Texas prosecutor drops charges after migrants claim they were marched to private property, then arrested for trespassing

Charges have been dropped against 11 migrants arrested under Gov. Greg Abbott's border security initiative after the men told attorneys they were marched for about 20 minutes to a fenced ranch by law enforcement, then arrested for trespassing.

Without video evidence or a written report of the August incident from U.S. Border Patrol, Val Verde County Attorney David Martinez dismissed the trespassing charges Monday after the men had spent nearly two months in state prison.

The men had fled on foot after a highway traffic stop by Border Patrol agents, according to an arrest affidavit. The migrants later told attorneys that when found near the highway, officers made the migrants walk for about 20 minutes and climb, hands zip-tied, over a nearly 10-foot fence onto a ranch before they were arrested for trespassing by state troopers.

The migrants also said officers cut the Val Verde County landowner's fence so a police dog could get onto the ranch property, a defense attorney and prosecutor told The Texas Tribune.

A Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson said the migrants' claims were inaccurate, stating that the fleeing men jumped a fence onto private property. A Border Patrol spokesperson said any suggestion that officers led migrants to private property so they could be arrested for trespassing is "absolutely false."

But the muddled situation is just one instance in which Martinez, a Democrat elected to prosecute misdemeanor cases, said he felt compelled to drop charges because of uncertainty over whether DPS arrests pass legal muster. In September, a Venezuelan man crossed the Rio Grande near Del Rio with a married couple and walked up to an open gate attended by state troopers, Martinez said after his office reviewed body camera footage of the encounter. The officers moved aside to let the migrants walk through and then arrested the single man for trespassing. The couple was referred to Border Patrol.

"The troopers could have easily said, 'Hey, this is private property, you can't come on.' But they moved out of the way seemingly as an invitation," Martinez said.

Martinez rejected the case Monday. DPS declined to comment on the arrest.

The cases are examples of the more than 100 trespassing arrests under Abbott's "catch and jail" border security directive that Martinez has dismissed or rejected. The prosecutor has tossed 123 of 231 trespassing cases brought before him by DPS since July, Martinez said at a legislative hearing Monday. So far under his prosecution, 58 men have pleaded guilty to trespassing and been sentenced to 15 days in lockup.

Typically, men whose cases are dropped are released to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for immigration processing in Del Rio. Others who are convicted of trespassing are taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, having already served their 15-day state sentences. In both situations, federal authorities can deport the men or release them into the United States pending asylum hearings.

Since Abbott ordered state police to begin arresting migrants suspected of having crossed the border illegally for the state crime of trespassing on private property, DPS has arrested about 1,300 migrants on the charge, the agency director reported. The men, picked up almost exclusively in Val Verde and Kinney counties, are jailed in state prisons retooled as immigration jails.

The quickly assembled system of arrests, detentions and releases of migrants has been plagued by missteps since its onset, including families being improperly separated, violations of due process, and a lack of coordination among federal, state and local officials.

In a legislative hearing called out of concern over legal blunders in Abbott's arrest initiative, DPS Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers Monday that the people his officers arrest for criminal trespassing are trying to avoid law enforcement, not seek asylum.

"When we talk about criminal trespass, it's that they're paying coyotes, they're paying cartel operatives, smugglers to move around and through to avoid being detected," McCraw said.

In Kinney County, a rural, conservative region next door to Val Verde, many of the hundreds of migrants jailed for allegedly trespassing are arrested at a remote depot as they arrive on train cars from the border.

In Val Verde County, home to Del Rio, however, Martinez said the vast majority of the cases he tosses out are those in which he learns that the arrested migrants had credible asylum claims and were looking for law enforcement to turn themselves in. He has said he began dropping such cases after he heard McCraw tell lawmakers in August that police aren't looking to arrest asylum-seekers, but are instead targeting dangerous criminals.

Other times, Martinez has thrown out trespassing charges for insufficient evidence or questionable circumstances surrounding the arrests, like the cases he tossed Monday. A defense attorney told lawmakers Monday that the incidents are not unique.

"We have heard reports and several of our clients have recounted that they are actually called over onto the river onto private property," said Kristin Etter, whose organization, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, represents hundreds of the arrested migrants.

In the case of the 11 men who said they were escorted to another property and made to climb the fence onto a ranch, Martinez said he didn't have a report from Border Patrol officers, who reportedly initiated the stop and apprehended the men after they fled. Without it, he wasn't sure if the property where the men were first apprehended was the one listed in the report provided by DPS. If the cases moved forward in court, he said, DPS would be unable to testify where the men were first detained.

"I did not have any way to prove where these people were apprehended because we did not have a supplemental report from Border Patrol, so there was a lack of evidence," Martinez said.

According to a DPS arrest affidavit, the men fled Border Patrol officers during an August traffic stop and jumped a fence onto a local ranch whose owner previously agreed state police could arrest people for trespassing on the property. At least one of the men was found by a Border Patrol dog handler, the affidavit said, and DPS responded to the chase and arrested the men.

Border Patrol reported Tuesday that after more than a dozen men fled on foot from a highway traffic stop into private property, federal agents took custody of the driver and two other people, while DPS arrested the other 11 men.

Martinez and Etter, who represents the men, said the migrants told them the fleeing men had hopped over a small fence bordering the highway, but, when found, were zip-tied and escorted by law enforcement to another property and made to climb a fence. Martinez said he was told that Border Patrol led the men onto the other property, and DPS requested that the men be brought back over the fence again where they were arrested.

Etter said it was unclear if the land the men were originally found on was public land.

With their cases dismissed, the men were expected to be sent back to Val Verde County and handed over to CBP officials for processing, Etter said Tuesday. The Venezuelan man whose case was rejected by Martinez on Monday is also expected to be transferred to CBP.

A Texas prisoner wants his pastor to place his hands on him as he’s executed Wednesday. The state won’t allow it.

On Wednesday, Texas plans to execute John Ramirez for the 2004 murder and robbery of a convenience store clerk in Corpus Christi. The prisoner's last request to the state has been to let his pastor hold on to him as he dies.

It's a request the Texas prison system has rejected. Ramirez has argued the decision violates his religious rights, but the courts have so far sided with the state.

