No one from Harris County, Texas, was executed in 2017–for the first time in more than 40 years. And no one has been sentenced to death for a crime committed there since 2014. Experts see those numbers as a reflection of declining American enthusiasm for capital punishment.
This was the year that Houston may have finally shed its nickname as the capital of capital punishment, says the Christian Science Monitor. In recent decades, no county has been as prolific in its application of the death penalty as Harris County, Texas. If the county were a state, only one state would have executed more people since 1976, the year capital punishment was reinstated in the US: Texas itself. But no one from the county was executed in 2017–for the first time in more than 40 years. No one has been sentenced to death in Harris County since 2014. Experts see that as a symbol of shifting attitudes toward the death penalty both in Harris County and around the country.
“We’ve been experiencing a generation-long decline in the use of the death penalty [nationwide], and the numbers in Harris County reflect that,” says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. There were 23 executions in the U.S. this year, the second lowest total since 1991. (Only 2016 had fewer, with 20 executions.) The group projected a total of 39 new death sentences nationwide this year, the second-lowest in more than 40 years. There is no single reason why executions and death sentences have suddenly become rare in Harris County, but many link the decline to the retirement of Johnny Holmes, a death penalty enthusiast who served as district attorney from 1979 to 2000.
Some residents worry that overworked police will not have time to keep the peace. “What people want is ammo,” said a gun store owner. “People want to arm up and protect themselves from the looters.”
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houston gun shops are seeing a spike in ammunition sales as some residents worry about the ability of strained law enforcement to keep the peace, reports The Trace. “Our phones are blowing off the hook,” said James Hillin, the owner of Full Armor Firearms, off busy I-10 in Houston. “What people want is ammo. People want to arm up and protect themselves from the looters.” There have been reports of looting in Houston, and the mayor has instituted a curfew. More than 40 people have been arrested, the Houston Chronicle reported. So far, there doesn’t appear to be evidence that looting is widespread.
Gun owners worried that their weapons might be stolen have also called Hillin to ask a favor. “All these people who got their houses flooded are calling me to put their guns in my store’s vault,” he said. “It’s bone dry.” A spokesperson for the ATF in Houston said gun stores in the area were burglarized during the storm but could not provide details. Hillen said employees armed with AR-15 rifles were keeping watch at his store, which was not damaged by the storm.
Undocumented workers make up as much as 50 percent of the construction workforce in Texas, and they’ll be sorely needed in Houston. “There is no way the existing (legal) workforce can make a dent in it,” said one construction executive.
As Houston turns its attention to rebuilding, people like Jay De Leon, who owns a small construction firm there, are likely to play an outsized role–if they decide to stay around, reports Reuters. De Leon and his 10 employees do exactly the kind of demolition and refurbishing the city will need. But like a large number of construction workers in Texas, De Leon and most of his workers live in the United States illegally, and that could make things complicated. The Pew Research Center estimated last year that 28 percent of Texas’s construction workforce is undocumented; other studies have put the number as high as 50 percent. However, undocumented immigrants are growing increasingly nervous in Texas by a Trump administration crackdown that has cast a wide net.
De Leon, who has lived in the country for 20 years and has two citizen children, says the changes have spooked the city’s migrant workforce. In recent weeks, he said, one of his employees left the state and another returned to Mexico. Both feared arrest. “The situation that Houston is going through now with the hurricane is going to be the trial by fire for the Republicans and the governor that approved these radical laws,” De Leon said. “They will need our migrant labor to rebuild the city. I believe that without us it will be impossible.” “It’s a crisis,” said Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Construction in Texas. “We are looking at several thousand homes that have flood damage. There is no way the existing (legal) workforce can make a dent in it.”
Just three deaths associated with Hurricane Harvey had been officially confirmed by Tuesday morning. “We know in these kind of events that, sadly, the death toll goes up historically,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said. “I’m really worried about how many bodies we’re going to find.”
