TCRP Blasts Abbott Over Delay in TYC Prosecutions
A whole lot of foot-dragging going on in Texas Youth Commission cases
"With today's indictments, the victims of sexual abuse at West Texas State School are a step closer to the justice they deserve." That's what Attorney General Greg Abbott said two years ago, when a Ward County grand jury returned 13 indictments against two Texas Youth Commission employees for their roles in the TYC abuse scandals. But two years later, neither former Assistant Superintendent Ray Brookins or principal John Hernandez, nor their accusers, have had their day in court. Now attorneys for the Texas Civil Rights Project have sent Abbott a letter expressing concerns that "there appears to be no effort by your office to move these criminal cases along."
TCRP Director Jim Harrington argues that this lingering inaction compares poorly to Abbott's aggressive record of prosecuting sexual assaults and has increased the possibility that witnesses will disappear or charges will be reduced. He added, "The longer you stall this stuff out, the less probability that you have any effective justice."
Abbott's office says it's equally frustrated by the lack of progress but places the blame elsewhere. In April 2007, state District Judge Bob Parks gave the attorney general sole authority in both cases. There was a delay when Hernandez unsuccessfully sought a change of venue, outside Ward County. He was then scheduled for trial in August 2008, but last July the A.G.'s Office was informed that the case was delayed.
Brookins was supposed to go to trial in April last year, but his Austin-based attorney, Scott Dolin, stopped attending court. Following disciplinary procedures by the State Bar of Texas, Dolin's law license has been suspended until May 30, 2010. It took until December for the court to appoint Brookins a new attorney. Since then, Abbott's spokesman, Jerry Strickland, said in a press release, "Although this office has requested trial dates on multiple occasions, the court has not set the trial dates."
So is it Parks or Abbott who's slowing down the process? TCRP Prisoners' Rights Program Director Scott Medlock said, "It's probably a combination of both." He noted that other cases have been successfully prosecuted in other parts of the state, "which is why this is partially the judge's fault." However, he added, "If the A.G. wants to make a trial happen, he's the attorney general; he can make that happen."
The delay resurrects the grim specter of the days before 2007, when the Legislature finally took notice of Texas Ranger Brian Burzynski's shattering 2005 report on endemic sexual and physical abuse in TYC facilities. Back then, allegations of neglect and assault often went uninvestigated and unprosecuted, and Abbott, as well as then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, faced heavy criticism for not acting on Burzynski's report faster. Even after the major legislative reforms implemented in 2007, it's not just Abbott accused of moving slowly. There are hundreds of allegations dating back to 2000, yet during the last legislative session, concerns were raised that some county attorneys are still dragging their feet over prosecutions. Similarly, TYC's own internal investigation process has faced recent criticism.
The State Auditor's Office released a report in May which pointed out failures in the agency to maintain its own deadlines and standards. Of 85 allegations of mistreatment or abuse lodged in fiscal year 2008, 50 took longer than one day to have an investigator assigned, 30 lacked basic documentation, and, despite TYC rules requiring investigations be completed within 30 days, on average reports took 100 days. However, TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said, in recent months "we have brought those timelines down significantly." During the report's writing, the agency dramatically overhauled the system, moving the investigation process to the Office of Inspector General and informing law enforcement of all complaints. As for the poor showing in the report, Hurley added, "There were a lot of old cases put into the mix, and that threw the averages off."
TCRP has represented former TYC residents in their civil cases but views criminal prosecutions as essential – both in holding abusers and the system that protected them accountable and as a vital component of reforming the agency's culture. If Abbott does not move forward, Harrington said: "We'll keep raising hell. We'll check back in a month or two, and if they're not doing anything then, we'll keep doing it."