Mentally Ill Death Row Inmate Scott Panetti Isn't Too Mentally Ill to Be Executed Wednesday

Categories: Courts

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Courtesy of Texas Defender Service
During Scott Panetti's 1995 capital murder trial, Kerr County District Judge Stephen Ables interrupted Panetti as he asked a witness about a belt buckle.

"Can you explain to me how the belt buckle is relevant to any issue in this case?" Ables asked the man in the purple cowboy suit, the man who mercilessly shotgunned his mother- and father-in-law to death three years before. Panetti explained the buckle's relevance like this: "It has to do with the difference between a rodeo hand and a buckaroo poet."

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High Court Grants New Trial Under "Junk Science" Law

Categories: Courts

Judge Cheryl Johnson: "'Bad science' and 'bad scientists' are inseparable."
For 15 years, Neal Hampton Robbins has been serving a life sentence for a murder that may not have occurred.

The Montgomery County man was convicted of killing his girlfriend's 17-month-old daughter, Tristen Rivet. Prosecutors' strongest evidence came from Harris County assistant medical examiner Patricia Moore, who testified that the manner of death was a homicide. Problem was, Moore reviewed the evidence in 2007 and changed her mind. She revised the manner of death to "undetermined." Of course, this had no impact on Robbins's life sentence -- until November 26, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled 5-4 to set aside the conviction and grant Robbins a new trial.

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Convicted Child Rapist to Get New Trial

Categories: Courts

Will Wilson's witnesses be enough this time around?
A Houston appellate court has granted a new trial for a convicted child rapist because he was blocked from presenting character witnesses at his 2012 trial.

In a Nov. 20 opinion, a majority panel of the First Court of Appeals ruled that Harris County District Judge Michael McSpadden should have allowed Gary Wayne Wilson''s friends and family to testify to his "moral and safe conduct around children."

Wilson was sentenced to life in prison for raping a six-year-old boy, but had also been charged with sexually assaulting another child -- that charge was dropped when Wilson was convicted in the first case. (However, court records indicate that Wilson was accused of "illegal sexual behavior" with three children).

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High Court: Warrantless DWI Blood Draws Are Unconstitutional

Categories: Courts

Be careful out there.
Just in time for the holiday weekend, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld a lower court's ruling that warrantless blood-drawing in DWI cases is unconstitutional.

In a split 5-4 decision Wednesday, the majority justices disagreed with prosecutors' argument that driving on Texas roads is a privilege -- not a right -- and that "the driving public" is presumed to have read the statute outlining no-refusal blood draws. (We must say, there are plenty of roads in Houston that don't really feel like a "privilege" to drive on.)

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Blood in the Streets: Harris County Suing Texas Farm Fresh Halal Over Alleged Violations

Photo by Dianna Wray
The Texas Farm Fresh Halal Meat

After more than two years of alleged violations, Harris County is suing Texas Farm Fresh Halal Meat.The Harris County Attorney's Office filed a lawsuit against Texas Farm Fresh Halal Meats last Friday requesting an injunction and civil penalties against Irfan Sheikh, the owner of the slaughterhouse. The suit alleges that Sheikh has discharged industrial waste into state waters, improperly stored animal parts and discharged contaminated storm waters without a permit. And according to the recorded violations, this has been going on for years.

It started with blood in the streets.

Well, bloody water, technically. On Dec. 31, 2012, someone called in to complain about a slaughter house, Texas Farm Fresh Halal Meats, located on 13221 Old Richmond Road out on the very edge of Harris County. Bloody water was filling up the parking lot and slopping into the streets, the caller reported, according to court documents.

A Harris County Pollution Control investigator went out to the scene and "observed blood and smelled a metallic odor" in a ditch in front of a property just east of Texas Farm Fresh Halal. There must have been about 500 gallons of blood, she figured, according to court records. She noticed a small pool of blood, just a few inches wide, next to the fence bordering the two properties, with a 25-foot trail connecting the small pool of blood to the larger amount in the ditch, according to court documents. And this was just the beginning.

The investigator continued following the gory trail, tracking pools of blood to the animal holding pens and then to the kill floor. She watched the blood flowing from the site at a rate of about a quarter of a gallon per minute. And then a violation was issued against Texas Farm Fresh Halal Meats. A couple days later the investigators came back and managers of the company said that the kill floor waste is set up to flow into a septic tank, but the septic tank was clogged, hence the blood in the streets.