Crews overwhelmed by thousands of rescue calls during one of the heaviest downpours in U.S. history have had little time to search for other potential victims, but officials acknowledge the grim reality that fatalities linked to Harvey could soar once the devastating floodwaters recede from one of America’s most sprawling metropolitan centers, says the Associated Press. More than three days after the storm ravaged the Texas coastline as a Category 4 hurricane, authorities had confirmed only three deaths — including a woman killed Monday when heavy rains dislodged a large oak tree onto her trailer home in the small town of Porter. But unconfirmed reports of others missing or presumed dead were growing.
“We know in these kind of events that, sadly, the death toll goes up historically,” Houston police Chief Art Acevedo said. “I’m really worried about how many bodies we’re going to find.” The disaster is unfolding on an epic scale, with the nation’s fourth-largest city mostly paralyzed by the storm that has parked itself over the Gulf Coast. With nearly 2 more feet of rain expected on top of the 30-plus inches in some places, authorities worried the worst might be yet to come.
Treating minor gun crimes as future homicides has helped to cut down on violence in Houston, and a key tool for investigators is the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, now much improved from the original program first introduced by the feds in 1999.
Emmett Jolley pulled up to the intersection near his northeast Houston home one spring night 14 months ago when the gunfire began. A hail of bullets riddled his gray Nissan, striking him and a passenger sitting next to him.
The gunman fled moments later, leaving police to pick through the crime scene and bag the shell casings he’d left behind.
Miraculously, Jolley and his friend survived, victims of one of the thousands of gun crimes that plague Houston every year, and one that might easily have gone unsolved in years past.
The bureau has pumped millions of dollars into the program to help local law enforcement make faster and better use of the federal database, creating joint investigative task forces with police in cities most prone to gun violence.
It gives police the clues they need in just days, not months.
Gun violence leaves a deadly toll in its wake across Houston annually.
More than 400 people died in the Bayou City from guns in 2016, including 259 homicides and 160 suicides. Gunmen committed 5,457 aggravated assaults with a firearm.
And Houston law enforcement leads the state—by far—in the recovery of firearms. Police seized more than 5,400 guns in Houston in 2015, twice as many as in Dallas and San Antonio, according to the most recent federal data.
In years past, slow ballistics testing left dangerous criminals on the streets for weeks or months while investigators waited for evidence.
Since the same firearms often are used repeatedly—even by different people—tracking the gun can identify an active shooter before another crime is committed. In Memphis, for example, NIBIN linked 30 percent of cases to guns that had been used more than once.
“Those are shooters, the worst of the worst,” Peralta said. “NIBIN is our flashlight—it’s not going to be able to see the whole room, but it will give us the ability to focus in on specific things.”
The database allows firearms experts to match high-resolution photos of marks left on bullet casings after being fired. The guns’ firing pins leave a mark unique to each gun, allowing investigators to connect casings fired at different shootings.
Turning NIBIN into the crime-fighting tool agents envisioned, however, didn’t go as ATF leaders initially hoped.
Twenty years ago, ATF equipped hundreds of law enforcement agencies and crime labs with ballistic imaging machines and began compiling photos of casings collected at crime scenes or test-fired from guns seized in investigations.
Whipsawing budgets, disinterest and poor implementation at the local level, however, hampered NIBIN’s impact on helping stop gun crime.
The problems left some gun cases unsolved, giving repeat shooters more time to wreak havoc. Bodies piled up.
“The right answer, late, doesn’t help the investigators any more than the wrong information on time—they need that information quickly,” said Ramit Plushnick-Masti, with the Houston Forensic Science Center, an independent lab that tests casings for the Houston Police Department.
Speeding up the clock
After an externalstudy four years ago found slow turnaround times were hobbling NIBIN’s effectiveness, ATF pumped millions of dollars into the program, forming task forces across the country with local police agencies.
The agency began urging investigators to collect all shells found at a scene – even if no one was hurt – so they could be entered into the database, increasing the chances of finding future matches.
