'Do your job,' victim tells judge in Harris County's slowest court

Sarah Rafique Image
Monday, May 2, 2022
'Do your job,' victim tells judge in Harris County's slowest court
Our 13 Investigates found which Harris County criminal judges resolved the fewest felony cases since the pandemic began.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- As the number of pending felony cases in Harris County doubled over the last two years, 13 Investigates analyzed tens of thousands of cases to see which judges are resolving them and whose backlog is growing the most.

Our investigation found:

  • Fifteen judges resolved fewer felony cases during the pandemic and all 23 courts have more pending cases now than when the pandemic began.
  • Harris County Judge Ramona Franklin, of the 338th Criminal District Court, who has the most pending cases of all 23 judges, is holding court via zoom. She's set to resume in-person on Monday, May 2.
  • There's nothing in place that can force a judge in Texas to work faster or speed up their docket.

Angie Gooden won't drive past the Scott Food Store.

She takes the long way around and when she passes by an intersection near Scott Street, she thinks about her son and whispers, "I love you. Good morning my guardian angel."

For two years, Gooden has avoided the area where her son Reginald "Duke" Larry was shot in the head and hospitalized on Feb. 9, 2020.

"I saw him on the machine and it just - my heart just melted. I prayed, we prayed, prayed, prayed, prayed. I even saw signs of movement and they did tests for two days. Still, you know, no brain activity," she said.

Gooden said she'll never forget the day before Duke was shot. She spent all day with her son, talking about the burdens of life and telling him "I love you" for the last time.

It was that conversation that helped guide her on what to do next.

"That's when I got the feeling in my heart, you know, he wouldn't have wanted to be like this. I got with his siblings and asked them, 'how y'all feel about me donating his organs? (They said), 'Mom, if you want to do it, we're okay with it,'" Gooden said. "And the thing about it, I'm proud. He did save four males with his organs, but it was a hurting feeling to let my child go like that. But I didn't want to see him suffering on the machine and he wasn't here, so it gave me the okay to let him go."

Gerald Dewayne Washington, the man accused of shooting Duke outside a convenience store in 2020, was already out on bond for another alleged murder in 2017, where two other people were also injured.

SEE ALSO: 13 Investigates how many repeat offenders are out on bond

Three and a half years after Washington's first alleged murder, his charges are still pending in Harris County Criminal District Judge Ramona Franklin's court.

The cases are part of a growing backlog across the county that has doubled in recent years. Our investigation found some judges are moving cases through the courts system much slower than others and none can keep up with the pace of incoming felonies.

13 Investigates analyzed every case filed in Harris County over the last decade and found Franklin, of the 338th Criminal District Court, has at least two times as many pending cases now than when the pandemic began.

As of last month, Franklin has 3,395 pending felony cases in her court, according to county data. That's 1,000 more pending cases than the average of 2,186 cases for all 23 criminal district courts.

Our investigation also found Franklin has moved the fewest felony cases off her docket in the last two years, meaning fewer alleged criminals sentenced or cleared of their charges, and fewer victims with closure, leaving families like the Goodens waiting years for a verdict.

"Some of these people need to be put into a system that assures they're not going to be a danger to society, whether that system is the probation system, the prison system, the jail system or something and if the court isn't functioning, that isn't happening," said Paul Looney, who has been practicing criminal law in Harris County for 30 years. "It's a threat to public safety because we don't have fast, swift and sureness in our justice system and that's the only thing that keeps the rest of us respecting the system."

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Each of Harris County's 23 criminal district courts in Harris County have an elected judge who randomly gets assigned cases. There's nothing in place that can force judges in Texas to work faster or speed up their docket.

The 482nd district court was formed during the pandemic to help address the backlog and heard its first cases last year. For our investigation, we focused on the 22 criminal courts for felonies that existed before the pandemic began to compare progress.

Our analysis found those 22 courts resolved an average of 2,873 cases during the pandemic. Franklin is at the bottom of that group, resolving just 1,953 cases between March 20, 2020, when the pandemic shut down courts, and Feb. 9, 2022.

Our investigation found 15 judges resolved fewer cases during the pandemic and all 23 courts have more pending cases now than when the pandemic began.

Overall, there's 48,100 pending felony cases - 20,000 more than when the pandemic began.

SEE ALSO: Harris County district judges held just 113 trials during pandemic despite backlog

Our investigation did find some judges are doing a better job of keeping up with the pace of incoming felonies than others.

Judge Abigail Anastasio, of Harris County's 184th Criminal District Court, moved 3,537 felony cases off her docket during the pandemic, which is the highest among all judges.

She also has among the lowest number of pending cases in her court with just 1,430 active cases as of March.

Anastasio, who has worked as a prosecutor and defense attorney, told 13 Investigates that judges have to manage their time and resources effectively to "increase both the accused's access to justice and to keep the community's safety in mind."

"I'm looking at the number of cases but also clearance rates. How many cases are coming in and going out," she said. "Filings (new cases) have increased dramatically. I have to clear more cases to keep it even. My clearance rate has to be more than 100%. One way to do that is to tell defendants, 'you're going to trial.'"

Anastasio, whose term ends next year after losing re-election, said her goal is to get cases resolved in four settings or less, in part, by making sure attorneys explain any delays.

She said she's been working from the courthouse throughout the entire pandemic, has few appearances via Zoom and doesn't offer resets of cases unless an attorney is present to speak with her at the bench.

