Delayed drug trial results from numerous challenges

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While politicians boast of full jails, and with bonds that seem set at non-reasonable rates for nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors, many inmates wonder when they’ll get their day in court.

The cells fill up with people who can’t afford to be bailed out, and some complain about losing their jobs. However, as District Judge Jeff Fletcher points out, many of the cases are for indigent people who don’t actually have a job, and about 99% of cases in Wood County are drug related. 

“Bonds are not meant to punish people, but to ensure they come to court,” states District Attorney Angela Albers.

Fletcher does not believe the bonds are set too high. He argues that the bonds are based on details of the case, and that he has to weigh the freedom of the criminal against protecting the community.

Fletcher also says he knows jail overcrowding is a burden. “I don’t want people spending months and months in jail.” However, there have been inmates in jail for over 200 days awaiting trial, and he used a 2018 organized crime bust as an example of why some inmates have had to wait longer than others. 

After the bust, the lab was delayed in getting the results back to the district attorney, and all of them simply can not be tried at once, nor is it possible to have a jury trial every week.

“If I only tried jail cases, people on bond would never get tried,” says Fletcher. “It’s a balancing act.”

He tries to prioritize the docket by the egregiousness of the cases and says the ultimate goal is to get people off the treadmill of crime and jail.

Albers says the jails are not full. She added that the female side was not built the same as the male side and needs to be updated to house more females. Beds are available on the male side but the female side is full. “They blame me for the jail overcrowding but I can’t try cases that get reset,” said Albers. 

Ashley Love’s case is one such trial that has been reset twice.  

On Dec. 31, 2018, Love was arrested after canine Juma alerted on drugs during a traffic stop. She was booked into Wood County Jail on Jan. 1, 2019, with several charges.

According to www.mywoodcounty.com judicial records, Love had a warrant for her arrest from Austin Parole Board that was dropped and the Mineola Police Department charged her with possession of a controlled substance which was dismissed.

Love was charged with a second degree felony for possession of a controlled substance of less than one gram, namely methamphetamine. 

She also had two prior felony offenses of a controlled substance of four or more grams. 

At the time of her indictment on March 27, 2019, her bond was set at $75,000 with conditions.

On Sept. 6, 2019, Love was transferred from Wood County jail to Franklin County jail where she has remained while awaiting trial.

Her first trial date was set for Jan. 27-29. Subpoenas were executed, out-of-town witnesses were prepared to come, and Albers, court appointed attorney Jeffrey Jackson, and canine handler Constable Kelly Smith were ready. 

On Jan. 15, the court reset trial date to Feb. 3-5. Fletcher stated that at the docket call, Jackson wanted to enter a plea and needed more time. 

Subpoenas were reissued for Feb. 3-5. However, on Jan. 27, the court again reset Love’s trial for March 23-25. 

Fletcher accepted responsibility saying that he is on the board for the Texas Center for the Judiciary and had to attend an emergency meeting that day. 

With every trial reset, time and money are lost on reissuing subpoenas, and out-of-town witnesses often can’t keep rescheduling. Thus, not only is tax-payer money wasted, the case is weakened by lack of witness availability.

This has led many people to ask, “Is this a political move?”

Fletcher says absolutely not. “I don’t make decisions based on politics at all.”

When choosing what cases are tried and when, Fletcher says they try to schedule things in a way that not all of the same kinds of cases are tried on the same day. 

In the code of criminal procedure, article 32A.01, trial priorities states, “…the trial of a criminal action shall be given preference over trials of civil cases, and the trial of a criminal action against a defendant who is detained in jail pending trial of the action shall be given preference over trials of other criminal actions…”

In layman’s terms, that means criminal cases such as DWI, drug possession, evading arrest, assault, and the like, should go to trial before cases of divorce, child custody, property damage, probate and other civil suits. Additionally, the cases of those currently in jail should get seen before cases of those who are not incarcerated.

Fletcher says that civil cases typically settle before court or during trial, and that he is wanting to have more criminal case trials.

In 2017, when Fletcher first took office as district judge, the court averaged four jury trials a year. Now they average 11 jury trials a year. The court also had 495 pending felony cases in 2017. That number is down to approximately 200.

“I’m proud of where we are. It’s a team effort,” said Fletcher.

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