"[The Texas Department of Criminal Justice] has a compelling interest in maintaining an orderly, safe, and effective process when carrying out an irrevocable, and emotionally charged, procedure," U.S. District Judge David Hittner ruled last week.

The judge added that TDCJ "will accommodate Ramirez's religious beliefs by giving Ramirez access to his pastor on the day of execution and allowing him to stand nearby during the execution."

Ramirez, 37, was convicted of capital murder in 2008 and sentenced to die for the stabbing death of Pablo Castro. In his ruling last week, Hittner emphasized that Ramirez had stabbed Castro 29 times during a robbery spree to get drug money with two women. Castro had $1.25 on him.

Ramirez has faced execution twice before in 2017 and 2020. Both times, his executions were canceled — due to an attorney swap and the coronavirus, respectively. Castro's son, Aaron, told KRIS 6 News in Corpus Christi recently that the continued delays were unnecessary and it was Ramirez's "time to go."

"Honestly, if he wants a priest to bless him before he's sent off, by all means, go ahead. That doesn't affect me one bit," Aaron Castro, who was 14 when his father was murdered, said to KRIS. "What affects me is why this process continues to get delayed time and time again."

When Ramirez's execution was again set earlier this year, he focused his legal battle on having his pastor near him as he dies. TDCJ's current execution protocol allows for prisoners' spiritual advisers to be in the death chamber, but standing in the corner "due to security concerns," according to an email from the agency's general counsel included in the court record.

"I understand that I will be able to stand in the same room with John during his execution, but I will not be able to physically touch him," Dana Moore, the pastor at Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, wrote in an affidavit filed in court last month. "I need to be in physical contact with John Ramirez during the most stressful and difficult time of his life in order to give him comfort."

For years, chaplains employed by TDCJ would often be in the room during executions, praying and resting a hand on the prisoner's leg. But the agency only had Christian and Muslim advisers on staff.

In 2019, when a Buddhist prisoner was told his adviser would not be allowed in the room with him as he was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital, he argued it was religious discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, halting the March 2019 execution and setting into motion a yearslong back-and-forth over Texas' execution protocols.

Days later, TDCJ opted to even the playing field by banning chaplains of any religion inside the death chamber, including its own staff. Spiritual advisers could instead stand in the small adjacent rooms where friends and family of the murder victims and prisoners, as well as media, gather.

Then, in June 2020, the nation's high court stopped another Texas execution because of the state's new policy on chaplains. The condemned man argued it violated his religious freedoms, and the justices ordered lower courts to determine "whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution."

This April, TDCJ again revised its execution policy — allowing those on death row to have their personal religious advisers in the room with them as they are executed, provided the advisers first are verified, pass a background check and complete a state orientation. But unlike the TDCJ chaplains, spiritual advisers from outside the agency are not allowed to touch the prisoners as they die.

Ramirez's attorney, Seth Kretzer, likened the policy to a "spiritual 'gag order'" in court filings. The Texas Attorney General's Office countered that the current policy "accommodates [Ramirez's] religious needs by allowing his pastor to visit and pray out loud with him for up to two hours immediately prior to his execution."

The state also argued that allowing Ramirez access to rituals for his beliefs would open the door for other religions as well.

"Where a Protestant may request his pastor's hands upon him as he passes, a Muslim may prefer for his body to be washed and shrouded immediately upon his passing, and a Buddhist, that his body be untouched for seven days after his death," Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Wren Morris wrote in a court filing last month.

Kretzer responded that such acts didn't seem "unduly burdensome."

"There seems to be a thread of religious hostility throughout the State's shifting positions," he said in his court filing.

The federal district court and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals have both declined to halt Ramirez's execution over the issue. On Tuesday afternoon, Kretzer filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Without court intervention, Ramirez's execution is scheduled to begin after 6 p.m. Wednesday in Huntsville. Aside from Ramirez's pastor, a TDCJ spokesperson said Tuesday afternoon he did not yet know if there were any other witnesses expected for either Ramirez or Castro.

Texas has executed two other men so far this year, the only state to do so in 2021, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The federal government executed three men in January, before President Joe Biden took office. Another six men are set to be executed in Texas this year, with another man's death scheduled for March.

Gov. Greg Abbott's border security initiative rolls out with confusion, missteps and a whole lot of state troopers in Val Verde County

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

DEL RIO — Nerio stepped out of the Rio Grande with his wife last week, put his feet on the sandy Texas ground and quickly found himself in handcuffs.

He should not have been arrested. But law enforcement on the Texas border has become a blur of overlapping agencies as Gov. Greg Abbott floods the region with state troopers and Texas National Guard personnel in an unprecedented state effort to arrest migrants after they enter the country illegally.

So the 61-year-old Venezuelan man who came seeking asylum found himself on a private dirt road in the border town of Del Rio, kissing his wife goodbye and walking blank-faced to the awaiting SUV of a state trooper. His wife sobbed quietly, wiping away tears with trembling fingers flecked with purple nail polish.

Nerio was one of the first to be arrested under Abbott's new border security initiative meant to jail migrants on state criminal charges, like trespassing. Instead of approaching the wrought-iron gates where county officials said a large majority of migrants turn themselves in to federal authorities, the couple had entered the country onto a private company's stretch of land.

As the trooper's SUV took off down the dusty road, Nerio was presumably off to be booked at a just-erected processing tent outside the local jail, have bail set over Zoom by a retired judge from elsewhere in the state, then sent more than 100 miles away to a Texas prison recently converted into a jail for migrants. Left behind, his wife would be taken to the federal immigration processing center, to begin deportation or asylum proceedings.

But the hundreds of Texas Department of Public Safety officers deployed to the region are only supposed to arrest unaccompanied men for trespassing if they cross the Texas-Mexico border onto private property, the Val Verde County sheriff said. Families and children are supposed to be handed over to U.S. Border Patrol agents.

"DPS should not have separated the husband and wife. That's a family unit," Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez said, minutes after witnessing the arrest.

TKTK watches as her husband is arrested by a Texas Department of Public Safety official near the U.S. and Mexico border in D…A Venezuelan migrant watches as her husband is arrested by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper in Del Rio last week. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

A U.S. Border Patrol agent, who declined to answer questions, also appeared visibly confused by the arrest. When he realized the crying woman was Nerio's wife, he furrowed his brow and approached the trooper to get his contact information. As she fretted over her husband's hypertension when the trooper's SUV pulled away, the agent told her not to worry.

