HOUSTON – From the streets of Harris County to the state capitol, bail reform has been an intensely debated topic. While a federal lawsuit addressed inequities in misdemeanor cases, the way bond in felony cases is handled remains in dispute.
“I started noticing a trend when I started to look at the cases of defendants that were charged with murder,” said Andy Kahan with Crimestoppers Houston. “A lot of them had multiple felony bonds, a lot of them were on (personal) bonds, a lot of them had violated their bonds.”
Kahan raised specific concerns about defendants who had been released on multiple bonds only to then be charged with murder. Kahan said his research found 42 such defendants in murder cases since 2018.
“I’m just flabbergasted that amount is so high, I’m stunned no one wants to talk about it,” Kahan said.
Many in law enforcement, including Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, have been particularly critical of a system allowing those accused of crimes to be released on multiple bonds.
“We have people that have been booked for murder, charged with murder, released while charged with murder and murdering again,” said Acevedo.
“What are your officers saying on the streets,” asked Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“They’re frustrated,” said Acevedo. “The proof is in the real victims in this city that are dying at the hands of people that should not have been running around loose.”
Every Texan has a constitutional right to a bond except in capital murder cases. Defense attorneys, criminal justice reform activists and judges argue you can’t keep people locked up before their trial just because they’re poor. Kahan said he does not dispute that point.
“What we don’t support is when offenders are being repeatedly let out, time and time again to re-offend,” said Kahan.
Kahan points to cases like Javon Opoku. Harris County court records show Opoku was released on bond in September 2019 on a charge of illegally carrying a gun in a car and again in October on a charge of evading arrest.
In November 2019, he was charged with capital murder and again released on bond. In February 2020, Opoku was arrested and charged with theft of a firearm and illegally carrying a firearm. Once again, he again was allowed to post bond. In April 2020, Opoku was charged with three counts of possession of child pornography and court records show he posted bond in June under the condition his whereabouts are monitored by GPS.
Victims’ family members are equally baffled as to why some accused criminals are granted bond.
“It’s infuriating that more common sense cannot be applied,” said Chuck Cook, whose mother, Rosalie, was killed in May.
Houston police reported 80-year-old Rosalie Cook was stabbed to death leaving a Walgreens on South Braeswood Boulevard.
“She was 5-foot tall, walked with a cane, disabled,” said Chuck Cook. “If you wanted something she would have given it to you, but to stab her so savagely and to kill her.”
The suspect in Cook’s murder, Randy Lewis, had been released on bond in a pair of cases, two weeks before her death, police said. Court records reveal Lewis had a lengthy criminal record and was temporarily committed to a mental health facility after being charged with theft and assaulting a public servant.
After his competency was restored, Lewis was released on bond in the two criminal cases and ordered to live at a halfway house. Police said he absconded from the facility within days.
Lewis was killed during a confrontation with Houston police shortly after Rosalie Cook’s murder.
“The question becomes, ‘What was he doing out of jail?‘’‘ said Chuck Cook. “If you’re going to let these guys go, where’s accountability?”
Channel 2 Investigates also reviewed more than 100 murder charges filed this year and found at least 10 cases of defendants who had been released on multiple bonds prior to being charged with murder.
One case involves Gerald Dewayne Washington. Court records show Washington was on probation in 2018 for a pair of burglary charges when he was charged murder and two counts of aggravated assault. Washington eventually posted bond and was then charged with committing another murder in February of this year. He remains on the run.
Court records show prosecutors argued for bond revocation, denial of bond or the setting of a high bond in each of these cases.
“As far as the citizens of Harris County go, they just keep seeing the same debate play out over, and over, and over again. Can something be done at the state level?” asked KPRC 2′s Arnold.
“It certainly can,” said State Sen. John Whitmire (D-District 15).
Whitmire is chair of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee. He said he has tried to pass bail reform legislation during the past two legislative sessions to no avail. Whitmire said the issue remains a priority for the upcoming legislative session and he will again try to pass a bail reform law.
“The bail/bond issue can and must be resolved,” said Whitmire.
He said a sticking point is devising a risk-based system that works in all parts of Texas. Whitmire said bond should be assessed based on a person’s risk and he wants an independent board created to determine a standardized risk assessment system.
“It’s a win-win deal. You enhance public safety and you’re fair,” said Whitmire.
KPRC 2 also reached out to the presiding judge of the felony courts, Judge Herb Ritchie for comment on the issue but has not yet received a response. KPRC 2 also requested an on-camera interview with Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis who has been a driving force behind bail reform in Harris County.
“We decline the opportunity at this time. Commissioner Ellis is focused on responding to COVID-19,” Ellis’ deputy director of communications, Melody Patelis wrote in an email to KPRC 2.
9 similar defendants
Here is a closer look at the similar bond cases that Channel 2 Investigates found.
Court records show that while on probation from a 2017 theft charge, Tucker was subsequently charged with driving with an invalid license, misdemeanor assault, assault-family member, two counts of aggravated assault and murder. Court records show he has posted bond in all cases and is awaiting trial.
While on probation for a 2017 charge of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, Wolfe was charged with misdemeanor unlawful carry of a weapon, aggravated assault and aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. While out on bond and awaiting trial on those charges, Wolfe was charged with a March 2020 capitol murder. He is currently in jail.
Jeremiah King was released on bond and awaiting trial on charges of trespassing and evading arrest when he was accused of killing a man in April 2020. He is currently in jail.
Tyler Pringle was released on bond in 2018 on a felony possession charge and again in 2019 on a charge of assault family member-impeding breathing. He was charged with capital murder in April 2020 and is currently in jail awaiting trial.
Jaylan Celestine was released on bond in 2019 after being charged with misdemeanor family assault. He was again released on bond in February 2020 on a charge of unlawfully carrying a weapon. He was charged with capital murder in April 2020 and is in jail awaiting trial.
Melvin Douglas was released on bond in November 2019 on charges of felon in possession of a weapon, evading arrest and disarming a police officer. He was also released on bond in December 2019 on charges of evading arrest (later dismissed) and felon in possession of a weapon. He was charged in 2020 with an October 2019 murder. He is in jail awaiting trial.
Kajuane Cartwright was released on bond in January on charges of possession, aggravated robbery and misdemeanor evading arrest. He was again released on bond in April on a charge of assaulting a family member-impeding breathing. He was arrested in May on charges of evading arrest and capital murder. He is in jail awaiting trial.
Cedgadrick Harris was released on bond in November 2019 on a misdemeanor charge of assault-family member. Court records read he failed to show up for court in February on this charge. He was arrested April on a charge of tampering with a government record and was released on bond. In July, he was charged with killing the same person he was accused of assaulting in November and wounding the woman’s daughter. He is charged with capital murder and injury to a child. He is in jail and awaiting trial.
Richard Russel was charged in October 2019 while on bond on charges of aggravated assault and possession. He is currently released on bond and awaiting trial.