By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
Being on probation is, by design, supposed to be a pain in the ass.
After all, you have admitted to or been found guilty of committing an offense against the peace and dignity of the great state of Texas. You have nevertheless avoided the outcome you most desperately wanted to avoid: incarceration in the state prison system.
There's no reason for the state to make it easy for you, though. You may have to do some local jail time. You may end up in boot camp or a lock-down drug-treatment facility. At the very least you're going to have to report periodically to a probation officer, probably pee in a jar for a drug test every month or so and abide by any of a limitless variety of judge-mandated conditions, anything from such noble community service as picking up roadside trash to avoiding contact with your best friends.
But you probably shouldn't be forced to deal with a bureaucrat who is supposed to simply provide information to the court but who instead, according to defendants, defense attorneys and even some prosecutors, wants to do nothing but put you in prison.
You shouldn't have to deal with Terry Hunt.
Hunt is the probation officer in Judge Mike McSpadden's 209th District Court, and has been for close to ten years. Formally known as a court liaison officer (CLO), Hunt's job is to process people who have just been found guilty or put on deferred adjudication, providing information to prosecutors and defense attorneys about what programs are available.
He also acts as the contact person with the probation officer in the field. The field officer is the man or woman who meets regularly with the probationer and makes sure whatever conditions the judge has set are being met.
If the probationer slips up, the CLO is the one who decides if the slip is enough to bring to the judge's attention; the judge decides if the probationer should be formally admonished, or have the conditions tightened, or even get a little "jail therapy" by being incarcerated for a week or so while waiting for a hearing that eventually results in nothing more than a warning.
"I expect them to be my eyes and ears in the probation department," says 174th District Judge George Godwin, who also serves as administrative judge over the county's 22 criminal district courts. "They should be neutral; they should just be relaying information and not setting policy."
Godwin, speaking generally, and not specifically about Hunt, says CLOs should be objective, simply following guidelines set by the judge. For instance, a judge may tell his or her CLO that a probationer who fails two drug tests in a row needs to be brought in; one failure isn't enough to require a court appearance.
But in the real world, with heavy caseloads, with probation conditions that can be more subjective to evaluate than a pass-fail drug test, CLOs can have impressive discretion.
In almost all of the district courts, that's not a problem. "Usually they are pretty easy to deal with; they'll let you read the file, and if you have problems and want to know what programs are available for someone, they'll tell you," says one prosecutor.
"But I was very uncomfortable in that court [with Hunt]," says the prosecutor, who wishes to remain anonymous. "I don't know if he's a wanna-be prosecutor and never got to be one, but basically he thought that everyone should be in prison, and hey, I'm a prosecutor, and even I know that that isn't true."
The parents of one defendant say they observed Hunt during a dozen trips they made to the 209th, waiting for hours each time for a hearing to be reset. "You're there two or three hours, and you sit and watch the D.A.'s and the court-appointed lawyers asking Hunt, 'What can we do with this one? What's available?' All he would repeat was, 'Send them to TDC, send them to TDC,' " Esther Smith says, using the former acronym for the state prison system. "He never volunteered anything that would let people know there were drug-rehabilitation programs available."
Hunt, according to lawyers, prosecutors and families who deal with him, can be a charming, helpful guy. He can also be a bullying despot, yelling at prosecutors he thinks are being too lenient, lying about the availability of programs that might keep someone out of prison, producing mistake-filled investigative reports that could convince a judge not to offer probation, and treating those unfortunate enough to come under his province "like they were dirt."
Leaning back in his high-backed chair on the side of the 209th's large courtroom, a glum-looking multiracial group of handcuffed and jail-uniformed defendants behind him, Hunt looks like a caricature of a portly backwoods sheriff.
Middle-aged and double-chinned, he exudes a nonchalant disdain for the defendants next to him, the poor fuckups who couldn't follow some simple rules, the think-they're-hot-shit kids who got caught proving their toughness by burglarizing some innocent person's house.
To the probationers who've messed up, Hunt all but says, "I knew I'd see you again." To those who are just now coming under his control, he offers little in the way of optimism.