"No se preocupe, señora," he said, assuring her it would be okay. "Todo va a estar bien."

(The Texas Tribune is not publishing Nerio's last name because reporters witnessed the arrest but could not speak to him.)

In a statement Thursday, DPS did not answer questions about Nerio's arrest but said the agency is committed to securing the border under Abbott's direction. Aside from arrests, the agency said it has seized thousands of pounds of drugs and hundreds of guns since Abbott's Operation Lone Star kicked off in March.

"While the department does not discuss operational specifics, we continue to monitor the situation as it unfolds in order to make real-time decisions and will adjust operations as necessary," the statement read.

Nerio's arrest underlines the ongoing chaos and confusion as Abbott's rapidly assembled border security operation seeks to combat a surge of migrants at the state's southern border, many fleeing countries torn by some combination of violence, political turmoil and economic crisis.

Though DPS officers have increasingly been in the region for months, largely targeting human and drug trafficking, troopers have now turned their attention to jailing migrants on low-level state offenses. The number of arrests could swell into the thousands, and local officials are scrambling for resources while immigration rights activists are raising questions about the practice's constitutionality.

"Everything that's happened is happening so fast, it's almost like we're learning on the run so to speak," said Val Verde County Attorney David Martinez, who as a misdemeanor prosecutor is handling the cases of those DPS arrests in his county. "This hasn't happened in this area before, and I don't know that it's happened anywhere really before."

Last week, state troopers began arresting migrants in Del Rio for allegedly trespassing on private property — a misdemeanor that could lead to up to a year in jail because Abbott has declared the rise in immigration a disaster. As of Thursday, about 60 men had been arrested by DPS for allegedly trespassing, the sheriff said. The county attorney said most were from Venezuela, with others from Mexico and Cuba.

On Thursday, 55 migrants were detained in the converted Briscoe state prison in Dilley, a small town between San Antonio and Laredo, according to a prison spokesperson.

Nerio did not end up being among them. After the sheriff happened to drive onto the scene of the arrest with Tribune journalists in tow, he called the DPS regional director who, within minutes, ordered the trooper to reunite Nerio with his wife at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center, the sheriff said. In a phone call Thursday, Nerio's wife said after days of sleeping on the ground in federal custody, she and her husband were released with an asylum hearing court date and have since reunited with their daughter in Oklahoma.

But the sheriff isn't always on site, and he said state troopers, cycled into the region for two-week stints, often aren't clear on what they're supposed to be doing.

"Situations like that happen all the time," Joe Frank Martinez said Friday.

Border politics

With an election year approaching, Abbott has focused heavily on border security efforts in recent months. Facing potentially competitive primary opponents in 2022, the governor has taken up some priorities of former President Donald Trump, including shifting money from the prison budget to invest in a border wall.

And he has repeatedly blamed the surge of migrants crossing into Texas on President Joe Biden's "dangerous and reckless open border policies," spokesperson Renae Eze said.

In the Del Rio region alone, federal immigration authorities apprehended nearly 150,000 migrants between October and June, most from Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela and Haiti. That's up from about 40,000 in the entire year prior.

A group of migrants wait to turn themselves over to National Guard and Customs and Border Patrol officials at the U.S. and M…A group of migrants wait to turn themselves over to National Guard and Customs and Border Patrol officials at the U.S. and Mexico border in Del Rio on July 22, 2021. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Typically, migrants apprehended crossing the border are turned over to federal immigration authorities if they aren't suspected of more serious crimes. Federal officials either deport them or let them stay in the country if they have pending asylum claims. A vast majority in Del Rio, county officials said, cross the border and immediately turn themselves in so they can apply for asylum, a request protected under U.S. law.

But county officials said some evade detection by crossing away from major entry points, often traversing private land and frightening landowners.

Abbott's intent is to begin locking up as many of those migrants as possible.

"We have a new program contrary to the Biden plan to catch & release," Abbott said on Twitter Monday. "The Texas plan is to catch & to jail."

In border communities under the governor's border disaster declaration, Texas National Guard troops walk the fence lines with assault rifles strapped to their chests, and DPS SUVs are seen nearly every mile on local highways and filling hotel parking lots.

Numerous Texas Department of Public Safety vehicles are parked at a Best Western hotel in Del Rio on July 23, 2021.Texas Department of Public Safety officers near the U.S. and Mexico border in Del Rio on July 22, 2021.Texas DPS troopers are a constant presence in Val Verde County. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez, Jr. / The Texas Tribune

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas has raised constitutional concerns with the governor's plan, arguing the arrests could interfere with people's right to seek asylum in the United States. DPS did not answer a written question asking if troopers would refer migrants to Border Patrol if they requested asylum.

"It seems like what DPS is trying to do is funnel people to ICE detention, but … ICE detention space is limited," said Kate Huddleston, a lawyer with the ACLU of Texas. "This is essentially an end run around federal immigration policy."

The most populated and largely Democratic border counties, like El Paso and those in the Rio Grande Valley, have refused the governor's request to send more law enforcement to their regions. Local officials have argued there is no increase in criminal activity in their counties that justifies a disaster declaration and law enforcement surge.

In Val Verde County, however, officials acknowledge that they're overwhelmed by the recent swell of migrants. It's no longer unusual for hundreds of people a day from all over the world to approach the previously low-trafficked border gates in Del Rio to request asylum. Unlike in the Rio Grande Valley, the sheriff said his county is not prepared for many migrants and lacks shelter and transportation for them.

"We need more of everything," he said, including state law enforcement resources.

Joe Frank Martinez is a Democrat. Val Verde flipped from a blue county in the 2020 election when it favored Trump for president.

Uncharted territory

Following Abbott's evolving orders on border security — including a new one this week for the Texas National Guard to also make trespassing arrests, state and county officials have raced to prepare what is largely a new Texas criminal justice system for immigrants. But the process is filled with unknowns.

