Appeals court halts hearing aimed at finding where cases delayed

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The Twelfth Court of Appeals ordered the hearing District Judge Jeff Fletcher had set for Feb. 18 with District Attorney Angela Albers  and Sheriff Tom Castloo be stayed pending further order of the court.

Fletcher said the hearing was in an effort to work together and find out why cases are taking so long to indict.

An email Fletcher sent to Albers, Castloo, Investigator Jerry Hirsch and Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Bobby Sanders on Feb. 7 stated, “In recent weeks, I have noticed that there exists an issue with the submission and subsequent prosecution of cases. Either law enforcement does not have the investigative file ready on a timely basis, or the case sits without attention from a prosecutor after submission by law enforcement, or a combination of the two. Notwithstanding the issue with the delay in testing from the DPS labs, we need to determine the problem and resolve it so our criminal case backlog is maintained at proper levels and defendants receive timely due process. This is not an exercise in placing blame, but I do want to find the source of the problem. We will have a hearing on this matter on Feb. 18 at 2 p.m.”

On Feb. 14, the Wood County District Attorney’s office filed a petition for a writ of prohibition to prevent Fletcher from holding a hearing which invades the constitutional duties of the district attorney. 

The petition stated, “There is no specific underlying case noticed for the hearing, however a hearing has been noticed for cases not yet within the jurisdiction of the District Court.

“The office of district attorney, including that of criminal district attorney, is a constitutional office. Thus, the district attorney’s authority cannot be abridged or taken away. 

“The language of the email indicates that the court is attempting to have a hearing on matters over which the court has no jurisdiction.

“The decision whether to prosecute and what charge to file rests entirely within the discretion of the Wood County Criminal District Attorney. Moreover, other than any applicable criminal statute of limitations, there is no time limit on the discretionary function of the Wood County Criminal District Attorney to seek an indictment or file any information with the court. “Indeed, the criminal case backlog that the court claims exists as a result of exercising the discretion not to file a case cannot exist. Cases not filed are not on the court’s docket or on the record with the county district clerk. 

“Judge Fletcher cannot use the authority of the court in an attempt to manage or politicize the administration of cases within the Wood County District Attorney’s office.”

The conclusion of the petition for writ of prohibition stated that Fletcher did not understand the separation of powers between the court and the district attorney, and that he was having the hearing “for purely political reasons.”

Albers clarified, “It is not the role of the district judge to be deciding and looking for who’s the weak link in the civil process. It’s way outside of his bounds. We felt compelled to protect the integrity of the system, and that is why we acted and pleaded with the court of appeals.” 

Albers explained that her office has a 100% indictment rate within 90 days if they get the case in a timely manner and are not waiting on additional evidence. There is an average of a 264-day delay in receiving lab results from the Dept. of Public Safety often causing the delay in indictment.

“I’ve chosen to wait to prosecute until I get a lab report because the prosecutor organization TDCAA recommends that you do not indict until you have a positive lab report. The danger is that people are indicted, sent to prison, and the drugs were negative. I’m not willing to take that risk and deprive somebody of their liberty,” said Albers.

Fletcher said that in hindsight, he probably should have asked for a meeting rather than a hearing, but the DA’s office could have personally responded rather than filing the petition.

“I’m not trying to get out of my lane. My concern is that people don’t languish in jail over there because we can’t get things to work. Do I think I have the authority to tell them what to do? No, I don’t, but I think it’s incumbent upon the elected officials of this county to make sure the process works right,” explained Fletcher.

He argued that setting the hearing for the first day of early voting was not a political move. “I don’t make decisions based on politics, for or against. That’s not my job. I make decisions based on facts and the law. I don’t care about the politics of it.”

Castloo met with citizens who had come to attend the cancelled hearing in the district court room.

“We were ready to state and present our case as to how we work. We were interested to hear how it’s mis-matching with the district attorney’s office, causing this log jam. If it’s our fault, I accept responsibility and will fix it. If it’s their fault, they should fix it. If it’s a combo of both, let’s fix it,” said Castloo.

He went on to say that he feels like the DA’s office moves cases around to make specific people in the judicial system look bad, and that he didn’t think Fletcher was out of line by calling the hearing.

“He was not overstepping because the log jam directly affects his cases. The log jam problem just came to a head when the last four were released on PR bonds.”

Recently, four defendants who were accused of drug trafficking were released on personal recognizance bonds for failure to indict within 90 days of arrest. 

The defendants were arrested on Oct. 3, 2019, but cases were not received from the sheriff’s office until Jan. 27, 2020, 116 days after arrest.

“Too many cases come to us from the sheriff’s office too late,” said Brandon Baade, assistant district attorney. 

Castloo said the cases were sent to the DA’s office at the first of December, but they changed the format they wanted. 

“Everything had been uploaded on Odyssey (an electronic filing system) but they wanted paper. We had to take a huge organized crime case and print it and deliver it back. They moved the goal line.”

Castloo said that in addition to uploading the case to Odyssey, they also delivered a one terabyte hard drive to the DA’s office. He said that the DA’s office and the sheriff’s office need to have better communication that is not hostile.

However, the district attorney’s office does not have a paperless system and is not notified when a case is uploaded to Odyssey, Albers said. Every Friday, law enforcement brings a hard copy of all cases. Additionally, the DA’s office holds a quarterly meeting with all county law enforcement agency heads to discuss what may or may not be working efficiently, but the sheriff’s office never attends, she said.

“The format has not changed, and the goal line has never changed,” said Baade. “Each defendant must have a separate report for a separate file and indictment.”

Hawkins Police Chief Manfred Gilow said he has never had a problem with cases getting indicted in a timely manner. On Fridays, he delivers hard copies and a hard drive to the DA’s office. He also attends the quarterly meetings and has found them to be beneficial.

Winnsboro Police Chief Andy Chester has been chief since 2012. He hand delivers his cases to the DA’s office once or twice a week. He also attends the quarterly meetings but says there are no representatives from the sheriff’s office at them. 

“Since Ange Albers took office, we’ve had zero problems with her office,” said Chester.

The justice system is a chain with each office having its own link. Law enforcement agencies make arrests based on the law. They prepare the cases, gather evidence, and deliver them to the district attorney’s office. 

If all the evidence is there and they have what they need, the district attorney’s office can present the case to the monthly grand jury for indictment. The grand jury gives the DA permission to move forward with prosecution and returns the indictment. 

Defendants charged with a misdemeanor must be indicted within 30 days, and those charged with a felony must be indicted within 90 days, or they are entitled to be released on a personal recognizance bond.

The vast majority of cases enter a plea bargain instead of going to trial. 

Once indicted, the case is given to the district court which sets trial schedules and dockets.

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