Speed-reading through the formulaic conditions of a standard deferred-adjudication agreement, he adds his own personal flourish to a 22-year-old who has been caught with drugs: "It's just like it says in the Monopoly game: If you don't follow these conditions, you will go to jail, you will go directly to jail, you will not pass Go, and you will not collect $200."
Such macho posing isn't unique among criminal-justice-system drones who work next to, but are not really teammates of, real-life tough guys like cops and sheriff's deputies. But CLOs in the county's other courts, attorneys say, don't see themselves as Dirty Harrys.
Incivility is no crime, of course, and the person whose house was robbed or car was stolen is not likely to have much sympathy when the guy who did it has to put up with a mean ol' probation officer.
But there are people out there who claim that because of Hunt's incompetence, or his vindictiveness, they have had their freedom taken away.
His mother, Esther, is a church-going, adamant Republican who's perplexed at the wrong turns her son has made. He has run away from home several times and started in on marijuana when he was 13.
A year or so later, his parents had him arrested for smoking pot. "We warned him and warned him," Smith says. "We knew he was headed for the adult [criminal-justice] system, so we wanted him to see what the juvenile system was like. We tried private schools, we tried sending him to my brother in Colorado, we tried putting him in hospitals and programs, but he's just hell-bent on doing what he wants to do.
"He sounds like a terrible kid, but he really just got hooked on marijuana at 13 and didn't believe it was a gateway drug. He just climbed the ladder to other drugs."
In August 1997 Jake was arrested during a theater production at Lakewood Church for cocaine possession.
"We had to drag him along with us, and there was a wooded area outside, and there's always lots of police around, and he just was walking around with his headphones on and didn't hear the police, and he had this little thing of cocaine with him," she says. "He's not hooked on cocaine, but he was using it."
Jake was sentenced to deferred adjudication in January 1998. Under deferred adjudication, a judge finds there is enough evidence to convict a person, but no ruling is made. The defendant must follow probationlike conditions for a period set by the judge -- maybe three years, maybe five -- and if there are no significant violations, at the end of the period the charges are dismissed.
If the defendant messes up badly enough, the judge enters a ruling and, more often than not, sends the guy on to prison. There's almost no chance of appealing such a decision -- you generally can't ask a higher court to rule that you're innocent of the probation violation you're alleged to have done -- so deferred adjudication is a powerful weapon.
Jake didn't take long to find out. In March, just three months after being sentenced, he was charged with LSD possession.
He spent a month in jail before McSpadden set a bond, then was released pending a hearing on just what his punishment would be.
Esther Smith can sound like she's incredibly naive or deeply in denial about her son's problem, and as white suburbanites she and her husband are likely candidates to be shocked and offended by perceived callous treatment by the criminal-justice system.
But she says she has no problems with the judges, the prosecutors or anyone else involved in her son's case or his juvenile-justice experience.
"Sometimes they're hard-nosed about following the rules, but their job is to make sure the public is not endangered, and I understand that," she says. "But Terry Hunt just wants to put people away.... I just feel that Terry Hunt is getting a bed ready for my son at TDC."
It's only Hunt who has angered her, and her lawyer, veteran criminal-defense attorney David Jones, says he couldn't believe Hunt's actions in the case.
Some of it was just the attitude, she says. "His attitude really stunk -- he treats all these young boys like they're the scum of the earth," she says. "It's not just that it involved my son, it's just that he's this pompous, full-of-myself power person."
More importantly, she says, the pre-sentence investigation report Hunt prepared was riddled with errors.
"He said that Jake was thrown out of a private school for fighting. Jake's not very physical, he's kind of passive, so I couldn't believe that. I called the director of the school and asked him whether he had had any call from the probation department or talked to anyone. He said, 'No, and if I had, our records show only that [Jake] withdrew and went into public school,' and that is what happened, and that was our choice."
Jones wrote to Hunt's supervisor that the pre-sentence investigation was "replete with inaccuracies and deception."
Hunt's version of the incident, and his response to any of the criticism, is unknown. He refused to talk to a reporter.
