Lingering effects of an old state law is prompting the scheduled release of several Houston-area killers responsible for some of the worst crimes the city has ever seen.
According to state records provided to Local 2 Investigates, more than two dozen convicted murderers from the Houston area are scheduled to be released from prison over the next five years under the auspices of a now defunct "mandatory release" law. This law was created to help ease prison overcrowding in the 70s and 80s.
"He took something precious away from me," said Barbara Schatz. "I just felt like my heart had died, which I knew it did."
On a clear June day in 1984, Schatz' daughter, Debora, disappeared while delivering mail in west Houston. The 23-year-old letter carrier's car was later found abandoned on a southwest Houston street. Bloodhounds led police to a nearby house and, eventually, 17-year-old David Isador Port was arrested. Court records show Port confessed to kidnapping Schatz and then shooting her when she tried to run away. Schatz' body was eventually found in Cypress Creek off Highway 290.
"I would like to blow him off the face of this earth, that's what I would like to do," said Schatz.
The case drew such intense media attention Port's trial had to be moved out of Harris County. In 1985, Port was convicted and sentenced to 75 years in prison. However, state records show, after serving less than half of his sentence, Port is scheduled to be released from prison in June 2014.
"He's going to get to go out and walk free, enjoy his life," said Schatz. "Where's my daughter? Will she come back? No, she will not come back."
"It's like being gutted all over again by our criminal justice system," victims' rights advocate Andy Kahan said.
Kahan explained criminals like Port were sentenced under a law that allowed them to accrue so-called "good time," meaning for every day a prisoner is considered to have good behavior in prison they were allowed to knock a day off the end of their prison sentence.
"Basically, if you wake up and breathe, you're going to get 'good time,'" said Kahan.
The Texas Legislature banned this practice for violent offenses in 1995, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered this change in the law could not be retroactive. Current sentencing laws now require criminals convicted of violent first-degree felony offenses to serve at least half of their sentence before being eligible for parole.
"So if you committed a crime before 1987 you got sentenced under the old mandatory release law, and these guys are maxing out their time," said Kahan. "You're dealing with some of the most infamous murderers, not only in Houston history, but in the state of Texas."
This old law has also created a particularly cruel twist in the case of Francis Pelkey, convicted for the 1980 murder of Dorrace Nell Johnson.
"The world is a better place without him in it," said Johnson's son, Doug.
Doug Johnson was 8 years old when his mother was murdered. Court records show in August of 1980, Dorrace Johnson stopped to help Pelkey when his van appeared to have broken down on the side of I-45 near Richey Road. After a struggle, she was shot and killed.
"She tried to help somebody and she paid the ultimate price for it," said Doug Johnson.
Pelkey was considered the prime suspect in the murder at the time, but Harris County sheriff's detectives did not have enough evidence to file charges. Pelkey eventually moved with his wife and three children to California. It wasn't until the sheriff's cold case squad re-examined the case in 1999 that enough evidence was gathered to charge Pelkey with Johnson's murder. In 2000, Pelkey was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
"I was just sobbing when I heard the verdict, I was just relieved," said Doug Johnson. "She was everything to my sister and me."
Even though justice did not come until 2000, the crime occurred in 1980, which meant Pelkey was sentenced under the old law. State records show he is scheduled for mandatory release in September 2015. This means he will have served less time in prison than he did as a free man after Dorrace Johnson's murder.
"This murderer went free for 20 years, got to see his kids grow up, got to live with his family," said Doug Johnson. 'What's the point of sentencing him to 40 years if he's just going to get out in 15 anyway? It's not fair for juries to not be aware of this. It's not fair for families to not be aware of this."
When these criminals are released they will still be required to live under state supervision. However, when Local 2 contacted officials with the Board of Pardons and Paroles we were told the type of supervision these offenders will live under is decided on a case by case basis and no decisions have been yet.
"I would expect these type of offenders to have the highest level of so-called supervision," said Kahan. "I think we need to keep a careful eye on these types of offenders, these offenders weren't even deemed good enough for parole."
Kahan said if one of these offenders violates the conditions of their supervision then they could be sent back to prison.