Harris County residents have been grappling with a crime rate increase that began several years ago, and the Houston Police Department recently reported that homicides are up by 91 percent from 2019.
Local leaders from both sides of the political aisle have identified suspect release policies used by many state district felony court judges as a contributing factor to the problem.
Governor Abbott named bail reform to address the problem as a legislative priority this year and state lawmakers have sought a policy fix both during the regular and special sessions, but proposed bills have stalled due to House Democrats breaking quorum.
Although multiple judges in Harris County have come under scrutiny for lenient bond or release conditions, West identifies four in particular: Chris Morton of the 230th District Court, DaSean Jones of the 180th District Court, Josh Hill of the 232nd District Court, and Natalia Cornelio of the 351st District Court.
“The realization that we have state district judges who are releasing violent criminals on the streets of Texas is unconscionable, these judges are no longer upholding the rule of law but are only advancing a dangerous progressive-socialist agenda,” West said in a press release. “These judges must be held accountable and removed from their positions.”
Jones, a self-avowed socialist, came under scrutiny for releasing murder suspect David Cruz last year after Cruz said he feared contracting COVID-19 while being held in the Harris County jail.
On Thursday evening, a chaotic police chase in Harris County in which a suspect repeatedly shot at police ended with a crash on I-10 near Chambers County. The suspect, who is now deceased, was bonded out 9 times in 2020 under Jones.
Elected in 2020, Cornelio has drawn attention for releasing suspect Zacchaeus Rashad Gaston on his 7th bond last April. In July, police arrested and charged Gaston in the shooting death of his ex-girlfriend and the injuring their 1-year-old child.
In May of 2021 Cornelio awarded habitual felon Randal Boyd Burton a personal recognizance (PR) bond for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon although he had over 20 felony convictions. Earlier this week, Burton fired at constable’s deputies and was killed when deputies returned fire.
During an interview with Houston Fox 26 reporter Randy Wallace, Constable Mark Herman expressed frustration over bond awards in Harris County.
“What a judge did, in this case, cost a man his life. Had my deputies been killed, I can tell you our community would be outraged. I would be outraged,” said Herman.
Morton, the third judge named by West, has routinely granted multiple bonds for felony defendants and has allowed at least one habitual offender, Jeffrey Robertson, to be released on a 14th felony bond. In an unrelated case, Morton is also the judge who granted Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) a writ blocking his arrest for absence from the Texas House.
Hill is one of two judges who refused the district attorney’s request to revoke bond for murder suspect Vernon Menifee.
The possibility of impeaching Texas judges recently came to the forefront when newly minted Republican Party of Texas Chairman Matt Rinaldi suggested the rarely used process to remove a Dallas County judge who issued a restraining order in an attempt to block Gov. Abbott’s executive order on mask mandates.
“We now have multiple judges in the state who are creating chaos and lawlessness,” Rinaldi told The Texan. “While impeachment proceedings have been rarely used in this country, these are unprecedented times.”
The Texas Constitution allows several methods for impeachment of district judges. The governor along with two-thirds of each House of the legislature can remove judges for “wilful [sic] neglect of duty, incompetency, habitual drunkenness, oppression in office, or other reasonable cause…”
In addition, the speaker of the House, along with 50 state representatives, may convene an impeachment trial and both the Supreme Court of Texas and the State Commission on Judicial Conduct may take action to remove district judges.
Last week, prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump took up the case of one Harris County murder victim Caitlynne Guajardo and filed a lawsuit on behalf of Guajardo’s mother Melanie Infinger that names 26 judges and magistrates who have eschewed state law and established a policy of granting PR bonds to nearly all misdemeanor suspects.
Several bills addressing bond reform are pending in the Texas legislature’s second special session, including one authored by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) that proposes a constitutional amendment to allow judges to deny bail in some circumstances. That measure, SJR 3, has passed the senate but until quorum is restored in the House the bill cannot progress.
Editorial: A previous version of this article misstated Judge Cornelio’s district. We regret the error.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.