On the morning of February 13, Nung Truong, 44, withdrew money from a bank ATM but was followed for approximately 24 miles by two suspects. Surveillance video released by the Houston Police Department shows a black male bumping into Truong and causing her to drop her belongings. The suspect initially fled with an envelope but returned seconds later to body-slam Truong to the ground before taking $4,300 in cash.
A mother to three children aged 13, 15, and 20, Truong is now paralyzed and unable to walk or care for herself.
Last Friday, Houston Police arrested Joseph Harrell, 17, and Zy’Nika Ayesha Woods, 19, for the attack and charged both suspects with Aggravated Robbery with Serious Bodily Injury.
According to court records, on January 26, 2023, Harrell had been granted a General Order bond of $100 for Unlawful Possession of a Weapon. He also faces charges of Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon related to an incident in February in which he threatened another victim with a gun. Harrell is currently being held in the Harris County jail on bonds totaling $240,000.
While surety bonds require suspects to pay a portion of the bond amount prior to release, under a General Order Bond no payment is required.
Under Texas criminal code, Unlawful Possession of a Weapon is a Class A Misdemeanor, and although state law gives criminal court judges discretion in setting bond, most misdemeanor bonds in Harris County are subject to the terms of a consent decree approved by the federal court that mandates release without paying bail.
Filed in January 2016, in ODonnell v. Harris County, plaintiffs alleged the county’s misdemeanor bail bond policies were unconstitutional and unfair to those unable to afford bond. Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal concluded that the system was indeed unconstitutional and issued a 193-page ruling.
In 2018, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Rosenthal’s finding, but called her proposed remedies “overboard” and remanded the case back to the lower court for revision. Instead, after Democrats won control of the Harris County Commissioners Court, the county entered into a settlement approved by Rosenthal but never reviewed by the Fifth Circuit Court.
Last year, after an en banc consideration that included all of the Fifth Circuit Court judges in relation to a similar case in Dallas County, the court specifically overruled ODonnell on several points but has not yet completely overturned the case.
Despite the uncertainty about the validity of ODonnell, Harris County courts still release most misdemeanor suspects without requiring bail.
Although Harrell’s Unlawful Possession of a Weapon charge was assigned to Harris County Court 2 under Judge Paula Goodhart, his bond was signed by Judge David Singer.
Elected to Harris County Criminal Court 14 in 2018, Singer lost in the March 2022 Democratic primary election and his term ended December 31, 2022. As a one-term judge, Singer is not eligible under state code to serve as a visiting judge.
The 11th Administrative Judicial Region confirmed to The Texan that Singer is not listed as a visiting judge.
The Harris County Office of Court Management emailed the following statements to The Texan:
“David Singer was appointed as associate judge pursuant to Section 54A.002 of the Texas Government Code and the Local Rules for Harris County Criminal Courts at Law. His start date was Jan. 1, 2023.”
“Associate Judge David Singer was appointed to assist Harris County Criminal Courts at Law judges. At this time, his primary duty is presiding over an emergency response docket for misdemeanor domestic violence cases.”
“Texas Government Code Chapter 54A provides the legal authority for associate judges and has been in place since 2012. Associate judges serve in courts across the state — including in Harris County — and aid courts in the administration of justice.”
In December 2022, Harris County commissioners voted to create a new position of “associate judge” to preside over a “Family Violence docket” that circumvents state requirements for visiting judges, but the county has not published the names of judges appointed.
A request to the Harris County Office of Court Management to confirm Singer’s status with the county was not returned by the time of publication.
According to testimony provided to the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Harris County also frequently releases suspects charged with Felon in Possession of Weapon (FPW) on Personal Recognizance (PR) bonds that do not require any payment. A FPW charge does not fall under the terms of the ODonnell consent decree since the charge is a felony.
Texas Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) has proposed legislation that would add FPW to the list of offenses ineligible for PR bond under state law.
Other legislation proposed by Huffman includes a measure shifting approval of Harris County’s appointed magistrates – the hearing officers who often set bail – from the commissioners court to the presiding judge of the administrative judicial region.
Update: Harris County District Criminal Court Judge Kristin Guiney lowered Harrell’s bonds from $240,000 to $130,000 on Thursday. A Republican, Guiney was elected in November 2022.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a statement from the Harris County Office of Court Management.
A copy of Harrell’s general order bond can be found below.
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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.