According to new information from the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, the Medical Examiner Service ruled 720 deaths in the county last year were due to homicide.
Data obtained by The Texan shows that the number of homicides in the state’s most populous county has increased each year since 2018 as follows:
- 2018: 436
- 2019: 491
- 2020: 662
- 2021: 720
The medical examiner reported that as of September 15, there’ve been 491 homicides in 2022, matching the total for all of 2019 but below the monthly pace through this time last year.
The causes of death listed include gunshot wounds, stab wounds, blunt trauma to the head or neck, and asphyxiation with compression to the neck.
While the City of Houston has reported a 1 percent decline in homicides so far this year over last year, those statistics only include information from the Houston Police Department, whereas Harris County, with an estimated population of 4.8 million, has multiple law enforcement agencies managing criminal investigations in smaller cities, colleges, and school districts.
For unincorporated portions of the county, where the population has grown more quickly than the City of Houston in recent years, residents depend on the sheriff’s department or one of eight county constables for law enforcement needs.
Not all homicides result in murder charges since some “homicide deaths” may be ruled self-defense or have extenuating circumstances.
According to the district clerk’s office, as of this week there are currently 55 defendants charged with Capital Murder out on bond in Harris County and 309 Capital Murder defendants being held in the county’s jail. For another 32 Capital Murder cases there has not been an arrest.
Among those currently out on bond, one suspect is Eric Semiens, who was charged in the 2016 murder of Javier Moreno. Arrested and charged after a tip from Crime Stoppers of Houston, Semiens has been accused of repeatedly violating conditions of his original $150,000 bond, which was revoked in 2017.
Despite testimony that Semiens claimed affiliation with a local street gang and has a prior criminal history, Judge DaSean Jones of the 180th District Court reduced his bond and released him again. Despite Semiens’ repeated bond violations, Jones most recently reduced his bond to $9,000 in February of 2022.
Last Friday, law enforcement arrested and charged two men in the shooting death of Constable Deputy Omar Ursin, noting that one of the suspects had been out on bond for Murder and the other for Capital Murder.
If convicted of Capital Murder, a defendant faces either life in prison or the death penalty.
As polls continue to reflect public safety as a top issue for voters this year, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has touted “Justice and Public Safety” expenditures that include constructing sidewalks and streetlights, cleaning vacant lots, and providing internet services. This week, commissioners voted 3 to 0 to approve a more than $1 million fund for a gun buyback program like that of Houston.
Republican commissioners have demanded the county add more patrol officers to both the sheriff and constables’ departments. When the Democrats declined such requests, Commissioners Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) boycotted a meeting to approve the Fiscal Year 2023 budget and a related tax increase on property owners.
Consequently, the county must adopt a no-new-revenue rate that will keep current property taxes down but will provide additional revenue of between $45 million and $72 million due to new properties added to the tax rolls.
While Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) are fending off challenges from Republicans Alexandra del Moral Mealer and Jack Morman, Harris County criminal court judges face challengers from judicial candidates campaigning heavily against the bail policies of these judges who they say have been soft on crime.
Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott asserted that the county’s bail policies were “literally killing people,” and said more needed to be done to keep repeat violent offenders in custody while awaiting trial.
State Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) this week called for additional reforms that include a state constitutional amendment that would “authorize the denial of bail under some circumstances to a person accused of a violent or sexual offense.” Huffman also said that convictions of unlawful possession of a firearm and a family protective order violation should be among the list of offenses that preclude the application of personal bond outlined in last year’s bond reform legislation.
The Texas Legislature reconvenes in 2023, at which point new state restrictions on bail may be passed.
Editor’s Note: The 2018 homicide number provided to The Texan was off by one, 436 instead of 437. This article has been updated to reflect that.
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Holly Hansen is a 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.