“The ability to get hits is not linear,” said William King, a Sam Houston State University criminology professor who has studied the NIBIN system.
“The more you put in, the more you produce. The lesson is, everything needs to go in.”
“If we can get timely intelligence to investigators with respect to these different shootings and what is occurring in the streets, there’s potential to get an active shooter off the street before a homicide actually occurs,” he said.
Since its inception, the NIBIN database has produced approximately 75,000 “hits” linking two or more crimes together.
“You only get NIBIN hits off repeat gun use,” King said. “You get them off the street… That’s huge value-added.”
Darrell Stein, the Houston Forensic Science Center Firearms Section manager, demonstrates the a federal database known as the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network used to track guns.
Lisa Meiman, a special agent in the Denver Field Office, said the agency focuses on links rather than arrest totals, because arrests misrepresent the impact of the system.
“Catching one suspect using NIBIN means solving multiple shootings,” she said.
The Denver office was one of the first where ATF launched a gun crime task force. Houston’s came two years later, in 2015.
In concert with the intelligence center, the Houston Police Department and the city’s crime lab have taken other steps to speed up gun crime investigations.
“We’re looking for a particular gun,” said Art Peralta, Assistant Special Agent in Charge at ATF’s Houston Field Division. “When we find that gun, we’re usually going to find the person responsible for pulling that trigger.”
Using NIBIN, investigators gained a valuable clue in Jolley’s shooting: a ballistics match with a bullet casing from an attempted robbery just three days earlier.
The evidence helped pin the case on 17-year-old Timothy “Dough-Boy Ru” Grimes, an acquaintance who apparently thought Jolley had insulted his girlfriend.
Grimes’ guilty plea earlier this month marked the first conviction in Houston using the retooled NIBIN database, part of a new effort by ATF to help local police get trigger-happy criminals off the street.
In the 18 months since the ATF launched the retooled program, NIBIN has generated dozens of leads that led to 19 arrests. Investigators linked one weapon in another case to six different shootings, and connected another gun to a known drug dealer they say killed a horse.
“We’re going to solve crime sooner, bring criminals to justice sooner, and more often,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. “When we do those things, we’re going to ultimately prevent future crimes and save lives.”
Two months ago, Acevedo ordered his department to prioritize bullet cartridge testing.
Previously, officers had to wait a week for technicians to test cartridges for latent fingerprints or DNA, but such tests are rarely successful, said Darrell Stein, the Houston Forensic Science Center’s firearms section manager.
The faster turnaround from NIBIN has helped provide better intelligence for investigators, officials said.
“If you get NIBIN hits, and you don’t go and have good people to go out and aggressively pursue what that hit provides in terms of leads, then you might as well not have it at all,” Acevedo said.
“We wanted to speed up the clock.”
Investigators are now getting leads from shootings that took place just 48 hours earlier.
Other local and state departments also are expanding their efforts to beef up their use of the database.
Montgomery County, which currently sends cartridges to Houston’s lab once a week, hopes to acquire a ballistics imaging machine soon. ATF plans to put an imaging machine and deploy two of the bureau’s investigators from Houston to work with San Antonio Police Department.
Headed to Prison
Grimes walked intoa Harris County courtroom earlier this month, a year after his outburst of gun violence in northeast Houston.
His arrest offers a blueprint for how authorities might tackle gun crimes in the future.
After investigators sent the abandoned shell casings off for testing, the Houston Forensic Science Center photographed the cartridges and ran them through the NIBIN database. They learned the shooter had used just one gun – but two types of ammunition – in the attempted robbery and the aggravated assault.
By the time officers identified Grimes and searched his home, the firearm was gone. He said he tossed it into a sewer. They did, however, find a pair of sweatpants like ones they’d seen in surveillance video taken from the attempted robbery.
He eventually confessed, authorities said, telling investigators he had supplied the gun in the attempted robbery and acted as the lookout.
