Although new court orders issued Friday afternoon halted Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s plan to release “non-violent” jail inmates, the county did process and release some felony suspects, and criminal court judges continue to minimize release requirements for arrestees.
Hidalgo issued her emergency orders on Wednesday, April 1, which called for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to submit a list of inmates to the criminal justice stakeholders to check for prior convictions involving violence or the threat of violence.
The process of vetting the list of 1,470 inmates for potential release was already underway when Administrative Judge Herb Ritchie for Harris County Criminal Courts signed an order directing the sheriff and other parties to “ignore and wholly disregard” Hidalgo’s directive since Ritchie said the county judge did not have legal authority over criminal cases.
Of a list of 125 “medically vulnerable” inmates the sheriff submitted, the district attorney’s office approved only 14, saying the remaining 111 had been flagged for prior convictions involving violent crime or unwanted sexual conduct.
Andy Kahan, Director of Victim Services for Crime Stoppers Houston, analyzed those who were released and has identified several he says present concerns for public safety.
According to court records obtained by Kahan, suspect Guadalupe Cobian had been released under the Hidalgo order, although his prior conviction for “Deadly Conduct” had been the result of pleading down from charges of Aggravated Assault.
With 2 prior felony convictions and 8 prior misdemeanor convictions, Cobian has been previously subject to holds in Montgomery and Upshur counties, and earlier this year the district attorney had identified Cobian as posing a significant risk of flight or danger to the community.
One prior conviction involved leading police on a high-speed chase, crashing a vehicle, and fleeing on foot.
Kahan also reports that Kenneth Earl McGlothlin who was released has nine prior felony convictions for crimes such as burglary, and misdemeanor convictions including Reckless Conduct with a Firearm. His criminal record dates back to 1977. The state’s motion for higher bond on his most recent arrest for theft indicates that he too is either a risk to the safety of the community or a flight risk.
A third man released under Hidalgo’s orders, Reginald Coombs, has a lengthy criminal history dating back to 1993 that includes theft, burglary, check forgery, and drug possession. And a fourth, Daryl Washington, had been on parole for habitual felony theft charges when last arrested, but was released without revoke of parole.
Although Judge Ritchie has halted releases under Hidalgo’s authority, criminal court judges in the county may continue to authorize release on general order bonds of reduced amounts. Judge Brian Warren of the 209th district court took to social media Friday to announce that while the county judge had no authority over his cases, he did have the authority to act.
“I have tried to release all medically vulnerable people who were unable to make bond to date,” wrote Warren. “Judge Hidalgo’s order would have seen the release of 14 additional defendants. She does not have the authority to do so, I however do. I have ordered their release this afternoon.”
Elected officials representing Harris County such as State Senator Paul Bettencourt have objected to both County Judge Hidalgo and Sheriff Gonzalez’s plans for releasing detainees.
Bettencourt said that the release of “burglars, thieves, forgers, identity fraudsters and the like into the public will lead to another crime wave in the midst of COVID19.”
A federal court hearing on a case related to felony bond reforms has included a plaintiff’s request for Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal to order the release of county felony suspects, but plaintiffs’ attorneys have claimed it would take too long to check backgrounds for violent prior convictions.
Monday morning Sheriff Gonzalez also filed a statement with the court asking for the federal judge to order release “of any non-violent detainees who have no prior conviction of a serious violent crime or no prior conviction of any violent crime in the past 10 years and who do not pose a risk to public safety.”
Judge Rosenthal will hold a hearing Tuesday to consider the motions filed by plaintiff’s attorneys as well as those filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in opposition to a potential court-ordered release.
In support of the Attorney General and in opposition to the court-ordered release of suspects due to coronavirus, police chiefs from Houston, Allen, Arlington, Deer Park, Frisco, Fort Worth, Garland, Irving, and Plano are among those filing statements in federal court.
The court has also received a letter from the Texas Police Chiefs Association and a resolution from the Major County Sheriffs of America in opposition to broad release policies related to coronavirus.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer 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.