Top 10 crime and justice stories
1) Burn Baby, Burn: Six Austin police officers and four dispatchers were punished for a stream of inappropriate, insensitive, and callous comments beginning with the now infamous "burn baby, burn" delivered via patrol-car data terminals during the Feb. 18 fire at the Midtown Live! nightclub. The upside of the incident, if there was one, was the city's subsequent public airing of the lack of a social infrastructure for Austin's African-American community. The city's nascent plans to remedy the disparity is a question for 2006.
2) Get Thee Behind Me, Reaper: On March 3, federal District Judge Royal Fergeson overturned the death sentence for Kenneth Foster, sentenced to die for being a getaway driver in the 1996 murder of Michael LaHood in San Antonio. Although Foster played no direct part in the murder, the state sought his death under the law of parties, arguing that Foster should've foreseen LaHood's actions. Fergeson opined that killing Foster would be cruel and unusual punishment; the state's appeal is pending. And in October, nearly seven-and-a-half years after he was convicted and sentenced to die, Rodney Reed got word that the Court of Criminal Appeals is sending his case back to Bastrop Co. district court for a hearing on Reed's claims that prosecutors hid evidence supporting his claims of innocence in the murder of 20-year-old Stacey Stites.
3) Prosecuting the Prophet: Warren Jeffs, self-proclaimed "prophet" of the polygamous breakaway sect of Mormons known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was indicted in June on two Arizona state felony counts related to his arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and an older, married man. Shortly after the charges were announced and a $10K reward posted on Jeffs' head, the feds added a count of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution and dubbed Jeffs one of their 10 Most Wanted. So far Jeffs has avoided arrest, even as prophet sightings persist including hints that he may be traveling in and out of the FLDS's private Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
4) Knee Stiffens: The June shooting death of 18-year-old Daniel Rocha by APD Officer Julie Schroeder renewed allegations of excessive use of force by APD officers against minority residents. Unlike previous police shootings, the Rocha case ended in Chief Stan Knee firing Schroeder and sparked police union allegations of interference on the part of the Citizen Review Panel and the Office of the Police Monitor. At press time, an official "fact-finding" inquiry into the leak is ongoing. Schroeder is appealing her termination, and her arbitration, scheduled for March, will be a story to watch in 2006.
5) Perry Rues Kid Commutations: In a 5-4 ruling in March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing juvenile offenders violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In the opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court said that the differences between juvenile and adult offenders "are too marked and well understood" like the fact that children lack the emotional and intellectual development of adults "to risk allowing a youthful person to receive the death penalty despite insufficient culpability." The ruling handed 28 youthful offenders a ticket off Texas' death row though Gov. Rick Perry made it clear that were it not for the Supremes he'd have no moral qualms about sticking the needle in their arms. "I have no choice but to commute these sentences to life in prison," Perry said.
6) Electric Peacemaker?: In July, the APD reported a significant decrease in the total number of use-of-force reports, and an equally impressive decrease in both officer and suspect injuries since cops were equipped with less-than-lethal Taser electro-shock guns. Indeed, serious injuries to suspects declined a whopping 82.4% in 2004, and serious injuries to officers dropped by 50%. Yet whether the Taser is a wonder weapon remains uncertain. In September, 33-year-old Michael Clark died in police custody after he was Tasered three times. At press time, an independent review of Clark's death by a panel of local medical experts was still pending.
7) Settling for Secrets: After three long years, the city of Austin and APD Officer Jeff White reached a settlement that closed White's whistle-blower lawsuit. White sued the city in 2002, claiming he was retaliated against by former Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman after White said investigators should focus on Chapman if they actually wanted to pursue allegations of criminal activity by high-ranking members of the APD in connection with the defunct drug-trafficking investigation known as Mala Sangre. White pushed the envelope further than any Mala Sangre investigator before him, but the city remains uninterested in airing any of its Bad Blood laundry.
8) Legal Lynching: Although there was no incontrovertible evidence against her, on Sept. 14, 40-year-old Frances Newton became the third woman executed by the state during the modern era of the death penalty, and the first black woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. Lingering questions about the evidence against Newton had prompted the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend and Gov. Rick Perry to grant a 120-day reprieve in 2004. At least one critical piece of evidence had been contaminated, but additional evidence favorable to Newton failed to persuade either the BPP or Perry to again delay her death.
9) Coffey Finally Cleared: In August, APD announced that the U.S. Department of Justice had, after two years, finally cleared Officer John Coffey of any criminal wrongdoing in connection with the 2002 shooting death of Sophia King, a 23-year-old woman with a history of schizophrenia. The 19-year department veteran will not face federal prosecution for any violation of King's civil rights; the DOJ concluded there was "insufficient evidence" to support any charges.
10) Not Exactly CSI: It was an embarrassing year for the Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office. An unflattering audit chastised the county for making the ME do far too much with too few resources. The office fumbled toxicology results in the police shooting death of Daniel Rocha finding first that there were no drugs in Rocha's system, later that there was a trace amount of marijuana. In August, they misreported that cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism killed musician Randy "Biscuit" Turner until informed that Turner wasn't a drinker, and further testing showed that the cirrhosis was actually caused by hepatitis C. In August, Burnet Co. officials asked for a refund of the $1,800 they paid the ME's office for a June 2004 autopsy that the office botched by misidentifying the burned remains of an 81-year-old woman as those of a 23-year-old man.