Crime & Justice

Courts, trials and crime coverage for Austin and the Central Texas region.

U.S. law enforcement at all levels has undergone a dangerous militarization in recent years, with heavily armed SWAT teams being deployed to serve warrants and for drug searches, but rarely for the hostage situations they were designed for, the American Civil Liberties Union says in a new report.

Three groups filed a class action lawsuit Wednesday against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its executive director, Brad Livingston, alleging Texas prisons' lack of air conditioning is dangerous.

The lawsuit, filed in Houston federal court, alleges TDCJ is housing inmates in inhumane conditions that violate constitutional rights. Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, Texas, lacks air-conditioning, and summer temperatures can send living conditions sweltering into the triple digits.

The groups bringing the suit include the Texas Civil Rights Project, and the University of Texas School of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic. The suit was filed on behalf of four prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota. It also names Wallace Pack Unit senior warden Roberto Herrera as a defendant.

Jon Shapley for KUT News

Across the country and here in Texas, counties have been setting up special courts specifically for veterans in recent years.

Those veterans that go through the court have to stick with a series of commitments to avoid jail time.

Travis County has had a veterans court since 2010. Two more Central Texas counties will open their own courts in the coming months.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday put off the execution of Russell Bucklew, a Missouri inmate who has maintained that his rare congenital medical condition would make the lethal injection procedure excessively painful.

In Augusta, Ga., a judge sentenced Tom Barrett to 12 months after he stole a can of beer worth less than $2.

In Ionia, Mich., 19-year-old Kyle Dewitt caught a fish out of season; then a judge sentenced him to three days in jail.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., Stephen Papa, a homeless Iraq War veteran, spent 22 days in jail, not for what he calls his "embarrassing behavior" after he got drunk with friends and climbed into an abandoned building, but because he had only $25 the day he went to court.

Adam Loewy

A Bastrop County Sheriff's deputy who Tased a 17-year-old in the hallway of Cedar Creek High School last year will not face any charges.

The teenager, Noe Niño De Rivera, spent almost two months in a medically induced coma and is now in a residential rehabilitation center in the Hill Country. He is believed to have suffered a permanent brain injury.

Daniel Reese for KUT News

Dozens of jurisdictions across the country have backed away from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation program known as Secure Communities.

But Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton is not backing away from the controversial program. And in response, a group of Austin attorneys announced Thursday they plan to start suing the county for its Secure Communities detentions.

As ICE writes, the program "prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety, and repeat immigration violators." But critics charge the program has been overused and resides on shaky legal ground. 

Physical abuse and excessive force top the list of hundreds of complaints filed against U.S. Border Patrol agents, according to a new report. The accusations include charges that agents kicked a pregnant woman, stomped on a man and physically forced a minor to sign a document.

Those accusations are in a report on government data about the complaints that was obtained by the advocacy group the American Immigration Council via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Update: After Tuesday night's botched execution in Oklahoma, Texas corrections officials say they have no plans to use midazolam in future executions. Midazolam was the first component of a three-drug cocktail administered to death row inmate Clayton Lockett yesterday. Read more about the execution here.

As KUT first reported in February, the state has supplies of midazolam on hand. But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says in a statement that it "has no plans to change our procedures. Texas does not use the same drugs as Oklahoma as we use a single lethal dose of pentobarbital and we have done so since 2012.” 

Attorneys for death row inmates in Texas have unsuccessfully tried to find out who is selling compounded pentobarbital to the state. They're suing in civil court and making a case to the Open Records Division of the Office of the Attorney General that TDCJ should disclose its source. 

The botched execution of death row inmate Clayton Lockett on Tuesday in Oklahoma is sparking a reassessment of lethal injection.

Calif. Dep. of Corrections and Rehabilitation

This week, Oklahoma's Supreme Court stopped the executions of two convicted murderers. At issue: where the state gets its execution drugs. The state does not want to reveal its source.  

Texas also has long kept its lethal drug suppliers secret, although Attorney General Greg Abbott recently issued an opinion stating it's time to go public.  But as death penalty opponents increase the pressure to expose suppliers and to disrupt the supply of the drug, some states are reviewing their options on capital punishment.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Obama administration is formulating new rules that would give it, and the president, far more latitude to pardon or reduce the sentences of thousands of drug offenders serving long federal prison sentences.

The move comes amid a broad national reconsideration of mandatory minimum sentences approved by Congress in 1986, when America's big cities were in the grip of a crack cocaine-fueled crime wave.

An appeal brought by a photographer who refused to take pictures of gay weddings was turned down by the Supreme Court on Monday morning. The court also refused to hear a challenge to a ban on campaign contributions by corporations, and allowed a district court case over U.S. surveillance to continue.

The photography case was brought by Elane Photography, a New Mexico business run by a husband-and-wife team who said their First Amendment rights allowed them to refuse service to a woman who had sought to hire the company to photograph her commitment ceremony with her partner.

Flickr user Brian Turner, https://flic.kr/ps/VxiMo

Texas is in a judicial vacancy crisis according to a report released today by the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington and Austin-based Progress Texas.

The report shows Texas has the most vacant federal judge seats of any state, with 10 spots open as of March 19. The report warns those 10 vacancies could grow to 13 if no action is taken, since three more seats are set to open up next year.

Those 10 vacant seats translate into backlogged cases, with especially high caseloads along the U.S.-Mexico border, the report notes. The majority of current and future vacancies also happen to be concentrated in the southern and western parts of the state.

Photo released by Blanco Police Department

Update: An Amber Alert for a 15-year-old Blanco girl has been canceled. Blanco Police say Sianna Gholson was found safe.

Gholson was believed abducted Tuesday morning from Blanco High School.

But, again, she’s now been found and is safe.

Original Story (April 1, 5:53 p.m.): Authorities issued an Amber Alert Tuesday for a 15-year-old girl believed abducted from Blanco High School in Blanco, Texas at about 7:45 Tuesday morning.

Veronica Zaragovia, KUT

Update: Austin Police made clear Thursday that the weapon in the hand of man who was shot this week by an APD sergeant was a pistol that fires BBs or pellets. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo spoke about that pistol in the hours after Tuesday’s shooting.

“When the sergeant sees it, he sees the suspect put it behind his back, allegedly, and then puts it back forward. The suspect at one point yells, ‘it’s a bb gun,’ or says, ‘it’s a bb gun, it’s a bb gun.’”

Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair avoided jail time Thursday and instead "was reprimanded and fined a total of $20,000 for inappropriate relationships with three subordinates in a closely watched court case," The Associated Press reports from Fort Bragg, N.C.

Texas Monthly

In 1982, a grisly triple homicide in Waco shook residents faith in their community. Three teenagers were killed, and local police struggled with the investigation. The murders were just the beginning of a story that spans decades and involves dozens of characters, many of which became obsessed with both the murders and how the case was prosecuted. Now a new story in Texas Monthly by Michael Hall raises troubling questions about how the state handles justice.

"If there's one thing for certain, it's that the Lake Waco murder case does stand on its own," Hall writes in the story, 'Murders at the Lake,' in the April issue of Texas Monthly

Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, one of Mexico's reputed drug lords, has now been killed twice.

Well, perhaps we should say that he's been declared dead for the second time.

The head of "the cultlike, pseudo-Christian La Familia cartel" was supposedly killed back in December 2010 during a two-day shootout with police.

U.S. Border Patrol announced on Friday that it is changing its policy on using deadly force against moving vehicles and people who throw rocks.

The agency's chief, Michael J. Fisher, sent a memorandum to employees in which he said the policy is designed to help agents avoid dangerous situations.

This is an about-face for the agency.

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