In June, after Abbott forewarned of widespread arrests of migrants by the state police force, state agencies and local officials rushed to find space and staff to detain the arrested migrants, judges to process them and attorneys to prosecute and defend them. The new system also has the state and counties reaching deep into their pockets to pay for all the extra resources demanded.

Even still, the state criminal justice system likely won't hold most of the arrested migrants for long.

Sitting behind a desk crowded with papers and folders in a cramped annex outside the county courthouse last week, County Attorney David Martinez said he expects to offer plea bargains of time served to most of the defendants facing trespassing charges. That means the migrants — if they plead guilty — would be released from the state system about 10 days after their arrest, he said.

It would then be up to federal authorities to decide if they want to take custody of the migrants.

A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not specify whether the detainees would be priorities for their agency, but the county attorney said he believed ICE had asked to be notified before the release of all those arrested. In ICE custody, many would likely be quickly deported.

Regardless of how long they're jailed, the operation demands plenty of resources.

This month, the state quickly erected a tent processing facility just outside the Val Verde County jail where the migrants now being arrested by DPS are booked as inmates and have their first appearance before a judge.

A temporary migrant processing facility next to the Val Verde Sheriff's Office in Del Rio on July 23, 2021.A temporary processing facility for arrested migrants next to the Val Verde Sheriff's Office in Del Rio on July 23, 2021. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Selected from a rotating list of 15 retired judges pegged by the Texas Supreme Court for Val Verde County arrests under Abbott's border initiative, the judges set bail through Zoom. As of Thursday, none of the defendants could afford to post bail and all qualified as indigent, the county attorney said. Then the migrants await transportation to the Briscoe state prison, which has been converted into a state-run jail.

At the same time, the county attorney looks over the DPS arrest documents and files the criminal charges, as all arrests have so far been for criminal trespassing, the sheriff said Thursday.

"Once Texas laws are being violated, unfortunately I can't turn the other way," David Martinez said. "I'm not inquiring when I get a file, 'Hey, is this guy a non U.S. citizen?' My question is, does … this alleged crime meet the elements of a criminal trespass case? And if it does, it does."

But if state police ramp up to 200 arrests a day, a possibility for which the state Office of Court Administration is preparing, the county attorney, the county clerk and the lone misdemeanor judge will likely be overwhelmed and require outside help. Already, the local defense bar is struggling.

In an emergency meeting Monday, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, which is funded by the state primarily from court fees, moved to spend more than $475,000 to provide more lawyers and legal services to represent the new defendants in Briscoe over the next few weeks. If arrests ramp up and continue, the commission estimates indigent defense costs will total about $30 million a year.

"We genuinely don't know that we can get through the next three to four weeks of cases," said Geoff Burkhart, the commission's executive director, in the meeting.

If no funding comes from the state, the brunt may fall on the county taxpayers.

"Val Verde County and the other counties are going to be the ones that are on the hook for paying for lawyers," Sharon Keller, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' presiding judge, said in the TIDC meeting.

At the jail, Joe Frank Martinez has already been keeping a tab. He began seeing his jail population skyrocket with DPS arrests even before the new operation began to target criminal trespassing and process migrants separately, he said. He hopes the state will reimburse the nearly $190,000 that the county has had to pay for the overbooked jail since the governor's Operation Lone Star was initiated in March.

"That's something that we're going to be in discussions with with the governor's office," the sheriff said. "It wasn't promised."

When asked about the jail costs, Eze with Abbott's office said the jail costs were high "because of the influx of migrants coming through, not because of the operation itself."

A portion of the newly-erected border fence that is being constructed by the state on private property in Del Rio on July 23…A portion of newly-erected fence that is being constructed and paid for by the state on private property in Del Rio. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

The state has, however, paid for and is installing more than a mile of barbed wire fence on a private company's riverside property in Del Rio, according to the land owner. The fence will allow DPS to more easily arrest migrants for criminal trespassing and mischief, since they will have to cross or cut through the fence.

To convict someone of criminal trespassing in Texas, the person must have had notice they were on private property. State statute says a fence alone constitutes that notice. And damaging the fence would also be a misdemeanor criminal mischief offense.

Most of the DPS criminal trespassing arrests since last week, including Nerio's, occurred on that property, the county attorney said.

"I told them, 'What you're going to do there is not going to last,'" the property owner, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation by Mexican cartels, said he told a state official about his new fence. "He said, 'That's what we want. We want them to cut through it, and then we can arrest them.'"

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. contributed to this report.

Join us Sept. 20-25 at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Tickets are on sale now for this multi-day celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day's news, curated by The Texas Tribune's award-winning journalists. Learn more.

Democrats warn of mass detentions as Texas Republicans advance bail bills

Days into a short legislative session, Texas lawmakers are moving quickly to pass a GOP priority bill that would make it harder for some people who have been arrested but not convicted to bond out of jail without putting up cash.

Legislators in the House and Senate filed matching bills to change state bail practices earlier this week, echoing legislation that failed to pass in the regular session. On Saturday, committees in both chambers approved the bills and sent them to the full chambers after nearly three hours of debate in the Senate and nine hours in the House.

The sweeping bail legislation would change how and if people can be released from jail before their criminal cases are resolved, while they are still legally presumed innocent. The bill would ban the release of those accused of violent crimes unless they had enough cash, as well as restrict charitable groups' ability to pay to get people out of jail.

While the two Democrats on the Senate committee supported Senate Bill 6, House Democrats down the hall spoke out strongly against the identical House Bill 2, arguing it would lead to mass detention disproportionately affecting people of color, and it would create an overreliance on money in Texas' pretrial system that is unfair to people who are poor. Both chambers of the Texas Legislature have a Republican majority.

During the hearings, the Republican bill authors, crime victims and their supporters argued new bail laws are needed to keep dangerous people behind bars before their trials, pointing to rising crime rates and numerous examples of defendants accused of violent crimes having been released from jail on bond and then accused of new crimes.

Bill supporters have also fought against the increase in courts releasing defendants on personal bonds, which don't require them to have cash to get out of jail but can include restrictions like GPS ankle monitoring or routine drug testing.

"SB 6 is legislation which is really a direct response to the increase in violent and habitual offenders being released on personal bonds along with low-cash bonds," State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican and author of the bill said Saturday. "We have failed our communities, we have failed our citizens, definitely we have failed the victims, and it's time to do something about it."