He finally agreed to plead guilty to one count of aggravated assault and another of aggravated robbery.
Jolley could not be reached for comment. Grimes’ attorney, Michael Trent, declined to comment.
But two weeks ago, Grimes trudged to the front of the 183rd Harris County District Court to admit to his crimes, knowing he faced 12 years in prison at his sentencing next month.
State District Judge Vanessa Velasquez peered down at the glum teen.
“Are you pleading guilty because you are?” Velasquez asked him.
His answer was almost lost in the shuffle of the courtroom.
St. John Barned-Smith, a staff writer for the Houston Chronicle, is a 2016-2017 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. The above story was published this week as part of his fellowship project. The full story, along with video material, is available here. Chronicle reporter Matt Dempsey also contributed. Readers’ comments are welcome.
More than 100 American cities have effectively criminalized everyday life for the homeless, making crimes of things from sleeping outside to brushing teeth in public.
There’s nothing shocking, really, about Houston’s new law making it easier for homeless people to be arrested simply for being homeless, says the Daily Beast. Not when over 100 American cities have effectively criminalized everyday life for the homeless, making crimes of things from sleeping outside to brushing teeth in public. Even as cities become more socially conscious about LGBTQ rights and drug policies, they’ve become less tolerant of their neediest inhabitants and more comfortable with cops and the justice system sweeping up the human trash, as it were.
Citywide bands on public camping have increased by 69 percent throughout the United States. What used to be seen as an annoyance is now prohibited, forcing fines or jail time on those who certainly can’t afford it. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has been tracking these changes since 2006. In 33 of the 100 U.S. cities they studied, it’s illegal to publicly camp. In 18, it’s illegal to sleep in public. Panhandling is illegal in 27 cities. In 39 cities, it’s illegal to live in vehicles. This situation is playing out before our averted eyes in Dallas. The police issued over 11,000 citations for sleeping in public from January 2012 to November 2015. That’s about 323 citations per month, or around 10 per day. These citations generally come with fines, and failure to pay (which is to be expected, given that these people are homeless) comes with worse legal trouble, often snowballing into jail time.
U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal denounced Harris County’s cash bail system, saying it is fundamentally unfair to detain indigent people arrested for low-level offenses simply because they can’t afford to pay bail. He ordered the county to begin releasing indigent inmates as early as May 15.
U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal denounced Harris County's cash bail system, saying it is fundamentally unfair to detain indigent people arrested for low-level offenses simply because they can't afford to pay bail. He ordered the county to begin releasing indigent inmates as early as May 15 . . .
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Acevedo had a 20-year career with the California Highway Patrol before taking over in 2007 as chief in Austin, where he was well regarded. Acevedo will be Houston’s first Latino police chief. Born in Cuba, he had been a hot prospect for a number of other police executive positions.
Art Acevedo, police chief of Austin for nearly 10 years, will move a few hours east and take over as top cop in Houston. The American-Statesman said Acevedo, 50, has been “one of Austin’s most visible figures while presiding in a time that ushered both progress and setbacks in relations between law enforcement and the community.” He was Austin’s first first Latino police chief, and he will be the first in Houston, as well. The Houston Chronicle said Mayor Sylvester Turner’s appointment of Acevedo recognizes “the rapidly shifting demographics of the nation’s fourth largest city and the strained relationship between the department and the citizens it serves.”
Born in Cuba, Acevedo was 4 years old when he migrated to the United States with his family in 1968, according to his Austin police bio. He grew up in California and earned a degree in public administration from the University of La Verne in California. He went from patrol officer to chief of the California Highway Patrol over a 20-year career there. He will oversee a police force of more than 5,000 officers in Houston, double the size of Austin’s. He had been regarded as a hot prospect for a number of other police executive jobs in recent years. Austin Mayor Steve Adler called Acevedo “a world-class police chief. Chief Acevedo has made our community safer and closer and he is trusted and much loved by so many. Austin is losing a moral and joyous leader and I’m losing a friend.”