Victims' Wrongs: Injured parties in Harris County say plea bargains go on behind their backs

Some injured parties in Harris County say plea bargains go on behind their backs and without their approval.

It was about 8:30 p.m. on New Year's Day when 18-year-old Taylor Brooks steered his black Camaro into an open-air parking lot in Midtown. He and his friend Evan McAnulty, who both lived a world away in suburban Cypress, had paid an attendant to park there two days before on their way to a teen night at a nearby club, and the two high-school seniors assumed they could do the same on this visit.

The attendant wasn't there this time, but Brooks found a space alongside the lot's fence and backed in. As the two teens were getting out of the car, they say a man came out of the adjoining building waving his arms and yelling, "You can't park here."

Slightly confused, Brooks turned to McAnulty and said, "Well, looks like we'll have to find a spot on the street. No big deal, I guess."

Former U.S. Congressman Craig Washington initially claimed that he fired in self-defense, but later admitted to illegally shooting at the two teenagers.
Former U.S. Congressman Craig Washington initially claimed that he fired in self-defense, but later admitted to illegally shooting at the two teenagers.
Taylor Brooks was driving the car that Craig Washington fired upon.
Courtesy of Debbie Brooks
Taylor Brooks was driving the car that Craig Washington fired upon.

They slid back into the car. Brooks fiddled with his iPod for a moment, but when he looked up, ready to go, he claims the man was standing in front of the exit, walking toward them with a gun.

Scared stiff, McAnulty says the car remained in park while the man approached Brooks's window and jammed the barrel of the gun up against the glass, shouting, "Roll your fucking window down."

Brooks stepped on the gas. He sped out of the lot and made a right onto the street, when a trio of gunshots rang out. All three bullets hit the car door. The teens were unharmed and immediately called the cops.

It turned out that the shooter was former U.S. Congressman Craig Washington, a fiery Democrat who served until 1994, when he returned to his law practice in Midtown. Washington owned the parking lot.

Washington, who did not respond to the Houston Press for this story, has claimed that Brooks was trying to run him over and that he fired in self-defense. But four months after the shooting, in April 2008, a grand jury decided to indict the former congressman on the felony charge of aggravated assault.

The wheels of justice are oftentimes slow, and the two teens and their mothers, Debbie Brooks and Marti McAnulty, waited more than a year while the case kept getting delayed. They wanted to tell their side of the story to a jury, and made it clear to Harris County prosecutor Lynne Parsons that they didn't want to settle for a plea deal. If a jury let Washington off, so be it, but they liked their chances in court.

On the Monday morning of July 20, 2009, Debbie Brooks was sitting by her phone at work waiting for Parsons to call. Brooks says the prosecutor told her to wait there while jury selection took place and that she would ring as soon it had ended to tell Brooks to come down to the courthouse for the start of the trial. Brooks's cell phone was on vibrate, but she wasn't worried because Parsons had her work number.

At about 10:45 a.m., Debbie's phone rang. It was Marti McAnulty.

"Are you sitting down?" she asked.

McAnulty went on to say that she had just gotten off the phone with Parsons, who said that she had agreed to a plea deal with Washington that morning. Washington was admitting that he shot at the teens in exchange for two years of probation in the county's pretrial diversion program, which allows criminals to expunge their record and is used primarily for nonviolent offenders.

Stunned, Brooks noticed that she had missed a call on her cell from Parsons less than ten minutes earlier and called the prosecutor back.

"I told Parsons that it was a load of crap," says Brooks. "I told her that I was in total shock and that we needed to have a say, that we needed to know about this before it's a done deal."

Brooks ran out of her office and sped over to the courthouse, frantically looking for Parsons to see if she could stop or negate the plea deal. But when she got to the courtroom, no one was there. No one, that is, except Washington and his lawyers.

Finally, 45 minutes later, Brooks says, she found Parsons. But by then it was too late.

"The deal had already been signed and sealed behind our backs," says Brooks.

The families say the victimization didn't stop with the near deaths of their sons. Brooks claims that not only did Parsons and the District Attorney's office fail to notify her of the plea agreement, but also that the DA never allowed her son to enter a victim impact statement for the judge to consider before sentencing — all rights afforded to crime victims under Texas law.

Now, seven months later, they find themselves in the same helpless situation as all crime victims who claim their rights have been squashed. And because of the way the law is written, they're unable to do anything but suck it up.

"Defendants' rights are protected and codified in the U.S. Constitution," says Houston crime victim advocate Andy Kahan, "and rightfully so. "But today, victims' rights are a mere courtesy. It's just lip service."
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