House Democrats and civil rights advocates opposing the legislation took aim at the bills' continued reliance on cash bail, noting that it primarily penalizes low-income people.

"What does ability to post a cash bond, how does that make a community safe?" questioned state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who leads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. "The bill pushes more people into the cash bail system by precluding their ability to have a personal bond in a laundry list of situations."

In Texas, almost everyone who is arrested has a constitutional right to be released on bail. The current exceptions are capital murder defendants or people accused of certain repeat felonies or bail violations.

After someone is accused of a crime and arrested, courts set bail by deciding what restrictions are needed to release the person before their criminal case is resolved. The bail release system has two key goals: protecting public safety and ensuring defendants come back for their court dates.

Often in Texas, like many states, the possibility of being released while awaiting trial comes down to a dollar amount. If the defendant can post an assigned cash bail amount, or pay a nonrefundable percentage to a private bail bonds company, then they can usually walk free.

House Democrats also criticized the provision limiting charitable groups' ability to post bond for criminal defendants. Such organizations became popular after they bailed out protesters arrested during the unrest after a police officer murdered George Floyd. HB 2 and SB 6 would prevent the groups from posting bond for people accused — or ever previously convicted — of a violent crime. Any group could still post bail for up to three people every six months, and religious organizations would be exempt from the restriction.

In the Senate, Huffman dismissed criticism that the measure would lead to mass detention, saying it put in place a process for defendants to say they could not afford their bond and instructed judges to use the least restrictive bail conditions. But Democrats and civil rights advocates said the lengthy form arrestees would need to fill out in jail to declare indigency is overly burdensome, requiring information on tax expenses, noncash assets and debts under penalty of perjury.

"SB 6 is trying very hard to keep the most serious violent offenders away from our communities until they can have their trial," Huffman said at the hearing. "On the other hand, it is very cognizant of low-level, low-risk offenders, that there needs to be the least restrictive means used to ensure their appearance in court."

While portions of the bills have drawn sharp division, others are less controversial. For example, the bills would require more judicial training on bail setting and provide more information to court officers who are setting bail, like a defendant's criminal history.

Still, Democrats and civil rights advocates say that the GOP bail legislation is a move in the wrong direction and would exacerbate systemic racism in the Texas criminal justice system, where Black men are disproportionately arrested and imprisoned.

"We're going to double down on those errors of the past," Moody said. "We have done an immense amount of work in this body to try to turn the corner on those things, to try to promote liberty, to look at restorative justice … This is going to take us backwards."

For years, civil rights groups and federal courts nationwide and in Texas have scrutinized bail systems' reliance on cash. In Harris and Dallas counties, federal courts ordered changes to bail practices ruled unconstitutional because they led to the systematic detention of people who haven't been convicted of a crime simply because they were poor.

In an ongoing federal lawsuit in Houston, civil rights attorneys pointed to the case of Preston Chaney, a 64-year-old man who caught the coronavirus in the Harris County jail and died. He'd been kept in jail for months, accused of stealing lawn equipment and meat from a garage. If he'd been able to pay about $100, he could have walked out of jail shortly after his arrest.

But Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans say bail changes are urgently needed instead to keep more defendants behind bars, citing examples of violent crimes committed by those who were out of jail on bond. Abbott began to call for bail changes after Texas state trooper Damon Allen was killed during a 2017 traffic stop. The suspect was out of jail on a $15,000 bond at the time, and the court official who set his bail later said he would have set the dollar amount higher if he had known the man had previously been accused of assaulting a Smith County deputy.

Harris County Republicans have also pointed to violent crimes allegedly committed by those out on bond, with some defendants having posted a high bail amount to be released and others being released on personal bonds. At the Capitol, people whose loved ones were killed questioned how the suspect could have been released on bond.

That included Melanie Infinger, whose 20-year-old pregnant daughter, Caitlynne, was killed in 2019, allegedly by her estranged husband. He had been released on a personal bond after being accused of assaulting Caitlynne, according to court records. He had been out on bond for an intoxicated driving charge when the assault occurred.

"[Caitlynne] reassured me that there was no way that he was going to get out because … he's facing a felony and multiple misdemeanors," Infinger said Saturday before lawmakers.. "Harris County, the very system that promised to protect my daughter, was responsible for her murder."

HB 2 and SB 6 are similar, but not identical, to the final version of the bail bill that failed to pass earlier this year after House Democrats walked out of the chamber to kill a GOP voting measure. After the regular legislative session ended in May, Abbott vowed to bring lawmakers back to the state Capitol for a special session to pass bail and voting legislation.

Along with the priority bail bills, the two committees also approved related resolutions to allow courts to more often deny the release from jail outright in some violent cases. If passed, the resolutions would amend the Texas Constitution if approved by voters in November. But measures to change the Constitution must pass with a two-thirds majority — which requires Democrats to join Republicans on the bill.

Dozens who died in Texas prisons during the pandemic had been granted parole: report

"Dozens who died in Texas prisons during the pandemic had been granted parole, new report shows" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Last year, as the coronavirus killed hundreds inside Texas lockups and sickened tens of thousands more, prisoner rights advocates unsuccessfully pleaded for state officials to more quickly release the thousands of people in prison who had already been approved for parole.

Now, a new report shows delays in release have been deadly.

In the first year of the pandemic, 18 people who had already been granted parole died with COVID-19 before they could walk out of prison, according to a report released Thursday from the University of Texas at Austin's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. At least another two dozen parole grantees died in prison from reasons unrelated to the coronavirus in the same period, largely due to chronic health issues.

“While COVID has dramatically exacerbated this problem, the data also tells us that this phenomenon is not unique to the pandemic era," the report stated.

At least 26 people died in prison in 2019 after having been granted parole, according to the report.

In April, about 10,800 people held in Texas prisons had already been approved for parole, according to data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, accounting for 9% of the state prison population. More than a quarter of them had been granted parole at least six months earlier, and nearly 900 people had been waiting for more than a year.

The large number of parole grantees in prison is not unusual. At any given time, thousands of people are held in Texas prisons despite having a parole approval in their hands. That's in part because the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles requires most prisoners to first undergo additional educational or rehabilitative programming before their parole release, which can last from three to 18 months.

