Makeshift hear­ings held as flood-dam­aged court­house is re­paired

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Rogers

State District Judge Maria Jack­son stood up be­hind a shaky makeshift bench in the base­ment of the Har­ris County Jail and came eye to eye with an in­mate in an or­ange jail uni­form 3 feet away.

“We’re try­ing to get cases mov­ing, so you need to make a de­ci­sion,” the judge told the hand­cuffed young man ac­cused of rape. “If you need to talk to your at­tor­ney, go ahead.”

The in­mate and his lawyer took three steps back to hud­dle, wedged in be­tween eight other in­mates along a cin­derblock wall.

Brief and over­crowded pro­ce­dural hear­ings like this base­ment ex­change have gen­er­ated hun­dreds of pleas and dis­missals, dubbed “Har­vey deals,” in what has be­come the new nor­mal for the state’s largest crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey’s de­struc-


The county’s crim­i­nal court­house, a 20-story sky­scraper that sits on the banks of Buf­falo Bayou on the north side of down­town Hous­ton, re­mains shut­tered af­ter it was flooded with 4 feet of wa­ter dur­ing the Au­gust storm.

Dam­age ex­tended through­out the build­ing af­ter wa­ter seeped in through the walls and pooled in the base­ment, trig­ger­ing a mal­func­tion in com­put­ers that reg­u­late the wa­ter pres­sure. This in turn sent wa­ter gush­ing through sinks, toi­lets and wa­ter foun­tains on some up­per lev­els, caus­ing pipes to burst and flood­ing court­rooms that wouldn’t oth­er­wise have been dam­aged.

Now, two dingy and crowded class­rooms-turned-court­rooms locked be­hind clank­ing steel doors in a jail base­ment have be­come the epi­cen­ter of an ev­er­grow­ing docket of felony crim­i­nal fil­ings.

In a small room in an­other jail build­ing, the judges and prose­cu­tors han­dling mis­de­meanors are deal­ing with the same pres­sures. The nearby Jury As­sem­bly Build­ing, which was built un­der­ground with a park on top, was de­stroyed. An­other 111 county build­ings sus­tained $127 mil­lion in dam­ages, ac­cord­ing to ini­tial es­ti­mates.

Closed six more months

County En­gi­neer John Blount said he couldn’t be­gin to es­ti­mate how much re­pairs and flood-pre­ven­tion mea­sures at the main court­house will cost.

But he said it likely will re­main closed for at least an­other six months, with court staff and other county em­ploy­ees grad­u­ally mov­ing back into their of­fices and court­rooms as work is com­pleted over the next year. For now, crim­i­nal tri­als are be­ing con­ducted in the nearby civil court­house.

The county is fol­low­ing FEMA guide­lines and will be hir­ing con­sul­tants this month, he said.

Har­ris County Judge Ed Em­mett said the storm af­fected all as­pects of county gov­ern­ment.

“Ob­vi­ously, the county is work­ing over­time and as hard as pos­si­ble to get things up and run­ning and as close to nor­mal as we can, but it’s still go­ing to take some time,” Em­mett said.

District At­tor­ney Kim Ogg — whose staff of 700 has scat­tered to nine dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, with some as far away as the Gal­le­ria area — said the of­fice is con­tend­ing with the chal­lenge.

“It is hard on our peo­ple and it’s hard on the pub­lic,” she said. “We’re grit­ting our teeth and bear­ing it.”

In a ball­room-sized area on the top floor of a down­town of­fice build­ing, al­most 90 of Ogg’s 300 prose­cu­tors work el­bow-to-el­bow con­tact­ing vic­tims, wit­nesses and de­fense at­tor­neys to hash out mis­de­meanor cases. In­stead of be­ing an el­e­va­tor ride away from court, prose­cu­tors are work­ing blocks or even miles away.

“It re­ally looks like a gi­ant tele­mar­ket­ing com­pany,” Ogg said of the makeshift mis­de­meanor bureau.

The DA’s of­fice lost workspace on six floors in the crim­i­nal court­house, and Ogg said the ef­fort of trans­port­ing files to court is now driv­ing an ini­tia­tive to go pa­per­less.

Tight squeeze

Dur­ing an af­ter­noon in late Oc­to­ber, Jack­son presided over a jail­house court­room packed with more than 20 in­mates, sher­iff’s deputies, court staffers, prose­cu­tors and de­fense lawyers.

At one end of Jack­son’s bench, a staffer handed out forms kept on an end ta­ble, fash­ioned from a pair of stacked milk crates. At­tor­neys signed forms to resched­ule court hear­ings and piled them on the lid of a trash can.

The judge, a soft-spo­ken woman with silver spec­ta­cles bal­anced on her nose, said she was ini­tially con­cerned about lay­ing down the law to sus­pects just an arms-length away.

“We’re real close,” the judge said, re­fer­ring to in­mates near enough to make con­tact. “I’m not used to that. It wasn’t what I was ex­pect­ing. But as long as I have at least two deputies stand­ing there, I feel safe.”

In the ad­ja­cent court­room, state District Judge Ge­orge Pow­ell shep­herded cases through his crim­i­nal docket.

“It’s in­con­ve­nient, but everybody’s been in­con­ve­nienced. It’s not just us,” Pow­ell said. “We don’t want (in­mates’) con­sti­tu­tional rights vi­o­lated. We want to make sure they don’t stay there any longer than they have to, and we need to get the cases mov­ing.”

In the ‘bullpen’

Ev­ery week­day, there are two docket calls in each of the pair of class­rooms where two of the 22 felony judges al­ter­nate in hold­ing court from a “bench” con­sist­ing of two chipped wooden desks lined up end-to-end. They are try­ing to move the cases of in­mates charged with the most se­ri­ous crimes wait­ing to go to trial.

