himHealy defeated Carter by winning 58 percent of the vote in a traditionally Republican-leaning county (although where more recent election results suggest a shift to the left underway).

Healey’s tenure has been marked by controversy. In 2014, Healey drew scornafter he delayed notifying defendants and their attorneys about the possibility of tainted evidence that was used to secure convictions. The issue arose after a former Houston-based Texas Department of Public Safety forensic analyst was fired for falsifying evidence, and, according to an inspector general’s report, acting “with total disregard for policy and procedure.”

While other area prosecutors acted quickly to notify defendants and their lawyers of the issue, Healey waited.

In the case of Jacob Estrada, Healey waited over a year.

Not only did Healey fail to inform Estrada that evidence used in his prosecution may have been tainted, but he also failed to tell him that the evidence had been destroyed.

Estrada’s drug conviction was ultimately thrown out by an appellate court and he was ordered released.

state bar complaint asserted that Healey should have notified prisoners like Estrada much earlier that their convictions were comprised, and might be overturned, because of the chemist’s misconduct. The bar complaint was eventually dismissed by a judge although the county ended up having to pay $120,000 to defend Healey and several other prosecutors in the process.

Healey also once took the old saw that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich” too literally when his office charged a high school sophomore with third-degree forgery — a felony — for attempting to buy a ham sandwich with a counterfeit $10 bill.

The student claimed he found the bill on the floor of his school and had no idea it was fake.

Over 6 months later, Healey’s office dropped the charges following a public outcry. (Healey said he dismissed the case “after a review of the evidence by my office, much of which was provided after the case was filed.”)

It remains to be seen whether or how the county’s significant population growth—Fort Bend was the country’s fastest growing large county between 2013–2015 — and its diversity might impact its choice for next top prosecutor.

Fort Bend voters may well look to adjacent Harris County, where District Attorney Kim Ogg ran and won as a reformer. Ogg has followed through on a campaign promise to decriminalize marijuana possession and has also called for reforming the money bail system that keeps many poor criminal defendants locked up for months or years while awaiting trial.

Healey said he wouldn’t follow Ogg’s lead with respect to decriminalizing marijuana possession. Whether Fort Bend voters want a different approach from their District Attorney will now squarely be up for grabs come 2018.

Thanks to Jake Sussman.

Inmate’s death continues to haunt Miami prosecutor

Inmate’s death continues to haunt Miami prosecutor

Years after his brutal death, Darren Rainey remains on the minds of the people of Miami. That’s bad news for Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

In 2012, guards locked Rainey in the shower at the Dade Correctional Institute. He died after he was essentially boiled to death. Other inmates said he was screaming for mercy. But Rundle declined to bring charges against the corrections officers who locked Rainey in the shower, citing an autopsy reportthat found his death to be accidental.

But photos of Rainey’s body suggest the death was no one’s idea of an accident. According to the Huffington Post, which obtained the photos, “[t]he disturbing images show severe wounds on numerous sections of Rainey’s body. Entire swaths of skin ― and, in places, what appear to be multiple layers of skin ― are shown missing, bunched up at the edges of wounds or hanging loosely at the edges of wounds.”

Those graphic photos, which can be viewed here, suggest a man who was boiled to death, and not someone who died from a combination of heart disease, schizophrenia and from being confined in the shower, as the autopsy report suggests.

The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s autopsy report says Rainey did not suffer burns anywhere on his body. But other medical examiner’s have dissented from that finding. The Miami Herald asked two forensic pathologists, Drs. Michael Baden and John Marraccinito, to examine the case, and both said that it appeared he’d been severely burned. Attorneys for Rainey’s family are likely to make similar arguments in a civil suit they have filed.

The pictures are likely to be another blow for Rundle, a longtime prosecutor who recently suffered the indignity of having the Miami-Dade Democratic Party call for her resignation over her handling of the Rainey case.

Rundle has said she will not resign and indicated she may seek the Democratic nomination for governor or attorney general of Florida in 2018, but that could be difficult with her current standing in the Democratic Party. In late June, the Miami-Dade County Democratic Executive Committee (DEC) passed a formal resolution calling for Rundle to step down.

She has faced other controversy lately, as well — she was recently told by a federal appeals court that she was wrong in threatening to arrest a man who taped a conversation he had with the chief of police in Homestead.

The State Attorney has also generated attention by blocking critics on Twitter.

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Court rejects prosecutor’s unlawful use of seized funds

Court rejects prosecutor’s unlawful use of seized funds

The Illinois Supreme Court has smacked down a prosecutor who created his own private police force with civil asset forfeiture dollars.

Former LaSalle County State Attorney Brian Towne created the task force in 2011. According to Forbes, “Using the state’s civil forfeiture laws, which allow law enforcement to seize — and keep — property even if the owner has never been criminally charged, the LaSalle County State’s Attorney Felony Enforcement (SAFE) Unit confiscated more than $1.7 million from drivers.” Forbes described Towne’s undertaking as “a striking example of policing for profit.”

In a 5–2 decision, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors can’t create their own squad to arrest people or seize property.

The ruling is another blow for Towne, who was defeated for reelection in 2016 and is now under investigation by the woman who defeated him, Karen Donnelly, for using the money seized by his task force to fund his reelection campaign.

Donnelly said she accepted the Illinois Supreme Court ruling and would not appeal it further to the U.S. Supreme Court. She had been critical of Towne for creating the SAFE Unit during the election.

Towne claimed Illinois law allowed him to hire and deputize investigators. The practice was challenged by five defendants who had been separately stopped and searched by a “special investigator” appointed by Towne. The five defendants each sought to quash their arrests for drug offenses based on arguments that Towne had no authority to create his own task force.

“Based on Towne’s exhortation to ‘go out and enforce the law,’ the SAFE unit essentially operated as a county police force at the direction of Towne, generating its own cases,” Justice Charles Freeman wrote in the majority opinion. “The Legislature could not have intended such a far-reaching result.”

According to the News Tribune, Donnelly said her office now would begin closing out the remaining SAFE cases and return any money or cars seized by the unit.

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