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Worker Sues BP Over Handling of Algerian Terrorist Attack

Categories: Courts

Did BP endanger its workers?
An American worker who survived a 2013 terrorist attack at an Algerian BP plant is suing the oil giant in Harris County District Court for $100 million, saying BP did not disclose security threats to employees or increase security at the plant.

Steve Wysocki's suit is the third Houston complaint filed against BP over the attack, which killed 40 people at the plant in In Amenas, near the Libyan border.

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Embarrassing Emails Filed in Legal Battle Between Galveston County Commissioners and Judges

Categories: Courts, Whatever

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry sure knows how to spice up dull legal dispute over the hiring and firing of court staff. Mix in some backroom sniping, a bit of rumor-mongering, and just a hint of public sex and you've got the awkward mess that's now before the state's First Court of Appeals.

At issue in the case that's pitted Henry and Galveston County commissioners against local district court judges is Henry's July firing of Bonita "Bonnie" Quiroga as director of the county's Justice Administration Department, a title she'd held for more than a decade. The local judges, already peeved with commissioners for supposedly meddling with their budget, were furious about the firing. In an order blocking Quiroga's termination in September, Administrative Judge Lonnie Cox wrote, "The authority to appoint and terminate court personnel lies with the courts, not the county judge nor the commissioners court."

So the county appealed to the First Court last month, asking that Cox's order barring commissioners from firing or replacing Quiroga be overturned. And late last month Henry filed an affidavit in the case that includes a number of email exchanges that, as far as Henry's concerned, prove Quiroga reported to commissioners court and not local judges. (H/T to local attorney Greg Enos, who first noted the emails in his awesomely-titled newsletter "The Mongoose" earlier this month.) "The tone and content of Ms. Quiroga's communications to me about the judges are wholly inconsistent with a supervisory relationship between them," Henry wrote in the affidavit.

That's quite an understatement. Notwithstanding that Quiroga regularly wrote to Henry with all the tact and professionalism of a tween slumber party gossip circle, the emails Henry filed in court show that, at the very least, Quiroga had quite the strained, unhealthy relationship with the very judges who are now fighting to save her job.

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Scott Wizig's Shell Companies File for Bankruptcy in Baltimore

Categories: Courts

Seven shell companies managed by Houston-based absentee landlord Scott Wizig, who was ordered to repair 49 dilapidated properties he owns in Baltimore, filed for bankruptcy Tuesday in an apparent bid to sidestep the circuit court judge's order. (Wizig is the subject of this week's cover story).

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Pamela J. White had given Wizig 90 days from July 31 to fix up the vacant properties that she said suffered from "unsafe and uninhabitable conditions." But attorneys for the Community Law Center, who sued Wizig on behalf of six non-profit neighborhood groups, discovered at a court hearing today that seven of the nine LLCs named in the lawsuit sought last-minute bankruptcy protection.

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Former Constable Victor Trevino Avoids Jail Time, Sentenced to 10 Years Probation

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Longtime Harris County Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino won't face jail time but will remain a convicted felon.

Trevino, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to misapplication of fiduciary duty, a felony that could have put him behind bars for 10 years, will instead face 10 years probation, along with a $1,000 fine and 150 hours of community service, a judge ruled at his sentencing hearing Monday.

Prosecutors had claimed that Trevino siphoned cash from his well-known charity, Constable's Athletic Recreational and Education Events Inc. (CARE), to buy Lotto tickets and fund gambling trips to Louisiana casinos. Early this year, the Harris County DA's Office had offered Trevino what, to the rest of us regular non-elected folk, seemed like the deal of a lifetime: avoid four felony indictments by simply resigning and copping to the equivalent of a traffic ticket (a class C misdemeanor). Trevino, for whatever reason, rejected the deal, but then pleaded guilty to one felony count early this month after only one day of trial.

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Two Companies Settle Over San Jacinto River Waste Pits, Jury Clears Lone Holdout of Liability

Image by Andrew Nilsen
Harris County's years-long legal battle to wring billions of dollars out of companies the county says are responsible for the San Jacinto River's toxic legacy ended with whimper Thursday. Following a four-week trial, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan's office settled with two of three defendants just as the case was set to go to closing arguments. The two companies agreed to pay $29.2 million, which, after attorneys fees and expenses, amounts to just $20 million that will be split between the state and county -- a far cry from the $3.7 billion the county initially sought in its lawsuit.

Mix in the fact that after the settlement was reached a jury cleared the lone holdout company of any responsibility, and it's hard to chalk this up as a clear win for the county in its bold fight to make companies pay fouling the San Jacinto River.

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