Justice for Some

Just who is a victim? After flexing its muscles to reform the justice system, the victims’ rights movement suffers growing pains over divisive issues.

(Clements and Kahan, saying they believed the Houston Press is biased, refused to be interviewed for this article. See "About the Author.")

University of Houston law professor David Dow sees the hard-line execution position as a major problem with Justice For All. Dow is a director of the Innocence Project in Texas, a volunteer group that investigates convicts' claims of innocence.

JFA, says Dow, is "unwilling to be critical of the police or prosecutors, even in cases where they deserve to be criticized, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the system makes mistakes."

Clements has helped to reform the justice system as a JFA leader.
AP/Pat Sullivan
Clements has helped to reform the justice system as a JFA leader.
Cushing: A double standard exists over who's considered a victim.
Cushing: A double standard exists over who's considered a victim.

Dow says wrongful convictions point out serious shortcomings that Justice For All refuses to acknowledge. "Justice For All people are mostly middle-class white folks who are never going to be put in the position of being wrongly accused."

He says that many of those exonerated -- by DNA results or other evidence -- are poor and black, and that Justice For All does not consider that the wrongly convicted are crime victims, too. Dow says they "tend to have a racist view that, well, the person may not have done this, but he did something else."

JFA representative Rusty Hubbarth, testifying to Texas legislators last year on a proposal for a moratorium on executions, was asked by one lawmaker, "Rusty, you're not in favor of executing innocent people, are you?"

"Not this week," Hubbarth joked.

The humor was probably lost on two men in attendance that day. Randall Adams and Kerry Cook had collectively spent more than a decade in prison for crimes they didn't commit -- they'd both come within hours of execution.

Nor would they likely find funny the T-shirts that some JFA members wear at conferences. The shirts feature a thuggish-looking brute, arms outstretched, lying on a gurney. The caption reads, "Stick it to 'em."

In 1997, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice renamed a prison in Humble after JFA founder Lychner, an honor normally reserved for law enforcement officers. That, and a bizarre prison tour incident, have some wondering just how deeply the group's reach extends.

Robert Fratta was sent to death row after his Harris County conviction in 1996 for arranging the murder of his wife. In June 2000, he looked up from inside his high-security prison cell at a startling sight: Staring back at him through his cell window were Lex and Betty Baquer, the parents of his murdered wife. Accompanying them was what looked like a lynch mob, Fratta says.

The convict says Betty Baquer pursed her lips as if to spit on him, which he avoided by moving to the side. Fratta claims the tour group taunted and harassed him.

While Hollywood has depicted similar dramatic confrontations, in reality they are virtually nonexistent -- such encounters are serious violations of prison security and TDCJ policy.

It's unclear just how the Baquers got to Fratta's cell, but someone knew exactly what he or she was doing. Another woman who has toured death row notes that the only stairway to Fratta's second-floor cell is through a locked door. Fratta says a guard led the Justice For All group straight to him; prison officials say the guard was distracted by JFA members while others sneaked away to Fratta's cell.

TDCJ spokesman Larry Todd says the incident "is unacceptable on our part. It's unfortunate, and we don't tolerate it."

Death row tours have since been canceled, although JFA in its January 1996 newsletter rejoiced about an earlier prison tour that included state District Judge Jan Krocker. On that tour, JFA member Bob Corriera got to confront his daughter's killer, Rex Mays, who was recently executed.

Critics of JFA point to these incidents, the tasteless T-shirts and the seemingly casual disregard for the wrongly accused as indicative of the group's mind-set. The most common criticism is that they are so tightly wound in anger and revenge that they do themselves, and others, more harm than good.

Psychologist David Doerfler, a crime victim who worked in TDCJ's Victim Services for eight years, says that some victims' groups "are extremely vindictive, very adversarial, and will not allow for the variance of other victims who choose not to respond aggressively or violently. I don't mean physically, but forcing themselves and their opinions on others."

When it comes to spreading the gospel of Justice For All, the group's best ambassador has to be the well-positioned Andy Kahan.

In his publicly funded role as the city's crime victims' advocate, Kahan is the first in line to extend help to many new victims. Houston police even carry his official city business card to hand out to those they meet who have been harmed by criminals.

He qualifies for the job in part by being a crime victim himself. Kahan told the Houston Chronicle that he dressed as a chicken and sang to make extra money as a college student in 1981. While dressed as that chicken, he said, a crowd of drunks beat him and put a gun to his head.

His job duties are typical of victims' advocates: He expedites services and compensation for victims, acts as a city liaison for crime prevention and victims' groups, works with organizations to achieve reforms in the justice system, monitors statistics to make sure Houston is not a "dumping ground" for parolees and provides other help. Kahan has discretion on referrals of victims to various advocacy groups, and his close ties to JFA make some wonder if -- as JFA's victims' group coordinator -- he doubles as the prime recruiter for the organization.

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