Putting local justice on trial

July 18, 2008 6:04:15 PM PDT
People are demanding justice, pushing the federal government to take a closer look at the Harris County Sheriff's Office. 13 undercover was the first to look more closely at the department, searching through thousands of emails. And what took place in downtown Houston Friday could be the first step toward a potential hearing on Capitol Hill.

If you heard only the applause and yells, you might have mistaken what happened inside Houston's city hall Friday for a campaign rally. Instead, it was supposed to be a hearing on the problems that have plagued the Harris County criminal justice system.

Sean and Eric Ibarra were among the witnesses.

"To think that innocent people are behind bars or taken advantage of by a system that was put in place supposedly by we the people, it's unfortunate to think that," said Eric Ibarra.

The Ibarra brothers were among a number of people who voiced their concerns to the chairman of the powerful judiciary committee. Testimony ranged from 13 Undercover's expose to the sheriff's department's improperly deleted emails to inmates who died at the Harris County Jail, including Jose Saavedra's mother.

"We actually got a collect call from her cellmate to let us know that she had passed away," he told the committee.

The hearing was brought here by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a leading critic of the Harris County government.

Our political consultant, Dr. Richard Murray, doubts this hearing will yield any real results.

"I don't think Congress is going to get much involved in what's going on here in Harris County. Individual members, as they are here today, will try to make this more of a political story," he said.

Dr. Murray says the hearing may make Republican office holders in Harris County more vulnerable during election time this November. But Congressman John Conyers insists this is a fact finding mission that will yield real results.

"I've been stunned. I've been shocked. I've been deeply moved by many things that I've heard here today," he said.

Congressman Conyers says he'll go back to Washington and his committee will begin work on a possible formal inquiry as early as Monday morning, but he wouldn't go into specifics on whether or not this will lead to congressional hearings.

A number of Harris County elected officials, including County Judge Ed Emmett and Sheriff Tommy Thomas, were invited to the hearing, but didn't attend.

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