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's been an uphill battle for victims' rights advocates in Texas over the past 30 years, but one that's reaped significant victories. The movement has progressed from the 1970s, when grassroots groups started trying to raise the consciousness about the impact of violent crimes, to getting statutory rights for crime victims on the books decades later.

Included among the current laws is the right for a victim to submit a statement on how the violent crime affected him and to have that statement considered by the prosecutor and the judge before sentencing or before a plea agreement is accepted, and the right, if requested, to have the state notify the victim "as far as reasonably practicable" of any court proceedings and any plea agreements presented to the prosecutor.

It is in the interpretation of these laws, however, that Debbie Brooks and the Harris County DA's office disagree.

Debbie Brooks says she is standing up for all victims who were never notified about a plea agreement or allowed to submit a victim impact statement, and has filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the prosecutor.
Chris Curry
Debbie Brooks says she is standing up for all victims who were never notified about a plea agreement or allowed to submit a victim impact statement, and has filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the prosecutor.
Marti McAnulty feels that the DA's office takes advantage of crime victims who are unfamiliar with their rights and how the court system works.
Chris Curry
Marti McAnulty feels that the DA's office takes advantage of crime victims who are unfamiliar with their rights and how the court system works.

For starters, Brooks claims that Parsons did not notify her of the plea deal ahead of time and only called her that Monday on her cell phone, shortly after the agreement was completed.

"When we talked that morning," says Brooks, "Parsons said it was a done deal and that that was it. At the very least, we should have gotten a phone call saying, 'Hey guys, they've approached us with a plea deal; do you want to take it or go to trial?' We weren't even given that courtesy. I realize that it's the state versus Craig Washington and that ultimately we don't get to decide what to do, but is the state going to testify? If my son was killed, would the state pay for his funeral or grieve for the rest of its life? I don't think so. Yes, it's the state versus Washington, but the prosecutors are supposed to act on behalf of the victim and they did not do their job."

The disagreement is over whether the DA has to tell victims about a plea ahead of time or afterward.

"There is no obligation to give advance notice to all victims of plea bargains," says Donna Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

This reading of the law frustrates Kahan.

"I would clearly interpret cutting a plea deal to be included in the notification provision of the statute," he says. "What's the point of telling someone after it's done? That completely defeats the purpose and the spirit of the law."

The two teens' parents are also upset that Parsons apparently talked to the father of a boy who witnessed the shooting to ask whether she should accept the plea deal before she called either Brooks or McAnulty.

That Monday morning, Parsons called George McKay, whose son was near the parking lot when Washington opened fire. Parsons "called me and asked my opinion," says McKay, "and I basically told her, 'Look, my son was only a witness and my opinion is really not the one you need. You need to talk to the other parents.' I was kind of surprised."

Says Evan's father, Mike McAnulty, "What the hell was [Parsons] thinking, talking to McKay? If you have time to call him apparently before the deal was finished, why don't you have the time to call us? It's bullshit."

Parsons claims that the whole deal went down quickly and that she did the best she could. She says she was planning on going to trial that day, but Washington's lawyer offered up the deal just before jury selection.

"There were time constraints," Parsons says, "and as certain things were being worked out, I made every effort to contact both the mothers of Taylor Brooks and Evan McAnulty, and I left messages for them. I feel like I always had the best interests of the victims in mind when this plea bargain was unfolding and I felt like justice was served. And so I find this very painful, that they feel like they've been trampled on. I never had anything but their best interests in mind and getting Craig Washington to take ownership of his actions that night."

As for calling McKay, Parsons says she called all of the people that morning who were involved in the case.

When Pat Lykos took the helm of the DA's office in January 2009, one of her first moves was to beef up the Victims' Rights Division, adding additional staff and naming prosecutor Michelle Permenter as director of the operation. Permenter says that her office gets involved in cases in one of two ways: Either the victim asks for help or the prosecutor requests it. By law, her office is required to send crime victims several pieces of information, including the victim impact statement form.

Brooks says her son never got it in time.

"They sent the victim impact statement only after the plea agreement was over," she says. "We have not sent it back because what's the point? It's not like the judge can consider it now before accepting the plea."

In response, Permenter says, "We send out a large number of notifications daily. As a whole and on a daily basis, at some point is someone going to be unhappy at the end of the day? Sure, that's a possibility."

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