Jones complained to probation-department supervisors about an even more bizarre run-in between Smith and Hunt. Hunt, he says, wrongfully intervened when he thought Smith was going to get away with a too-lenient sentence.
Jones says he, the prosecutor and Judge McSpadden agreed to have Smith evaluated for entry into a government drug-treatment program that did not include the incarceration and hard time of the state's SAFP program. (SAFP, or the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility, is a highly intense, months-long treatment program with convicts locked into jail-like facilities. Probationers hate it, but the program has been successful in reducing recidivism.)
Jones says Smith was filling out forms at the office of TAIP (Treatments Alternative to Incarceration Program) when Hunt walked in and ordered him to leave.
Jones's official letter of complaint noted that McSpadden had not told him to consult with Hunt about referring Smith to TAIP and that "Mr. Hunt had previously informed a lawyer and assistant district attorney in the 209th that [the probation department] had no drug treatment available other than SAFP.... In short, I saw no reason to consult with Mr. Hunt who had demonstrated gross incompetence of office if not determined hostility to my client."
McSpadden sentenced Smith to SAFP. The teenager, who also did a stint in the county's boot camp, is currently in the Harris County Jail waiting for a space in the chronically overcrowded SAFP program to open up.
When he gets out, he'll face another five years probation. "He will have a regular probation officer, but Terry Hunt will be overseeing it," Esther Smith says. "I don't want someone that I don't consider fair overseeing my son's freedom for the next five years."
Jones is not alone in saying that Hunt refused to offer any options other than prison or SAFP. Prosecutors offer the same story, albeit anonymously.
"I thought he was dishonest," says one prosecutor who used to be assigned to the 209th. "He was dishonest about the programs offered by the probation department. I'd ask him about whether there'd be a program available for someone, and he'd say no, and then I'd go to another court, and they'd say yes."
Hunt would try to sabotage bargains that might result in a defendant escaping jail time, the prosecutor says. "If they weren't offering jail therapy, he'd jump on the prosecutors," the assistant D.A. says. "He'd berate the prosecutor for not revoking someone's probation and sending them to jail. Our job there isn't to see that we revoke everybody and put them away.... He got way too involved in it and would scream at us for not sending everyone to prison."
More troubling than the occasional outburst was Hunt's hoarding of information, say the prosecutor and a colleague.
On at least two occasions, one of the former 209th prosecutors says, Hunt refused to let a probation department field officer see a relevant file.
When a probationer violates the conditions egregiously enough, the judge sets a hearing to admonish the probationer or impose stricter conditions. Typically the CLO in the court testifies, using the field officer's file as a reference as he provides information to the court.
The prosecutor felt uncomfortable enough with Hunt's attitude that instead of having him testify, field officers were regularly brought in. Because they handle hundreds of cases, field officers need to see a probationer's file to get up to speed on the case.
On two occasions, the prosecutor says, Hunt refused to let the field officer see the file because there was information favorable to the defendant in it.
"If there was good stuff in there, the defense attorney would subpoena it, and if it was a defense subpoena, then he wouldn't let the field officer see it," the prosecutor says. "He's just supposed to be objective."
Prosecutors confronted Hunt, and he stopped the practice.
Jones isn't the only lawyer willing to go on the record with complaints, even though their clients are still under Hunt's supervision.
Houston attorney John Denninger says he has a client who successfully completed six years of probation but is being forced to spend another year under supervision because of Hunt.
Exemplifying the fact that the probationers complaining about Hunt are not exactly the kind of folks you want to root for, Denninger's client was convicted of indecency with a child.
But the client, whom Denninger would talk about only if he remained unnamed, went though six years of probation without a hitch; the therapist he was ordered to see endorsed not only the termination of probation, but ending the therapy also.
Without warning, Denninger says, the client received a letter saying his probation would be extended a year.
"I went to the court to talk to Terry, and he was familiar with it," he says. "He says it was because my client took a polygraph and it was his information that the probationer showed deception on there about sexual fantasies."
After proving to Hunt and McSpadden that the polygraph examination revealed no such thing, the problem of how to rectify the situation came up.
