The Special Needs of Frank Gonzales Jr.

The Texas parole board let him out to die; instead, he got involved in a killing.

As a matter of policy, the bank verifies signatures on checks of more than $100. Besides, says Lieutenant Ricks, the teller was suspicious something wasn't right.

"She had some concerns, especially after the guy handed her an inmate ID card to cash the check," drawls Ricks. "She snapped to the fact that there very well could be a problem,"

The teller decided to call Jarrell's home. Jarrell's boyfriend answered the phone, and told the teller that Jarrell had just been murdered. The teller immediately called the Pasadena police, stalling for time by telling Gonzales that the bank was experiencing computer difficulties.

Pasadena patrol officers converged on the scene and arrested the three men. After questioning the suspects, police concluded that the driver had not been involved in the murder; he was released, and Salazar was arrested. Shortly thereafter, so was Cavazos, who was later certified to stand trial as an adult, and -- like Gonzales and Salazar -- has been charged with capital murder.

"It was so needless," says Ricks. "There was no sense in killing that woman. None. They didn't have to do that."

During the interrogation, Ricks was also surprised to learn that Gonzales had been released from prison on a Special Needs Parole -- something Ricks had never heard of. Not many people had.

Since the Texas Legislature created Special Needs Parole in 1991, the program has released more than 460 Texas inmates from prison. More than half of those paroles have been granted in the last two years -- during the administration of Governor George W. Bush. Ironically, during his 1994 campaign to unseat incumbent governor Ann Richards, Bush often criticized her for the early release of inmates. But despite Bush's criticism of Richards, mandatory releases have not only continued but increased during Bush's tenure. Bush administration officials explain that the number of mandatory releases has increased during their watch due to a cutback in discretionary releases. Those inmates previously denied parole are now becoming eligible for mandatory release -- thus the increase. However, one area where discretionary releases have not been reduced during Bush's time as governor is in the area of Special Needs Paroles, which are not automatically awarded, but are supposed to be granted only after state officials have taken a long, hard look at each case and determined that an inmate is too sick to be in prison.

According to House Bill 93, which created the program, an inmate can qualify for one of the special paroles if parole and prison officials determine that "based on an inmate's condition and a medical evaluation, the inmate does not constitute a threat to public safety or a threat to commit an offense." An inmate may also be granted one of the paroles if the institutional division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice "identifies the inmate as being elderly, physically handicapped, mentally ill, or mentally retarded."

Of the 462 Special Needs Paroles granted as of May 1998, approximately 10 percent were revoked due to crimes committed by the parolee following his release. On one hand, that recidivism rate is significantly lower than for regular parole (between 40 and 50 percent of the state's parolees return to prison within five years of their release). But on the other, it seems high given that Special Needs parolees have been deemed too feeble to stay in a prison, much less to commit new crimes.

"Ten percent is a high number for people who are supposed to have one foot in the grave," says an outraged Diane Clements, president of the criminal justice system group Justice For All.

Special Needs Parole is so obscure that many law-enforcement authorities -- including even Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes -- learned only recently of its existence.

"State agencies often play these sort of things real close to the vest," says Holmes, adding that he became aware of Special Need Parole a couple of months ago, after escape artist Steven Russell slyly managed to flee from prison for the second time in just over a year (see "The Further Adventures of King Con," Houston Press, May 14, 1998). Russell had received a Special Needs Parole after convincing prison and parole officials that he was dying of AIDS -- even though he was never tested for the disease by anyone in the state correctional system. Sent to a nursing home, and under no special security measures, Russell simply walked out of the facility a free man.

Indeed, it was only after the Russell incident came to light that parole board officials learned that another Special Needs Parole recipient -- Gonzales -- had been involved in a homicide at a time when he was supposedly too ill to be in prison.

All requests by the Press to interview Russell have, thus far, been denied by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Some prison officials concede that the pressure to keep the lid on the Russell case originated from the governor's office out of fear that the Gonzales story might also leak out. "The governor's office is now notified of every media request we get," says a prison official who asked not to be identified.

The governor's office refers all questions about Special Needs Parole to Victor Rodrigues, who has served as Bush's chairman of the state parole board since December 1995. According to Rodrigues, Special Needs Paroles are granted after review by two parole board members, which Rodrigues appoints to a special panel to oversee those requests. If a vote on a request is split, Rodrigues casts the deciding vote. In Gonzales's case, the Special Needs Parole was approved by Irma Caulley and Donna Gilbert, both of whom are no longer on the parole board.

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