State senate passes 'Jenny's Bill' giving legal aid to witnesses held in jail for testimony

HOUSTON – A bill designed to offer more protection to certain witnesses in criminal trials is one step closer to becoming a law.

Seven state senators on the Criminal Justice Committee approved the bill after a hearing in Austin in late March.

"This bill is of highest priority," said committee chairman Sen. John Whitmire.

Whitmire filed the bill after Channel 2 Investigates aired a series of stories about a mentally ill rape victim who was jailed to ensure her testimony against her attacker.

"Jenny" spent more than a month in the Harris County jail on a so-called "witness bond." In Jenny's case, the bond was issued after she suffered a mental breakdown on the stand.

Such bonds are typically issued to make sure potentially problematic witnesses in criminal trials show up for court.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg testified before the committee that Jenny's case exposed a shortcoming in the process.

"It did raise the need for protection of victims in counties across the state," Ogg said.

Jenny is suing Harris County, and one her attorneys, Maisie Barringer, read a statement from Jenny's mother to committee members.

"I would like to tell the district attorney's office that jail is for criminals and not innocent victims as my daughter," Barringer said Jenny's mother wrote.

If the bill becomes law, a hearing in open court would be required before one of the bonds is granted. If granted, a person would get a chance to post bond and have an attorney appointed to represent him or her. The bill would also require a rehearing on the bond five days after it is issued to make sure the bond is still needed.

None of those measures were in place when Jenny was held under that type of bond.

Michael Hoyle, chief of the Bexar County's District Attorney's Office's criminal trial division, testified in opposition to the bill, saying that what happened to Jenny was an isolated case.

"(In) Bexar County we don't have this issue, so why do we need a statewide law?" Hoyle said.

Whitmire and other senators were quick to respond.

"I'm a little shocked at your insensitivity to the circumstances we just heard described," Whitmire said.

Hoyle said he was not being insensitive to Jenny's circumstances, but felt that the bill was an "overreach" for an issue that rarely occurs.

"If I thought I had a good bill coming in here, you just convinced me without a shadow of a doubt. So thank you," Whitmire said.

"Well, I don't appreciate the sarcasm, Senator. It's inappropriate," Hoyle said.

Hoyle also argued that the bill could provide an additional financial burden to counties that have to provide attorneys to witnesses.

"Well, sometimes you've got to spend money to protect people's rights," said Sen. Joan Huffman, vice chair of the committee.

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