Law prioritizing murder cases in court worrisome for prosecutors, DA's Office says

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Thursday, August 31, 2023
Murder, capital murder cases prioritized in law worry to prosecutors
A new law takes effect on Friday, which requires murder and capital murder cases to be prioritized. But prosecutors worry it will be tough to abide.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- The new law going into effect in Texas on Friday that prioritizes certain cases in court will be challenging for the Harris County District Attorney's Office to abide by because of a backlog at the city's crime lab.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is a strong proponent of SB 204, which prioritizes murder and capital murder cases in court. It was authored by several local senators and received overwhelming support in the legislature.

"I think they get that," Ogg said during a news conference on Wednesday. "The public wants murderers off the street or tried either to guilt or innocence. They want that done first."

Leticia Ybarra spoke at the news conference as well. It was the third anniversary of her daughter, Jessica Perez's, murder.

While her daughter's killer, Andrew Montana Webster, pleaded guilty in July 2023 to her murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison, she spoke to the agony of waiting for a conclusion in the case.

"Each day is another day that I don't know what's going to happen," Ybarra said. "Is he going to be set free?"

Of the more than 34,000 cases pending in Harris County criminal courts currently, 1,816 of them are capital murder or murder cases, according to the DA's office.

"Does that de-prioritize crimes? Yes, by its definition, but we are doing what the public thinks is the most important and what police and prosecutors will tell you is best for public safety," Ogg said about the new law.

Joe Vinas, president-elect of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers' Association, believes the new law will be counterproductive in clearing the backlog. He said his clients who are not charged with murder will end up sitting in jail longer, waiting for their cases to be resolved while newer cases are moved to the front of the line.

He said murder or capital murder cases take weeks in trial versus lesser offenses, which can be resolved in days.

"If you want to clear a backlog, then those lesser offenses are the ones," Vinas said. "Aggravated robbery case only takes two, maybe three days to try, so you could knock out five aggravated robbery cases in the time it will take you to try one murder case."

As of last week, there were 913 murder or capital murder suspects in Harris County's Jail. They make up roughly 10% of the jail population.

Ogg said while the new law can help alleviate overcrowding in the jail, there is a major problem with executing it.

She stood alongside Sarah Seely, the homicide division chief in her office, and Houston Police Officers' Union President Doug Griffith on Wednesday to address the backlog at the city-funded Houston Forensic Science Center.

The lab that analyzes evidence collected by Houston police posted to their website that it takes 330 days to have a firearm analyzed, 326 days for mobile devices, and 231 for DNA evidence.

Officials at the news conference argued that wait times are actually longer.

Seely said the wait times have tied their hands in bringing cases to trial quickly.

"There are excellent judges in Harris County who will try our cases, and they will follow this legislation," Seely said. "Our fear is they are going to demand that we go to trial when we don't have our scientific evidence."

ABC13 reached out to the Houston Forensic Science Center with concerns brought up by law enforcement. In response, the agency provided the following response:

"The Houston Forensic Science Center is aware of the passage of S.B. 402. President & CEO Dr. Peter Stout was involved in the legislative session, identifying the potential impacts on forensic labs around the state and the difficulties of balancing conflicting legislated priorities of sexual assaults and homicides. HFSC continues to provide a clear and transparent picture of the organization's turnaround times and backlogs so the various criminal justice partners are properly informed. HFSC also continues to work with the Harris County District Attorney's Office to prioritize cases when the organization is made aware of court dates. The entire system is challenged and demands proactive planning and cooperation by all the agencies."

Griffith reiterated his calls for the president and CEO of the lab, Dr. Peter Stout, to resign during the news conference.

The DA's office asked for a seat on the lab's board as well as the ability to outsource evidence analysis.

The City of Houston said Wednesday evening that they have provided the Houston Forensic Science Center with the $4.95 million it asked for that will go towards overtime for the Crime Scene Unit and Firearms, trainings, outsourcing certain analysis, temporary labor, and software.