Some of the programs are specific to the person's conviction, like addiction and sex offender treatment programs. But many prisoners are assigned to complete a more generic life-skills program that lasts three months. In 2019, less than a quarter of those granted parole were approved for release without delay.

During the pandemic, those classes — and the parolees' releases — were often pushed back. Before March 2020, a person granted parole remained in prison an average of three to four months before being released, according to the report. That average increased to six months in the pandemic, with a typical delay ranging from five to 11 months. Eleven people who died in prison during the pandemic had been approved for parole more than a year earlier, the report found.

One explanation for the delay is that those who required programming that wasn't available at their prisons had to wait months while transfers among units were stopped to limit the virus' spread. And units confirmed to have active infections were locked down, sometimes for a month or more, restricting activity within and halting movement in and out of them. Rehabilitative programming shifted from in-person interactions in a classroom setting to filling out paper packets in the prisoner's dorm or cell.

The threat of the coronavirus and the limited programming inside prompted family members and prisoner advocates to call for parolees to complete any necessary programming outside of prison walls after release. But the parole board said repeatedly it would not change its parole review process during the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott, who oversees the board, has maintained a strong message against increased release from lockups, stating in March 2020 that “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution" to the virus' threat inside prisons and jails.

For those who had been approved for release on parole, the UT Austin report suggested free-world programming, noting it is already often available in the community for people sentenced to probation. The report also recommended that TDCJ provide prisoners any necessary rehabilitative programming earlier in their sentences, so as not to postpone release once parole has been granted. Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School and an author of the report, said such a change would require a significant shift in practices within the parole board and TDCJ.

“There's a concept that every expert will tell you, which is that reentry starts on the day of admission to prison," she said. “To adhere to that concept, it makes sense to offer that programming at the start of someone's time that they're incarcerated."

In the Legislature, the Texas House passed a bill this year to require that any necessary prerelease programs be identified by the parole board and made available to prisoners by TDCJ before they become eligible for parole. The bill died, however, after never moving in the Senate.

A spokesperson for the parole board did not respond to questions Tuesday. TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel said the agency provides programming that is mandated by the parole board, and acknowledged the pandemic “absolutely" presented challenges to parole releases. He added that the state has a low rate of people released from prison being reincarcerated within three years.

“The parole system is built to give inmates the highest possible chance to succeed in their reintegration into society," he said. “And the way our parole system works and has been working in Texas is a success story."

Aside from COVID-19, most deaths of those granted parole were due to chronic health conditions, according to the UT report. It says the state pays an estimated $744,722 each day the nearly 10,800 prisoners who were approved for parole in April stay locked up. And costs are much higher for those with chronic medical conditions, as an aging prison population continues to increase prison health care costs. The report recommends immediately releasing those granted parole who are chronically ill.

“It's a problem that is not only a tremendous human toll, but it's got an enormous cost attached to it," Deitch said.

For Kambri Crews, any of the recommended changes in the report could have let her see her father in person before he died in prison custody in July instead of saying goodbye on a hard-fought FaceTime call. Theodore “Cigo" Crews, 73, died in a prison hospital after a late cancer diagnosis, 30 days after he'd been granted parole. He had served 18 years of a 20-year aggravated assault sentence.

“We went through a whole roller coaster of emotions," Kambri Crews said, between learning he was approved for parole and his death. “From elation and fear because of the COVID concerns, and also this crushing feeling of helplessness in knowing that we were going to be caught in the apathetic bureaucracy."

Her father was first required to take a drug and alcohol program, she said, but she didn't understand why he couldn't have taken classes any other time in his nearly two decades behind bars, or take them outside with her had he been released.

“He's a prime example of someone who needed therapy and [Alcoholics Anonymous] and domestic violence training before he got released," she acknowledged. “But he'd been in prison for 18 years, so what was that time for?"

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/17/texas-prisons-parole-coronavirus/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas investigating allegations that unaccompanied migrant children are being abused, sexually assaulted in San Antonio

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday called for the federal government to close a San Antonio facility housing unaccompanied migrant children after he became aware of allegations of sexual assault.

"In short, this facility is a health and safety nightmare," Abbott said at a press conference outside the Freeman Coliseum, which is reportedly housing more than 1,300 teens who recently crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without a parent or guardian.

The announcement came as Texas and the federal government are locked in battle over a recent increase in the number of migrants crossing the state's southern border.

Abbott said complaints about sexual assault were reported early Wednesday to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services as well as the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The governor did not know the identities of those who alleged assault, nor did he provide many details. He said he was concerned more than one child may have been assaulted. He also said that DPS will investigate the allegations.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to questions after Abbott's announcement.

The press conference, Abbott said, was to alert President Joe Biden's administration and push them to move the children housed in the coliseum to other federally run facilities with more "space, personnel and resources to ensure safety." He also said the facility was short on staff, some kids were not eating enough food and those infected with the coronavirus were not separated from healthy teens.

A spokesperson for Abbott said the governor told federal officials about the allegations before the press conference.

Rebeca Clay-Flores, a Bexar County commissioner, painted a different picture of the conditions than the governor described, however. She said, having been in the facility many times, she saw children being well cared for. The Freeman Expo Center in San Antonio, which KSAT-TV reported held 1,370 teens on Monday, has the ability to house up to 2,500 children, according to the federal health department.

"What I saw when I went in there on several occasions, it was well-staffed, the children are very happy and very excited to be here," she told reporters after Abbott left. "This is not a political issue. This is about children who deserve protection from adults."

Abbott acknowledged to reporters that he had not been inside the coliseum.

Vulnerable children are often victims of sexual assault. In Texas, children kept in foster care and state-run juvenile lockups often report sexual assault, as well, without the governor's immediate intervention. Last fall, juvenile justice advocates pleaded for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate sexual abuse in Texas' youth lockups, which have been plagued by scandal for more than a decade.

Abbott and many other Texas Republicans have repeatedly criticized the Biden administration as it struggles to address an increase in migrants being apprehended near the U.S.-Mexico border. Almost all single adults are being immediately expelled under a pandemic health order issued by Trump that Biden has kept in place, although the current administration is allowing in unaccompanied minors and some families to await their immigration court hearings in the U.S. But Democrats are also loudly questioning where the conservative compassion was less than two years ago under President Trump's watch, when apprehensions hit near-record figures despite his crackdown on the border.

