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Texas Judges Rarely Disciplined, Seldom Publicly

By Matt Clarke

In 2009, former Harris County, Texas state district judge Woodrow “Woody” Densen was caught on surveillance video keying a neighbor’s car, causing significant damage. The video received widespread media coverage. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief and agreed to pay a $1,500 fine and over $6,000 in restitution. [See: PLN, June 2010, p.50; Aug. 2009, p.1].

Six months later, in October 2010, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct (SCJC) imposed disciplinary sanctions on Judge Densen: It gave him a public warning.

The slap on the wrist that Densen received was infinitely more discipline than the SCJC meted out to the vast majority of judges who were the subject of complaints. Less than 4% of the 1,192 complaints against judges received by the SCJC in fiscal year (FY) 2011 resulted in any disciplinary action.

For example, on August 4, 2011, PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann filed a complaint with the SCJC against Angelina County Judge Derek C. Flournoy, related to comments made by Judge Flournoy in a criminal case. Following a sentencing hearing, Flournoy was quoted in a news report as saying to the defendant, Marco Sauceda, “I haven’t heard from you and I have no idea why you didn’t speak [at the sentencing hearing]. That causes me some trouble.”

According to Friedmann’s complaint, “In drawing a negative inference from Mr. Sauceda’s decision not to testify or speak, Judge Flournoy ran afoul of over four decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence that prohibits courts from penalizing or drawing negative inferences when defendants exercise their Constitutional right not to speak or testify.” The complaint noted that the Supreme Court had specifically addressed this issue in Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314, 330 (1999), and the Texas Court of Appeals had acknowledged that defendants have a right to remain silent during sentencing hearings in Lucero v. State, 91 S.W.3d 814, 816 (Tex. App. 2002).

Regardless, the SCJC declined to take any disciplinary action against Judge Flournoy – a typical outcome for most complaints filed against Texas judges.

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Texas Prison Burials

By Prison Legal News

If a Texas state prisoner dies or is executed, relatives or friends can pick up the body. If they don’t, he or she is buried in the largest prison graveyard in the United States – the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville, Texas. Such burials occur around 100 times each year.

Named after an assistant warden at the Huntsville Unit who helped clean and restore the 22-acre graveyard in the 1960s, the cemetery is still associated with the prison unit known as “The Walls” for its 19th century brick walls. The warden or assistant warden from the facility attends each funeral.

A prisoner’s body may be unclaimed for a number of reasons. There may be no surviving friends or relatives, but a more likely explanation is that the friends or relatives are too poor to afford the burial expenses.

“I think everyone assumes if you are in a prison cemetery you’re somehow the worst of the worst,” said Indiana State University assistant professor of criminology Franklin T. Wilson, who is writing a book about the Byrd cemetery. “But it’s more of a reflection of your socioeconomic status. This is more of a case of if you’re buried there, you’re poor.”

Although Texas prison officials have only been able to verify 2,100 prisoner burials at the graveyard, Wilson, who recently photographed every headstone in the cemetery, estimated the number was over 3,000.

 

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