by Matt Clarke
A Houston television station reported that a prosecutor had a rape victim jailed for almost a month – just to ensure she would testify at trial. Devon Anderson, the district attorney for Harris County, Texas, stood by the prosecutor, who worked for her office. In the aftermath, Anderson lost her reelection bid to challenger Kim Ogg by an almost 10% margin.
However, fallout from the controversy did not end there. The victim has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and the state legislature passed a bill--named for the victim--to ensure witnesses have the right to an attorney before prosecutors can have them jailed. Governor Greg Abbott signed the legislation into law on May 29, 2017.
The story began when a woman identified in court records as “Jenny” testified in December 2015 against Keith Hendricks, who had choked and raped her and was a suspect in the rape of eleven other women. Jenny, who was 25 at time of her testimony, suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; she had a breakdown on the witness stand and refused to continue testifying. The trial was delayed for 10 days.
That’s when Harris County prosecutor Nicholas Socias asked District Judge Stacey W. Bond to have Jenny jailed on an “attachment order,” to ensure she would eventually finish testifying. Jenny remained in custody a month later – even after she had returned to court to testify – just in case additional testimony was needed. She wasn’t released until three days later when Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said he became aware of the situation.
“That is beyond ludicrous,” stated Lavinia Masters, an advocate for sexual assault victims. “I’m amazed that a judge would allow that. You’re further victimizing a victim.”
Hendricks was convicted of luring homeless women to abandoned buildings and raping them while armed with weapons such as box cutters. He received two life sentences.
While incarcerated Jenny was treated as a defendant, not a victim; some of her paperwork mistakenly indicated she had been “arrested for sexual assault.” She was housed in the jail’s general population, denied medication for her mental health conditions and assaulted by another prisoner. Medical staff claimed she was “confused” because she insisted she was a victim, not a criminal. During one incident she began flailing her arms as she was being pulled from her cell and hit a female guard in the face. That guard then punched her, giving Jenny a black eye. She was charged with assaulting a jailer.
Judge Bond, who signed the order to jail Jenny, had the assault charge sent to another court.
“This defendant testified as a complaining witness in a jury trial before me. I have a great deal of sympathy for this individual,” Judge Bond wrote. “It would be improper for me to oversee her case. I would feel terrible about punishing her.”
The felony charge was later dropped after Jenny testified against Hendricks.
Jenny’s attorney, Sean Buckley, said he did not fault the judge, who had relied on information provided by prosecutors.
Rebecca White, CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center, expressed concern about Jenny’s incarceration because “sexual assault is already under-reported and that this may further deter survivors from coming forward.”
Piecing together the events leading up to Jenny being jailed, Sheriff Hickman said no request was ever received by his office to house her separate from the jail’s general population.
“Had an order to ‘keep separate’ been issued, [she] would have been housed in a separation cell in accordance with the court’s order,” the Sheriff’s Office stated.
“It goes beyond just negligence,” Buckley said. “The DA’s office could have resolved this by just giving her victims’ services and helping her instead of trying to control her out of laziness.”
He added that he had never heard of using an attachment order to jail a rape victim; in a lawsuit filed on Jenny’s behalf, naming her as a Jane Doe plaintiff, he offered his theory about what happened.
“Because the prosecutors and the victim-witness division employees were scheduled to be on vacation over the holiday break, they did not want the responsibility of having to monitor Jane Doe’s well being or provide victim services to her during the holiday recess,” Buckley wrote in the complaint.
The suit, which remains pending, accuses the district attorney’s office, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, prosecutors and jail staff of violating Jenny’s constitutional rights. See: Doe v. Harris County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:16-cv-02133.
When asked about the case, former District Attorney Devon Anderson defended Socias, the prosecutor who had Jenny jailed, claiming Jenny was homeless and mentally ill and they thought jail might help her. Anderson stressed that Jenny’s life was in danger living on the streets and that a serial rapist might go free if she did not testify.
But investigators from the D.A.’s office had picked up Jenny at her apartment and taken her to the courthouse when she originally testified – so they knew she was not homeless. Also, Jenny’s mother had advocated for her daughter’s release, demonstrating that she had support from her family, too.
“They conveniently for them put her in jail, saying that I refused to take her,” Jenny’s mother said. “I never would refuse to take my child ever.”
During her election campaign, Kim Ogg focused on Anderson’s comments in support of locking up a rape victim. Anderson had already lost some of her supporters when she had undercover activists indicted for using falsified driver’s licenses while they were creating a video that allegedly showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue.
Other voters were dismayed by Anderson’s defense of former prosecutor Kelly Siegler, whom courts determined had committed serious misconduct in multiple cases. Anderson also refused to admit error in the case of a man who was released – after ten years in prison on a murder conviction – following the discovery of undisclosed exculpatory records in the garage of a retired police officer.
As “Jenny’s Law” worked its way through the Texas legislature in May 2017, only one public official testified against it. Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood sent the chief of his office’s Criminal Trial Division, Michael Hoyle, who told lawmakers on a Senate committee: “If you’re going to prosecute the devil, you’re going to have to go to hell to get your witnesses.... Well, [under this bill] those witnesses have a right to an attorney at taxpayer expense so they can litigate their participation in the state’s prosecution.”
The legislation’s author, state Senator John Whitmire, told Hoyle at the hearing that he was “shocked” by his “insensitivity to the circumstances.” Jenny’s Law went into effect on September 1, 2017.
In a curious twist, Nicholas Socias, the former Harris County prosecutor who had Jenny jailed, now works for Hoyle. After Ogg took over the District Attorney’s office and fired Socias, he was hired by the Bexar County D.A. and placed under Hoyle’s supervision.
Months after news reports on Jenny’s situation aired, Harris County prosecutors jailed another rape victim who had been serving six months in state prison following a drug conviction. She was summoned on a bench warrant to testify against William Ford, Jr., who ultimately pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting her. The unnamed victim’s sentence expired, yet she was held for another two months to testify against Ford.
Harris County isn’t alone in locking up rape victims. In Louisiana, Orleans Parish district attorney Leon Cannizzaro said he was in favor of incarcerating victims under certain circumstances.
“If I have to put a victim of a crime in jail for eight days in order to keep the rapist off of the street for a period [of] years, and prevent him from raping or harming someone else, I’m going to do that,” he told Channel 4 WWL TV, adding it was a “small price to pay.”
Cannizzaro’s office has used material witness warrants to have victims and witnesses jailed; one rape victim was held for 12 days, according to the ACLU, and a child sex trafficking victim spent 89 days behind bars.
Further, PLN previously reported that a former prisoner in Oregon was jailed for 50 days as a material witness against the prison guard who sexually assaulted her, while the guard was released on bail. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.44].
Sources: Houston Chronicle, ABC-13 News, www.thenation.com, www.motherjones.com, www.click2houston.com, www.mimesislaw.com, www.breitbart.com, www.expressnews.com, www.wwltv.com, www.aclu.org, www.slate.com
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