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.

But the Brookses and McAnultys are more than just unhappy. They feel violated and betrayed.

"The DA's office needs to be more realistic and up front with people," says Marti McAnulty. "Looking back, I feel like they were trying to take advantage of people who didn't know the system. We feel we were victimized by Washington but also by our public servants."

They are not alone.

Houston crime victim advocate Andy Kahan hopes the Brooks and McAnulty case can pave the road to ensuring that victims are notified about plea bargains before they're a done deal.
Chris Curry
Houston crime victim advocate Andy Kahan hopes the Brooks and McAnulty case can pave the road to ensuring that victims are notified about plea bargains before they're a done deal.

Linda was terrified. Her 14-year-old granddaughter, who was visiting other relatives in Galena Park, had gone missing. The young teen was playing in a neighborhood park when she just vanished.

Linda (not her real name) got a call from the relatives that day in mid-July 2008 and then raced over to the police station. She told the cops that her granddaughter had been taken and could be in serious danger, but they wouldn't look for her, Linda says, and instead just listed the girl as a runaway.

For days, Linda scoured the area near the park, putting up flyers and asking anyone around if they remembered seeing the girl. But no one seemed to know a thing.

On the sixth day, the teen turned up near the park and a woman who had seen her picture on a flyer called the police, who later brought her home. At first, Linda's granddaughter seemed fine. But the facade was quickly shattered when she complained about pain around her anus.

Over the next few days, says Linda, the teen told her grandmother that a stranger had kidnapped her from the park and taken her to a nearby house where he gave her drugs and liquor and sexually abused her for nearly a week. She escaped by jumping out of his car when he took her to run errands.

It took about three months, but police were able to track down her abuser, a career criminal named Javier. (The Press is withholding his last name to protect the identity of the victim.) He had been charged with nearly a dozen crimes in the previous ten years, including sexual assault on a child, deadly conduct, forgery and assault. Court records filed by prosecutors say that when Javier was 24, he was dating a 15-year-old. He could now add another charge of sexual assault of a child to his résumé.

Just like Brooks and McAnulty, Linda and her granddaughter wanted to go to trial. It was an emotionally exhausting case, and the two of them put everything they had into making sure Javier was going to pay for what he had done.

It took ten months, but the day of the trial had almost come. Or so Linda thought. She says that she talked to the prosecutor the day before it was to begin and was told to go home while the jury was being selected.

"I asked the DA, 'Are you sure I don't need to be here?'" says Linda. "I was told, 'Yes, jury selection will take all day; we'll go to trial tomorrow. Come back then.' And so I went home."

Later that day, while Linda was at her house filling out a portion of the victim impact statement, preparing to hand it in in time for the judge to read before sentencing, her phone rang. It was a policeman whom she had befriended during the case.

"The officer asked me if I was in court that morning," says Linda. "I told him no, that they were not starting until the next day. Then he said that he had just pulled the case up on his computer and saw that the case ended in a plea deal. I was in shock. How could this be? I was so furious."

Linda immediately dialed up the prosecutor, who said he had accepted a deal sentencing Javier to 15 years in prison.

"All he told me," says Linda, "was that it happened very quickly that day in court and that he was fixin' to call me."

Linda never finished filling out the victim impact statement after hearing that the plea deal was done. What was the point, she thought.

"It's not okay that they did this," Linda says. "When I had to tell my granddaughter, she said, 'I went through all of this, I told everybody what he did to me and it was embarrassing, and then when we're not even there they give him 15 years behind our backs. Something needs to be changed.' And I agree. It's been a horrible, horrible experience."

It's not only victims who feel this way.

Seth Ellerin is an attorney in Bellaire who usually only takes civil cases. He made a brief foray, however, into Harris County criminal law in the summer of 2008, and it left him with a bitter taste.

On May 6, 2008, Jermaine Roshawn Barnes pummeled Ellerin's client, Benigno Lopez. Afterward, Lopez went to the hospital, where doctors performed surgery to fix his face, which was broken in several spots. Lopez's medical bills exceeded $70,000 and he was left with permanent scarring on his head.

Police arrested Barnes and charged him with misdemeanor assault. Ellerin was hired primarily to persuade prosecutors to bump the charge up to a felony and to let the DA's office know that Lopez had an attorney and that he wanted to be kept informed about the case.

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