The number of people crossing the border illegally increases nearly every spring thanks to the weather getting warmer. The past three presidents have struggled at times during their tenures with surges in border crossings. But the number of children being apprehended has been particularly high in recent months, straining federal facilities.

As of Tuesday, the Biden administration had more than 4,200 unaccompanied migrant children in Border Patrol custody and roughly 16,000 in the care of federal shelters run by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. By law, unaccompanied children are not supposed to be held in Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours except for in emergencies. Since Feb. 22, the White House has opened at least eight emergency influx sites of unaccompanied migrant children in Texas, including Freeman, with a total capacity of about 14,000 beds.

Lomi Kriel, Shawn Mulcahy and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Gov. Greg Abbott prioritized changing how bail is set. He isn’t addressing people stuck behind bars because they can’t afford to pay.

Preston Chaney was booked into Harris County Jail last April, accused of stealing lawn equipment and meat from someone's garage. If he'd had $100, he could have posted bail and walked free within days.

Instead, the 64-year-old Black man was held for months, caught the coronavirus and died from COVID-19 in August while awaiting trial.

A year earlier, Alex Guajardo didn't have to pay any cash to get out of the same jail after being accused of assaulting his pregnant wife Caitlynne, according to court records. He was out on bond for an intoxicated driving charge when the assault occurred. The court ordered Guajardo to stay away from the family home and released him on a personal, no-cost bond.

Two days later, Guajardo was arrested again, this time for allegedly stabbing and killing his wife.

The deaths of Chaney and Caitlynne Infinger Guajardo have both been blamed on failures in the complex bail system. Courts set bail by deciding what restrictions are needed to release people who are legally presumed innocent before their criminal case is resolved. The bail release system has two key goals: protect public safety and incentivize defendants to come back for their court dates.

Most often, whether someone gets out or not depends on money.

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott made changing bail practices an emergency item for state lawmakers this legislative session, meaning they can take up the matter earlier than other legislation. But Abbott has made clear his priority is to address practices that let Guajardo out of jail, not the ones that kept Chaney in.

In his State of the State address, Abbott said lawmakers must fix the bail system "that recklessly allows dangerous criminals back out onto our streets." The governor wants more training for judicial officers who largely make cash bail decisions and a tool for assessing a defendant's risks of missing court dates and endangering the community. Those goals are expected to be addressed in the not-yet-filed Damon Allen Act, named after a state trooper killed during a traffic stop while the suspect was out on bond.

Abbott has repeatedly affirmed that the emergency legislation would not specifically address what criminal justice experts call bail reform: halting the discriminatory jailing of poor people that repeatedly has landed Texas counties in federal court. He said he will consider such measures in other bills, but those efforts are not deemed a priority.

"We're going to separate the Damon Allen Act and what I'm expecting from bail reform there," Abbott told The Texas Tribune. "Separate from that, I told [lawmakers] that I am open to considering other bail reform issues so that we don't basically have a prison for the poor who don't have the ability to get bailed out for petty crimes where they pose no danger to our communities."

Bail reform advocates bemoan Abbott's new urgency and revamped proposal as a step away from true reform which focuses on fixing discriminatory money bail practices. They also worry it could enhance racial disparities in the criminal justice system and lead to more poor, presumably innocent people accused of minor crimes lingering in jail.

As is the case nationwide, Black people are more likely to be jailed in Texas than white people. Though the state's population is about 13% Black, 29% of people held in Texas jails in 2015 were Black, according to The Vera Institute. In 2019, about a third of inmates in Texas prisons were Black.

"The way [Abbott] laid it out shows clearly that he's far more interested in maintaining the status quo and fear mongering than really looking at our bail system that keeps Black and brown people locked up," said David Villalobos, a criminal justice reform coordinator with the Texas Organizing Project.

Evolving bail fights

In Texas, almost everyone who is arrested has a constitutional right to be released on bail. The exceptions are capital murder defendants or people accused of certain repeat felonies or bail violations. The U.S. Bill of Rights says bail can't be excessive, as criminal defendants are still legally presumed innocent.

Still, most of the time, bail decisions are based solely on money.

When a court sets cash bail, the full amount can be paid to the court which will refund the money if the defendant follows the conditions of the bail bond. More often, however, the accused opts to pay a nonrefundable percentage, usually 10%, to a private bail bonds company that fronts the full cost and keeps track of the defendant. If a defendant's bail is set at $10,000, for example, a payment of $1,000 to a bonds company can get them out of jail.

The amount is often set automatically based on the alleged crime. If someone has access to enough cash, they can get out of jail. But a similar defendant without money could be stuck behind bars for months.

Bail reform advocates for years have fought the cash bail system, and multiple federal courts have ordered several Texas counties to change their pretrial practices. A federal judge in 2017 found that Harris County's steadfast reliance on cash bail for defendants facing low-level charges was unconstitutionally discriminatory against poor people. The county has since significantly changed its release decisions for misdemeanor defendants, and a similar civil rights lawsuit is ongoing for felony cases.

Recently, the battle over cash bail has prompted uproar over inmate deaths in jails overcrowded during the pandemic and high-profile homicides in Harris County allegedly committed by people released on low- or no-cost bonds. Many Republicans and law enforcement officials in the county have fought against changes prompted by the lawsuits, arguing they let too many people out without restrictions and risk public safety.

Abbott unsuccessfully promoted a bail bill similar to his current proposals two years ago. But the new attention on Harris County's jail release practices — and a recent, nationwide increase in homicides — have brought more Republican lawmakers and law enforcement officials around to Abbott's idea.

"We have now what I call bond abuse ... there's a balance here, it's gone too far in the other direction," state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, told the Tribune last week.

Court battles and high-profile homicides

Federal courts have tried to rein in an overreliance on preset money amounts without considering the defendant's specific circumstances. Harris County, for example, was told by a conservative appeals court that it could continue setting cash bail in misdemeanor cases. But it also said arrestees who claimed they could not afford their bail would be entitled to an individual bond reduction hearing within two days of arrest.