"We're in a position where the probation had already been extended, and how do we fix that?" Denninger says. "No judge wants to get involved with early termination of probation, because there have been a couple of high-profile cases about that. And no one especially wants to early-terminate a sexual offender."
So the judge, the lawyer and Hunt worked out a deal where the client's additional year of probation would be served with the minimum of conditions: basically reporting to his field officer every three months.
But, Denninger says, Hunt refused to inform the field officer of the changed conditions despite repeated entreaties.
"I'd call him and call him, and he said he'd take care of it, but nothing would be done," Denninger says. "He repeatedly gives you information in this pompous sort of way that makes it appear like he knows what he's talking about, but the bottom line is that you can never tell when he's telling the truth because he always makes it sound like he is."
It wasn't until Denninger threatened to take his complaints to McSpadden, he says, that Hunt finally did what he had been ordered to do. It took four months of cajoling, Denninger says, until the change was made in February and his client could live under the less intrusive conditions.
Denninger takes pains to absolve McSpadden. "The judge treated me very well. When I told him what was happening, he took it at face value and treated the problem," Denninger says. (McSpadden's treatment involved talking to Hunt, but the officer still dragged his feet, Denninger says.)
Likewise, the former 209th prosecutor who tangled with Hunt says McSpadden was sympathetic.
"McSpadden knew about it, and he called Hunt in a couple of times," the prosecutor says. "Hunt would get better for a while, then he'd slip back to his old ways."
Jones isn't so enamored of McSpadden's actions. "I believe Judge McSpadden is protecting this individual," he says. "I believe he is intimidating to some extent the probation officials who cannot figure out what to do with Mr. Hunt.... When [probation officials] met with me, they said they were handling it, that they had admonished [Hunt] about the problem, and I had no reason to doubt their sincerity.
"I did not believe them when they said Judge McSpadden had not been involved in the decision, however," he adds.
Prominent defense attorney Stan Schneider, who refers to the CLO as "Judge Hunt," also believes the real judge of the 209th isn't completely oblivious to what's going on.
"Everyone needs a hatchet man, and [Hunt] serves a role," Schneider says. "No one wants to be a bad guy."
The usually loquacious McSpadden did not return phone calls about his longtime CLO.
Probation department chief Nancy Platt says she cannot talk about the specifics of Hunt's case.
Speaking generally, she says: "Anytime there's a complaint, we will immediately start investigating. Sometimes we will retrain the person, saying, 'You did something improper. If you do it again we're going to take corrective action.' That corrective action could include writing something up for the file, suspension or even termination."
People do not always file a complaint, however, she says. "If they don't complain to me or the department, it's frustrating. I hear about things from time to time, but without direct information it's hard to act on.... There are always two sides to every story, but we do not want folks out there not doing their job right."
She admits that sometimes there are probation officers who get a little overexcited. "But our staff cannot put people in jail. That is up to the judge and the prosecutor. All our staff can do is make the information available."
Acting aggressively to jail probationers "would not be acceptable," she says.
There are other attorneys out there who will talk about their run-ins with Hunt but don't want specifics published because of potential harm to their client. There are others, too, who say they have had no problems in the 209th.
Judge Godwin, the head criminal judge, says CLOs can sometimes fall victim to seeing too many cases. "All cases after a while have a certain sameness to them, and I believe that you constantly have to be vigilant against getting jaded," he says.
But sometimes disputes can be traced simply to personality conflicts, he says of the courthouse in general. "You're dealing with people, and there are good 'uns and bad 'uns.... All defendants want to go to the Betty Ford clinic, and no one wants to go to SAFP, and sometimes that can cause problems," he says.
Still, he says, "a CLO shouldn't say that there are no programs available and just that 'Your guy is going up the river.' That would be wrong."
Godwin didn't know the specifics of Hunt's case, so he wasn't expressing an opinion on whether the 209th's CLO had done what Godwin had just described as being wrong.
Jones, though, has no doubts. "I am certain," he says, "that people go to jail, lose jobs and suffer other major inconveniences because Mr. Hunt cannot or will not do his job properly and fairly."
E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houston press.com.
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