Within earshot of a half­dozen other in­mates, crim­i­nal sus­pects have their only op­por­tu­nity to re­solve their case for at least a week, un­til the court to which their case is as­signed holds an­other hear­ing.

De­fense lawyers in sneak­ers shuf­fle be­tween the court­rooms and a “bullpen” set up in the jail’s law li­brary.

“It’s a tight squeeze,” said at­tor­ney An­gela Weltin. “It def­i­nitely has its chal­lenges, but every­one is do­ing their best to make sure these guys get a fair shake.”

In the bullpen, prose­cu­tors and de­fense at­tor­neys work out plea deals. Once an agree­ment is reached, the de­fense lawyer, the in­mate and the pros­e­cu­tor stand shoul­der-to-shoul­der in front of the judge who can ap­prove the bar­gain.

De­fense lawyer Car­los Ro­driguez said the par­ties are try­ing to make the best of a tough sit­u­a­tion.

“Be­cause they can’t have court ev­ery day, when the in­mates get to come to court, they re­ally take ad­van­tage of it,” he said.

Other lawyers said the crush of crim­i­nal cases has caused judges and prose­cu­tors to eval­u­ate their dock­ets with an eye to­ward get­ting rid of as many cases as pos­si­ble.

“If the case is some­thing not so se­ri­ous, you’ve got a chance at get­ting a ‘Har­vey deal,’ ” said one lawyer, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity. “But if it’s se­ri­ous, you get de­lays.”

Ogg con­firmed that in the wake of the storm, her top lieu­tenants re­viewed about 600 low-level drug cases in a fever­ish bid to make plea deals.

“We dis­missed about 110 of those cases, and we pled about 200 oth­ers,” Ogg said. “There were about 300 that we couldn’t plead.”

Ogg said her of­fice sought to ex­pe­dite state jail felony drug cases, which typ­i­cally in­volve pos­ses­sion of small amounts of co­caine or other drugs.

“I in­tend to con­tinue to try to clear our ta­ble of cases that pro­duce the least pub­lic safety ben­e­fit but suck the most re­sources,” she said. “And those are low-level drug cases and those that in­volve the men­tally ill.”

Mov­ing in­mates

Un­til the storm, the court­house housed the 22 state district courts presided over by felony judges like Jack­son and Pow­ell, as well as 16 mis­de­meanor courts. Each day, sher­iff’s deputies and de­ten­tion of­fi­cers es­corted more than 800 in­mates from the two nearby jails to court­rooms. A cov­ered walk­way ex­tends from be­neath the jail, spans Buf­falo Bayou, and leads to the cen­ter of the court­house at 1201 Franklin. In the core of the build­ing, banks of se­cured el­e­va­tors move in­mates to dozens of hold­ing cells in court­rooms from the eighth floor up to the 20th.

His­tor­i­cally, about 70 per­cent of the 9,000 in­mates in the jail are await­ing trial, al­though those num­bers have been go­ing down be­cause of re­cent bail re­forms. Most will re­solve their case with a plea deal. But the num­ber of crim­i­nal fil­ings, which tops more than 100,000 a year, keeps go­ing up.

Now, deputies move 300 to 450 in­mates a day from jail cells to one of seven lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the jail base­ment or sub­sti­tute court­rooms in the civil, ju­ve­nile and fam­ily court­houses.

Judges and de­fense at­tor­neys praised Sher­iff Ed Gon­za­lez’s staff for main­tain­ing an or­derly process.

“It’s been a test, but it seems like, so far, we’re pass­ing the test,” said HCSO Chief Deputy Dar­ryl Cole­man.

Fam­ily watch room

Across the bayou from the jail com­plex, the county’s 17-story civil court­house has been pressed into ser­vice, with the civil and felony crim­i­nal courts dou­bling up in court­rooms to ac­com­mo­date sus­pects who are out on bail.

It is still crowded, but de­fen­dants and lawyers are able to do their busi­ness in tra­di­tional court­rooms.

In a top-floor con­fer­ence room di­vided into thirds by glass walls, big-screen TVs equipped with cam­eras show what’s go­ing on blocks away in the base­ment of the jail. The room is car­peted, with chairs and sev­eral ta­bles.

It’s a place for sus­pects’ fam­i­lies to view what’s go­ing on with­out try­ing to get into the jail court­rooms.

On a Fri­day morn­ing in Oc­to­ber, an older man with a hear­ing aid fo­cused on the TV and waited for his son to ap­pear, hop­ing to see the case re­solved.

As his adult son ap­proached the judge and signed a form on the makeshift bench, the fa­ther stood close to the TV to hear what was go­ing on.

A minute later, an at­tor­ney held the form up to the cam­era to show the case had been post­poned yet again. The older man leaned to­ward the closed-cir­cuit TV to make out the date scrib­bled on the yel­low form.

Then the fa­ther, who de­clined to give his name, gath­ered up his hat and news­pa­per and sighed.

“An­other re­set,” said the man, who shook his head and left.

“It is hard on our peo­ple and it’s hard on the pub­lic. We’re grit­ting our teeth and bear­ing it.” District At­tor­ney Kim Ogg

Jon Shap­ley / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Judge Maria Jack­son, left, lis­tens as Stephanie Martin, a de­fense at­tor­ney, ar­gues her client’s case in the 339th District Court, which is tem­po­rar­ily lo­cated in the base­ment of the Har­ris County Jail.

Steve Gon­za­les / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

The Har­ris County district at­tor­ney’s mis­de­meanor di­vi­sion, which in­cludes 88 prose­cu­tors, works out of a makeshift of­fice in a ball­room-size area in a county build­ing down­town af­ter be­ing dis­placed by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

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