Murder cases in limbo as pandemic grinds courts to halt
More than 1,300 awaiting trial, angering grieving families, defendants, attorneys
Rosie Peña thought her daughter’s homicide case was a closed case from the start.
Linda Cardona’s boyfriend told police that he shot her in a domestic violence incident at home, according to probable cause documents — an accusation that Peña felt was affirmed when Ricardo Olivarez pleaded guilty more than two years later.
Then, he withdrew his plea and a judge released him on bond, court records show. The criminal case is still working through the court system.
Olivarez is one of 1,300 defendants awaiting resolution on murder or capital murder charges in Harris County’s district courts. The cases have piled up more and more rapidly over the past three years, starting with Hurricane Harvey’s closure of the courthouse and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jury trials have been delayed until at least October, and even those could be limited, adding to the frustration for all involved in the process.
“There’s no faith in the justice system,” said Veronica Smart, Cardona’s sister. “There’s no justice system, not like that.”
Even before Hurricane Harvey and COVID disrupted the
system, the courts hovered around 1,000 defendants with unresolved murder or capital murder cases. That number has since risen to 1,301 defendants as of early July, with the biggest jump taking place from 2019 to 2020, according to data from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
The 22 state district judges had 988 of these defendants assigned to their courts as of July 1, 2017, and 1,067 at the same time the following year. That climbed to 1,149 murder and capital murder defendants in mid-2019 before hitting 1,301 last month.
The obvious reality is that suspects are coming into court faster than judges can get them out — an occurrence complicated by the pandemic stalling most major proceedings in the courts.
The state has prohibited jury trials until Oct. 1, with some exceptions, and the county is still determining ways to resume trials safely when that day comes. But the threat of jury trials is what drives cases to resolution and pleas, furthering the backlog, said Assistant District Attorney Joanne Musick.
Most murder cases are complicated, meaning they take months for attorneys to obtain evidence and are difficult to get to trial in a quick time frame, she said. And once they’re in front of a jury, murder cases sometimes take weeks to try.
“You can’t get 1,300 tried in a year. You can’t do it in two years. You can’t do it in three years,” Musick said. “If you eliminated everything else, you still can’t get through the system. You need more courtrooms; you need more courtroom space.”
The backup has long irked Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who said nationwide attention on law enforcement practices also needs to stretch to the courts.
“It makes it very difficult in terms of keeping a city safe and holding people accountable when our criminal justice system is moving at snail’s pace,” he said.
The number of open cases also horrified Smart, who immediately thought of other victims’ families in a similar purgatory.
“That’s 1,300 more families waiting for an answer, waiting for justice or judgment,” Smart said.
The backlog occurs even though not all defendants are trying to get their cases in front of a judge or jury. A large number haven’t even been arrested, sometimes because they can’t be found. Fifty-eight capital murder cases had defendants released on bond — a rarer decision, as capital murder charges are an exception to laws that guarantee bond — and 231 defendants were in jail as of July 7. Sixty-one hadn’t been arrested, according to data from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
Another 193 murder cases had defendants on bond, with 300 more in jail and 493 not arrested.
The cases stretch back years. Steven Hobbs, a former security guard from Crosby accused of raping or killing six prostitutes, tops the list as the Harris County Jail inmate with the longest wait for trial: He was arrested in 2011.
Virtually all parties stand to lose when cases move slowly through the courts, said Kevin Buckler, professor of criminal justice at University of HoustonDowntown. Evidence grows stale. Defendants constitutionally deserve a speedy trial, and innocent defendants in particular remain in limbo for years, possibly unable to get jobs. Victims’ families want some semblance of closure.
“There’s tremendous time that’s passing,” he said. “Local resources are being tapped.”
Defense attorney Adam Muldrow, who represents Olivarez, declined to comment on the Linda Cardona case. But at least one of his clients has become extremely frustrated at the time that has elapsed in their proceedings, he said, and he’s seen defendants across the system take pleas that they might not have taken otherwise.
“It’s hard to fight a case forever,” Muldrow said. “A lot of times people want to resolve things and move on even if it means going to prison.”
Even with a desire to seek justice for their defendants, many defense attorneys don’t see any options to get their clients to trial during the pandemic. An option to hold jury selection at NRG has been met with major resistance by the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.
“I don’t want to go over to NRG with everybody in masks and face shields to try to select a jury that way,” said Danny Easterling, a defense attorney who is appointed murder and capital murder cases. “That’s not a fair process.”
‘Waiting and waiting’
For Peña, the trial over her daughter’s death in October 2017 can’t come fast enough.
Sitting in her north Houston home in early August, Peña and Smart were hesitant to even guess when they would see Olivarez back in court. He has already been set for trial four times, they said, and almost every other proceeding has been reset.
“Waiting, waiting and waiting,” Smart said. “Now because of corona, more waiting.”
As time passes, the hurt deepens knowing that Olivarez is out on the streets and not in jail, Peña said. Her family’s desire for some kind of restitution is entirely in the hands of the courts.
“I can’t move anything along,” Peña said. “I can voice my frustrations, but that’s about all.”
She can’t imagine what Cardona could have done to make Olivarez
so angry — he first told police he shot her when an altercation turned into a fight over his gun, but later said she didn’t reach for the weapon at all and that he was tired of her assaulting him, according to probable cause documents.
The grieving mother recalls bright memories of Cardona, a smiling 39-year-old who loved to spend time with her daughter, son and newborn grandson. She was funny, motivated. She was generous even in death — her organs saved five lives, Peña said.
She maintains a table devoted to Cardona and sits by it daily. Her ashes stay in a pink box on the shrine, Peña said, while Olivarez is free for now and maybe forever.
“He’s got an ankle monitor — big deal. He’s still alive; he’s breathing,” Peña said. “He should be locked up. He should not be out there.”