In-Depth

Houston Police Frustrated About ‘Sweetheart Deals’ And Low Bond For Some Violent Criminals

The HPD chief and police union president blame the Harris County DA’s office and judges for crimes by offenders who they say should have been in jail.

Some of Houston’s highest ranking police officials are criticizing the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and judges about violent criminals who didn’t go to jail – either because they were able to bond out or prosecutors offered them plea deals – and then allegedly committed more crimes.

There’s the case of Dahani Davis, who received a plea deal – called deferred adjudication – that kept him out of jail for violent robbery. Then last month, he was shot by police after an alleged armed carjacking.

Houston police Chief Art Acevedo went on a rant in front of TV cameras.

“It’s like Groundhog Day around here,” he said. “Because somehow in Harris County we have the judges and sometimes the prosecutors’ office thinking it’s OK to give deferred adjudication to armed robbers.”

It’s something that is uniting the chief with someone who is usually one of his fiercest critics, Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi.

Gamaldi has long attacked Harris County DA Kim Ogg for being weak on crime. He cited several examples, like that of Clayton Brown, who was accused of shooting two people in March of last year and who allegedly shot another person while out on bond a few months later — only to have two of the charges dismissed and receive deferred adjudication on the third.

And Anthony Conway, who is accused of murdering and robbing a taco truck owner last month.

“Anthony Conway about a year earlier had shot someone in the face twice and robbed them,” Gamaldi said. “They dropped that down to unlawful carrying of a weapon and gave him six months in jail.”

These kinds of cases have become more common since Ogg was elected district attorney, Gamaldi said.

“I’m not going to say that there weren’t sweetheart deals that were made in the past in previous administrations – of course there was,” he said. “But we are seeing it almost daily.”

He blames what he calls inexperienced prosecutors, resulting from more than 100 layoffs and resignations since Ogg took over.

The DA’s office did not make Ogg available for an interview, despite repeated requests.

Her spokesman, Dane Schiller, provided us with a written response, in which he accused Gamaldi of making “a full-time job of exploiting the emotions of crime victims and misleading the public to draw attention to himself.”

He said the Harris County DA’s office “has long been a place for young lawyers to get valuable courtroom experience and they make a formal commitment to stay here a minimum of three years.”

At the same time, “there are many senior lawyers with decades of experience on the front lines in trial courts as well as in leadership.”

He also provided numbers for how many prosecutors were hired and how many left for every year since 2011, to show that the retention rate is not that different from previous years.

There is a notable bump in the number of prosecutors leaving in 2016 (about double from the previous year), when Ogg became district attorney, but Schiller said that can simply be attributed to the culture change after the election of the first Democratic DA in decades.

Acevedo, by the way, gives Ogg the benefit of the doubt, telling Fox26 News that “some of her deputies, I don’t think, are aligned with what she wants to do, which is to be tough on violent criminals and be progressive and restorative on low-level offenses.”

HPD declined an interview request for Acevedo, instead referring to his tweets on the topic.

District attorneys often hear criticism about letting criminals off easy, according to Phillip Lyons, dean of Sam Houston State University’s College of Criminal Justice. He pointed out that nationwide 97% of cases are settled with a plea bargain.

“If we didn’t engage in plea bargaining, then we would have to have vastly more resources that would be allocated,” he said. “We would have to have a lot more judges, a lot more prosecutors, a lot more jail space, a lot more prison space and so on.”

Whether Ogg is doing anything differently than her predecessors is hard to say, Lyons said, because of a lack of data from the DA’s office.

News 88.7 asked Schiller to explain the decision to give deferred adjudication to some of the suspects mentioned by Gamaldi and Chief Acevedo.

About Dahani Davis, who triggered Acevedo’s rant, Schiller only said his previous robbery was done with a BB gun and not a real firearm.

He declined to provide information on the Anthony Conway case, citing “respect for the victim.”

Regarding the Clayton Brown case, Schiller said “some witnesses were missing, others did not want to cooperate and that greatly imperiled the ability to garner a conviction at trial.”

Then there’s the criticism of judges giving low bond to violent offenders with criminal histories, in some cases despite the DA’s office asking the judge to deny bail.

Again, Lyons said, without data it’s hard to tell if this has become more common in Harris County.

But he said it’s important to keep in mind that the primary factor for determining a bond amount is to ensure a defendant appears in court. Public safety is a secondary consideration.

“Having said that, there is a public safety component,” Lyons said. “If someone who is in custody does constitute a serious threat to public safety then that should be taken into account by a judge in determining the amount to set for a particular bond.”

But he said short of denying bail altogether in such cases – which would overwhelm jails – there will always be a risk that some defendants out on bond will commit crimes.

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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