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Dallas County, Texas, Criticized for Offering Probation to Murder Defendants

According to a Dallas Morning News article published on November 10, 2007, Dallas County, Texas, leads the state in the number of probation deals it hands out to murder defendants. The highly critical five-part series implies that Dallas County prosecutors and judges simply overlook the seriousness of these crimes and take the easy way out by offering probation rather than proceeding to trial.

From 2000 through 2006, 120 persons convicted of murder in Texas were given probation. Dallas County led the way, giving probated sentences to 47 people during this time, or 9% of all its murder cases.

Bill Hill, the Dallas County district attorney until the end of 2006, could not explain the county’s high rate of probation-for-murder sentences. “It surprised me,” especially since the local judicial system is known for its “hang ‘em high” reputation, he said.

Most of the murderer defendants detailed in The News investigation were minorities who killed other minorities. That is the typical pattern overall in Dallas, where most of the probation-for-murder cases occurred.
About half of the defendants investigated were poor and used court-appointed attorneys.

Unfortunately, a fact of plea bargaining in Texas is that both the time and the charge are negotiable. With the same crime, for example, a prosecutor could offer 10 years probation and a charge of murder, or 5 years in prison and a charge of assault, or any combination of a particular charge and sentence.

The gist of The News series is that too many defendants charged with murder ultimately receive probation rather than prison sentences. But let’s review how the system actually works. A person is killed and someone is linked to the alleged crime. The death may have been the result of self-defense. It may have been unintentional. It may have been accidental.

Prosecutors, with little to go on initially, charge the defendant they identify with the most serious crime that can be deduced from the facts.
In the cases of a death, that would be a charge of either murder or capital murder. Prosecutors have the option of reducing or dropping the charges once more information is collected.

However, sometimes prosecutors use that initial severe charge to bully the defendant into accepting a plea bargain in order to forego the expense and uncertainty of a trial. Faced with many years behind bars, or even the death penalty—and a court appointed attorney who may not have the time or resources to mount a top-notch defense—a plea bargain is many times the best course of action, even for defendants who are not guilty of murder. In the past several years 17 innocent men convicted of various serious crimes and imprisoned, often for decades, have been exonerated by DNA evidence.

After all, a trial is not a particularly scientific endeavor. The outcome is usually affected by such factors as how persuasive the defense attorney and prosecutor are and how closely the jury identifies with the defendant and even the victim.

Lisa Blue, a Dallas jury-selection consultant and former prosecutor, says juries tend to make decisions based on likes and dislikes, regardless of the facts or the law. “You can have the exact same facts but have the personality of the victims be different and get totally different results,” she said. It shouldn’t matter, she said, “but it does.”

These jury biases can work either for or against a defendant. What happened to Foyil Deal is one example.

Deal was an elderly man with heart problems and a concealed handgun permit. He killed two armed crack cocaine dealers and immediately called 911. Deal told police he fired in self-defense after the men kidnapped him from his home, robbed him, and tried to assault him. Deal had just recently begun using illegal drugs, he said, and his prior criminal record consisted only of a 1976 DWI.

Shane Webb was a young drug pusher who’d already served time in prison for murder. He was violating the law simply by possessing a gun. Webb killed a second time, shooting a drug user in the back. He didn’t call 911. And it was only after police found him that he claimed self-defense.
Deal ended up getting life in prison. Webb got probation.

It’s unclear whether Deal was offered a plea-bargain before he was convicted. But if he was, it certainly illustrates the danger of rejecting a prosecutor’s deal and taking your chances at trial.

Of course this process happens no matter what the crime, but “murderers getting probation” makes a much more sensational story.

In light of the unflattering publicity, current Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has vowed to “scour that record,” according to The News article. Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick has also jumped on the “tough on crime” bandwagon (which never grows old in Texas) by guaranteeing that Dallas County’s probation-for-murder record will get additional scrutiny in Austin, the state capitol.

According to the article, in most of the cases where probation was handed out there was little news coverage. For those who now or in the near future will face unwarranted murder charges, The News’s article and subsequent attention it has drawn will give prosecutors an even stronger hand at forcing plea bargains. In many cases though, the probation deals amount to prison va the backdoor. Of the 47 people in Dallas county who received probation for murder pleas, 32 later violated their terms of probation and 18 were then sentenced to prison.

Despite the scandal, it’s hard to argue that Texas is developing a soft-on-crime reputation. During the same period those 120 defendants were given probation for murder, the state executed 205 prisoners for the same crime.

Source: The Dallas Morning News

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