13 Investigates: Harris County district judges held just 113 trials during pandemic despite backlog

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Friday, July 23, 2021
'Do your job,' brother of murder victim waiting for trial tells courts
A 13 Investigates analysis of Harris County District court cases found that despite 90,257 backlogged cases, the 22 district judges elected to oversee the most serious crimes held only 113 trials during the pandemic.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Erza Washington places a Bluetooth speaker on the ground and starts playing his sister's favorite songs.

He still remembers the sound of her voice. She wasn't the best singer and the thought of her singing along to Patti LaBelle still cracks him up as he thinks about all the times he teased her for it.

But as he plays the song this time, her off-pitch voice can no longer be heard.

Washington's sister, Patricia Spivey, was killed when her husband allegedly shot and killed her in their bedroom during an argument on July 28, 2019 in Houston.

Two years later, the case is no closer to trial than the day Spivey was allegedly murdered.

A 13 Investigates analysis of court cases found that despite 90,257 backlogged cases, the 22 district judges elected to oversee the most serious criminal cases have only held 113 trials since last July, when the Supreme Court of Texas allowed judges to resume court during the pandemic.

RELATED: Deputy accused of killing wife during fight over sex

The judge overseeing the trial for Spivey's accused killer has held just one case over the last year.

"It doesn't feel nice. I would like to move cases," said Judge Chris Morton, of the 230th District Court. He isn't overseeing Spivey's case, but until starting his first trial this month, Morton had held zero trials since the pandemic began.

Of the 113 cases those judges oversaw, only half were for felonies, leaving the family of victims wondering how much longer they'll have to wait for justice.

A 13 Investigates analysis of Harris County District court cases found that despite 90,257 backlogged cases, the 22 district judges elected to oversee the most serious crimes held only 113 trials during the pandemic.

"Let's get it going. Do your job," Washington told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "The judges, the defense attorneys, whatever, they don't understand the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks, the months of hurt and reliving tragic situations like this that go on in our head every day."

RELATED: Victims wait as courts face unprecedented COVID-19 delays

Criminal cases have doubled during the pandemic, meaning the 113 trials held over the last year made a small dent, clearing less than 1% of the backlog - 0.13% to be exact.

13 Investigates recently visited the courthouse and many of the judges in charge of making sure trials move forward wouldn't talk to us about the delay.

Emails to Judges Chuck Silverman and Ramona Franklin weren't returned and their courtrooms were locked when we tried to visit early one afternoon. Neither of them have held trials in the last year either as of the latest data we received in June.

Judge Greg Glass, who was in court during our recent visit, hasn't held court either. Once we told him what our report was about, he wouldn't even let us take his picture despite working for you, on a bench you paid for.

Judge Hazel Jones was holding her 11th trial since the pandemic began - the most out of any of the judges. When we tried to speak with her, she turned us down for an interview, too.

We've repeatedly emailed the other judges who haven't held trials to request an interview, but they were not returned.

During the pandemic, through the end of last month, Judge DaSean Jones has held seven trials; Judges Kelli Johnson and Abigail Anastasio held six trials each; Judges Hilary Unger, Ana Martinez and Te'iva Bell held three trials each; Judges Natalia Cornelio, Danilo , Nikita Harmon, Robert Johnson, Brian Warren, Frank Aguilar and Josh Hill held two trials each and Judges Lori Chambers Gray, Amy Martin, Colleen Gaido and Jason Luong held just one trial each. The data was released by the Harris County District Clerk's Office after a 13 Investigates Public Information request.

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Morton's docket has doubled to more than 2,000 serious cases during the pandemic.

"We are looking at public safety. I am not going to endanger the lives of 12 people in July 2020 when we have a pandemic that killed over half a million people in this country," Morton said. "I was not going to have a trial in July of last year regardless of what the Texas Supreme Court thought because that would have been dangerous and people could have died."

Morton said he planned on trying some cases sooner, but they were either dismissed by the state or resulted in a plea deal. He also said despite some defense attorneys opting for a bench trial, the prosecution did not approve it.

Most cases are disposed of without a trial, but setting court dates is still important because it forces both the defense and the prosecution to make a decision that will get the case moving forward.

In one recent case, Morton said a jury had been picked and ready to be sworn in when the state requested additional time. He said he gave the state five minutes and within that time, the case was dismissed and he had to release the jury.

"I want to go to trial," Morton said. "I was a little disappointed ... but I can't interfere with how the state handles their resources or how a defense attorney advises their client and what their client decides to do."

'Have to get the courts moving'

With a 36% increase in homicides this year, the court's delays have gotten the attention of city leaders, who are pushing judges to go to trial quicker.

Of the 90,000 cases awaiting trial, 958 are for alleged murders. Since the pandemic began, our investigation found it takes an average of three years and 11 months after an alleged murder before a case goes to trial.

"We have to get the courts moving. If we are arresting people, but they're not going to prison when they need to, that's a problem," Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said during a news conference last month. "I'm really trusting that every leader in the criminal justice system is going to do his or her part to get things moving for us because no matter how many arrests we make, we cannot get them in prison where they need to be - and this is a few individuals that's really violent - over 1,500 murder cases need to get pushed through."

During a July 2 news conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he doesn't have oversight over the county judges, but he is communicating with them regarding moving cases through the system.

"We all have a role to play and it is important that we restore our criminal justice ecosystem. It is important that we reduce the 100,000 case backlog. I don't control the courts, but I certainly can speak to it and that's exactly what we're doing," Turner said. "It's no one single entity. It's not just police and it's not just judges. It's all of us who have a responsibility."

Still, when it comes to who is responsible for the growing backlog of accused violent criminals and their victims waiting for a trial, Morton said he doesn't feel any burden for it.

"You mean during a global pandemic and a dip in our economy where crime is going up everywhere, not just where we're having bond reform or we're not able to have trials? No, I do not feel responsible for that," he said.

On Tuesday, Harris County commissioners approved $2.5 million for three emergency dockets presided by three judges who would come in from outside the county. Operations for the emergency dockets will start on Aug. 28.

Additionally, judges will be ordered to provide monthly updates on their progress. A portal will also be set up to track all dockets, existing judges, administrative judges and the visiting judges.

RELATED: Harris Co. commissioners unanimously approve use of visiting judges to alleviate 100K-case backlog

Even with the new judges, Washington thinks it'll be at least two more years before the case against his sister's accused killer goes to trial. That timeline matches the extended delay our investigation found.

Former Harris County Sheriff's deputy Renard Leon Spivey, 65, was charged with murder in the case, but it has been reset 12 times. The case is due back in court in November, but not for a hearing. Instead, it'll be a pre-trial conference where each side can let the judge know how long they need to prepare for a trial.

In the meantime, Spivey is out on a $50,000 bond. Washington said he saw Spivey on a dating site and showed us a screenshot of the profile which listed Spivey as a widower. His lawyer told us there's no longer a dating profile for his client.

Washington is urging judges to start trying more cases to not only provide victims' families with closure but to also make the community safer.

"If someone's already a criminal and you say, okay you can get out on bond and the bond is extremely low, who's to say it won't happen again," Washington said. "If I can come up with enough money to bail out, it'll be forever before I go to a trial. I can do what I want to do. That's what it looks like. ... There's no fear."

As he waits for judges to get more trials moving, Washington said he'll continue silently talking to his sister, waiting for answers about why she was killed.

"I know I won't ever get a conversation, but I want her to know that I'm still thinking, her family's still thinking of her," Washington said of a recent visit to his sister's gravesite in North Houston. "One day we'll get that justice, you know. It's hard."

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