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 him. Healy 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.
A 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.