Since its first loss in federal district court, Harris County and its newly elected judges have revamped the pretrial release system. Most misdemeanor defendants are now released automatically on a personal recognizance, or PR, bond. Defendants released on such bonds only have to pay if they later break conditions of their release.

A federal court-ordered report found that the new misdemeanor bail system let many more people out of jail before trial, and the released defendants were not any more likely to commit new crimes while on bond.

But Houston law enforcement officials have said recent homicides committed by felony defendants out on bond depict a broken bail system and are demanding change. Crime Stoppers of Houston last month listed dozens of people who were killed in Harris County since 2018 while the suspects were out on bond.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo loudly blames crime on "judges who allow violent suspects to violate bond after bond, commit murder and then bond again.

An increase in homicides and aggravated assaults across Texas and the nation last year, and perhaps a heightened awareness of bail practices following the lawsuits, has sparked outrage and fear. Sandra Guerra Thompson is director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center and the deputy monitor in Harris County's misdemeanor lawsuit settlement. She said it's unclear whether more crimes are being committed by those out on felony bonds since the court case or if people are just noticing it more. Much of the recent uptick in Houston violent crime is attributed to people with no criminal history, she said.

"There have always been anecdotes," she said, conceding that each case is tragic.

Bettencourt filed bail legislation last month named after Caitlynne Infinger Guajardo, which quickly garnered support from police officials.

His bill would require more on the use of cash bail — prohibiting courts from releasing a defendant on a no-cash bond if he or she were already out of jail on a no-cash bond and then arrested again, as was Alex Guajardo. Bettencourt's bill would also require a new minimum cash bail of $10,000 in each case for someone accused of three or more felonies.

Federal courts have ruled that a mechanical use of preset cash bail amounts without individual consideration is unconstitutional.

"You just shouldn't be giving out PR bonds like popcorn, especially with people that have already had some strong indication of violent behavior," Bettencourt told the Tribune last week.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who has worked on bail legislation for years, said he is frustrated by lawmakers newly jumping into the arena focusing on locking more people up without looking to help those who are unnecessarily detained. He dismissed the idea of a minimum bond amount, saying it would not necessarily keep violent people in jail.

"A $10,000 bond might sound tough, but bad guys come up with $1,000 all the time," he told the Tribune.

Though the longstanding push to release more poor defendants accused of low-level crimes is often pitted against a desire to keep people considered to be dangerous behind bars, those efforts aren't always in opposition.

For several years, Whitmire and state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, have partnered in a bipartisan effort for courts to make more risk-based bail decisions and to consider the financial status of defendants. Their goal was to release more poor, low-risk defendants from jail at no cost while, at the same time, those deemed a high risk would be detained before trial without the option of bailing out with cash.

"I run into people that ... care about one side of the issue and not the other," Whitmire said.

Reform advocates on the defense

Attempts to pass the Damon Allen Act failed two years ago. The version that passed the House would have required courts to use a statewide risk assessment tool, consider criminal history when making bail decisions — still largely cash-based, and give training to judicial officers who set bail, much like what Abbott has said he wants this year.

Bail reform advocates worried that the risk assessment could be prejudiced against Black defendants, as arguing criminal history factors without proper consideration could perpetuate existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Others turned away from the bill because they said its language would prohibit judges from automatically releasing most misdemeanor defendants from jail on a no-cost bond, as is done in Harris County.

Coming into the 2021 legislative session, many bail reform advocates, losing faith in risk assessment strategies, were originally going to take a step-back approach to consider new strategies and best practices to present in 2023. But with Abbott declaring bail an emergency item, that's no longer possible, instead putting them on defense against what they fear will be backward steps from reform.

"Texas needs to go back to the drawing board and make sure that changes to a pretrial system are actually rooted in safety and justice," said Nick Hudson, a policy and advocacy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. "What that means is making sure that changes to our pretrial system are rooted in legal standards and evidence."

Whitmire is still hoping he can find a way to work with the governor on the emergency bail bill and address wealth-based detention. Though Abbott does not want any language in the emergency bill about the financial status of defendants, the Democratic senator said he is trying to get Texas counties out of losing costly battles in federal court.

He said he is continuing to talk with Abbott, as well as Republican Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, who for years has supported bail reform efforts to keep less people detained because they are poor.

"The problem is [Abbott] is really fixed on just his language," Whitmire said. "I can't get him to understand the legislative process: You don't always get what you want."

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Nearly 127,000 Harris County drive-thru votes appear safe after federal judge rejects GOP-led Texas lawsuit

A federal judge Monday rejected a request by a conservative activist and three Republican candidates to toss out nearly 127,000 votes cast at drive-thru polling sites in Texas’ most populous, and largely Democratic, county.

Keep reading... Show less

Texas Republicans ripped as ‘wholly un-American’ for trying to invalidate 127,000 ballots from drive-thru voting

For 18 days of early voting, Harris County residents waited in line, had their identities verified by poll workers, and cast their votes in a presidential election that has seen record-breaking early turnout.

Keep reading... Show less

Texas Republicans challenge curbside, drive-thru voting in Harris County

Hours before early voting began, the Texas Republican Party filed a new lawsuit Monday night challenging Harris County’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic, this time asking a court to limit curbside voting and halt the county's drive-thru voting programs.

Keep reading... Show less

Texas police officer arrested on suspicion of murder in fatal shooting of Jonathan Price

Just two days after 31-year-old Jonathan Price was killed by police in North Texas, the Texas Rangers on Monday arrested the officer they say shot him, saying the officer’s actions did not seem “objectionably reasonable.”

Keep reading... Show less

The only Texas prison reporting zero coronavirus cases is where inmates make soap. But that’s not what’s credited with protecting it.

Of more than 100 Texas prison units, the Roach Unit's apparent ability to avoid the virus has been attributed to a remote location and a warden who strictly enforces precautionary measures.

Keep reading... Show less

The coronavirus is keeping Texas prisoners who've been approved for parole behind bars

Thousands of parole-approved prisoners remain locked up during the public health crisis. The coronavirus has delayed pre-release programs and kept people set to go home inside infected prisons.

Keep reading... Show less

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Raw Story Investigates and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.