"We're establishing a culture of accountability and expectations," Anastasio said.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: Harris County commissioners devoted millions of your dollars to help move aging cases out of the system. 13 Investigates went behind closed doors with Harris County District Attorney' Office prosecutors to see how a program works and the speed with which decisions have to be made by overwhelmed prosecutors working on overtime to help whittle down the backlog. Here's the report that aired Monday on ABC13.

That DWI case is one of 40,729 active misdemeanor cases that need final resolution in Harris County courts - up nearly 30% from before the pandemic when there were 31,503 cases in February 2020.

In Franklin's court, the case against Duke's accused killer has been reset four times.

In the two years since he died, his family said they haven't been to the courthouse for any court proceedings because there has been no progress in the case.

"I don't have words for it. Just pick up and do your job like you're supposed to," Gooden said. "Handle these cases the way you're supposed to handle them."

'Worst possible outcome'

Wearing a black robe and a pearl-beaded collar, Judge Franklin logs into a Zoom video conference call. Her background is set to a customized image of a U.S. flag to her right and a Texas flag to her left to mimic a courtroom, but she's not actually in her courtroom.

It's a contrast from other courtrooms across the criminal justice center, where prosecutors, defendants and their attorneys face a judge in person to address felony charges.

Her county website says she's resuming court in person on Monday, May 2.

Franklin, who was first elected to her current position in 2018, didn't respond to 13 Investigates' request for an interview.

The slow progress in Franklin's courtroom prompted the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association to file a complaint against her with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, claiming she has illegally denied defendants' bail and is delaying cases.

Looney said he's also concerned about attorneys not being present during critical court proceedings in Franklin's court. In one case, he said his law partners went in for an initial appearance, but Franklin insisted the defendant go into the courtroom alone and that the lawyer be at another location on Zoom despite both of them being at the courthouse.

A decision on the complaint is still pending.

It was filed 20 months ago and mentions one case where an attorney said he witnessed Franklin call a defendant before her "without an attorney and then revoke his bond, set his bail at 'no bond' and order that he be taken into custody."

Looney tried to get Franklin removed from his client's cases, too, but it didn't work. An administrative judge said Franklin was treating everyone that way.

"Everybody is entitled to due process under the law. If you get into this lady's court, you have no process and no law," Looney said.

He said he doesn't want his client's case thrown out. He just wanted a "functioning court" to get the case moving along, but he hasn't been able to get a trial set in Franklin's court, let alone an initial appearance.

"She will not come to work. She will not let the court function and she will not take a leave of absence and she won't resign from the bench. This is the worst possible outcome for an elected judge," Looney said. "When we have a crisis, the people at the top either need to be leaders or they need to get out of the way and let somebody else be a leader."

County records show Franklin has the lowest clearance rate of any judges over the last year. She also has the most defendants in jail awaiting trial than any other judge.

More than half of the pending cases in her court are at least a year old. That means victims, like the Goodens, whose son was killed in 2020, are left waiting years for a resolution.

"I can't explain it. It's unbelievable," Gooden said. "I never had to do anything like this and I don't know, I'm just not ready, but I kind of want to see justice served to where he won't get out and do it to no one else."

Gooden said she still remembers the last time the case against Washington, her son's accused killer, was rescheduled for the fourth time. It was her son's birthday.

"I couldn't believe it, but then after that, nothing," she said. "I celebrated my son's birthday, but for the man in court, nothing."

The first murder case filed against Washington in 2018 has been reset more than a dozen times.

13 Investigates asked Washington's attorney, Danny Easterling, why neither of his murder cases have been resolved.

"There is a delay in the entire system," he said, later adding. "I'm not going to comment on that. It is what."

The Goodens said their only interaction with the justice system has been for traffic tickets. They've never been to the courthouse for a criminal case and they've only seen Washington in mugshots on TV.

They're ready for justice. They want to see Washington in person. They want to know if he feels any remorse at all.

"I just want to see the person that scared my son," said Greg Gooden, Duke's dad. "Just look at him."

Waiting for justice

Angie Gooden has seen story after story on TV about people getting murdered in Houston, including people like her son's alleged killer, who are accused of murder while out on bond for other alleged felonies.

Each time, she said she could feel the family's pain. At least, she thought she could.

Then, it happened to her.

She was sitting outside listening to music when her brother drove down Scott Street and recognized her son's car.

"Where's Duke," she recalled him asking her. "He said, 'it looks like his car's taped off.'"

Gooden was confused and told her brother she'd call him back.

"I have this thing where I call my children and when they answer and say, 'hello,' I say, 'Okay, that's all I wanted to hear,'" Gooden said.

But Duke didn't answer. She tried calling him again. By then her brother had already confirmed it was Duke's car.

Gooden rushed to the scene, just around the corner from her house.

"I was just asking everyone, is he all right? Is he alive? The police just said, 'ma'am, we can't tell you nothing,'" she said.

Her son was rushed to a local hospital.

More than two years have passed since Gooden made the difficult decision to allow the hospital to take Duke off life support.

She doesn't know much longer she'll have to wait for his accused killer to go to trial.

In Harris County, we found it takes an average of four years for homicide cases to be resolved, which means they'll likely have to wait at least two more years for a verdict.

"I want to see justice served to where he won't get out and do it to someone else," Angie Gooden said. "You took something from me that I can never get back. (My son) will never have kids. He will never grow old."

Washington's case isn't due in court again until June. This time, the Goodens hope Judge Franklin will put herself in their shoes and keep the case moving through what they call an "unfair system," instead of continuing to delay it.

Until then, Gooden said she'll continue waking up every morning, looking at a photo of Duke and saying the words her son will never say back to her again: "I love you."

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