Very few people knew much about the state's Office of Violent Sex Offender Management last spring when the agency quietly moved more than two dozen convicted sex offenders -- men who had already completed their prison sentences -- into a halfway house in Acres Homes without warning anyone living in the north Houston neighborhood.
The Chron's Anita Hassan and Mike Ward broke that story and ever since have been picking at the scab that is the state's controversial civil commitment program for sex offenders, which keeps convicts classified by the state as sexually violent predators, the so-called worst of the worst, confined in halfway houses, boarding homes, and jails -- supposedly to treat "behavioral abnormalities," a legal construct, not a medical condition, in order to safely integrate offenders back into society after they've done their penance.
A number of thorny issues, including questions of whether the program is even constitutional, have since surfaced in regards to how the state handles these offenders, who everyone agrees have already been convicted of heinous crimes. If the program, created by the Legislature in 1999, is meant to treat and transition offenders back into the community, why hasn't a single one successfully completed it in nearly 16 years? If offenders violate the program rules, they're charged with a third-degree felony and sent back to prison -- the Chron reports that over half of the 360 men who have been ordered into the program since 2001 have been charged with rules violations and cycled back into lockup.
At least six offenders have been sent back to prison for life, including Gary Edward Vines, who was charged with a rule violation for returning to his halfway house six minutes late because he'd been standing in line at a local clinic waiting to get his heart and blood pressure medication prescriptions refilled.
Another more recent thorn in the program's side has been Judge Michael Seiler, who presides over the 435th State District Court in Montgomery County, the state's only court specifically tasked with handling civil commitment cases. State Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the senate's criminal justice committee, has been calling for an investigation into Seiler, and on Tuesday Whitmire confirmed that the state Commission on Judicial Conduct has opened an investigation into the judge's comments disparaging sex offenders who come before his court.
The allegations against Seiler are most succinctly wrapped up in attorney Zachary Lee's successful motion to recuse Seiler from the case of Michael Anthony Pettis last month, as first reported by the Conroe Courier. In his motion to take Seiler off the case, Lee submitted a transcript of a speech Seiler made before a tea party PAC in March 2013 explaining his role in the state's civil commitment process. Seiler displayed a photo of Hannibal Lecter for most of the eighteen minute speech, according to the motion (a video of the speech has since been removed from YouTube), and told the crowd, "I'm the only judge in Texas that regularly deals with people that are psychopaths."
Seiler told the crowd how, in hearing another civil commitment case, he kept a gun in his lap while sitting at the bench because the defendant "was way out there." Seiler also lamented that the state has only funded about 50 civil commitment prosecutions a year, and said, "I told the legislature last session, if you want to take the jury trial right away and make it a judge...which is how the Feds have set it up, that I can quickly get through all 35,000 sex offenders [the number currently in Texas prisons] pretty quickly."
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Lee's recusal motion states, "Judge Seiler's comments are inappropriate, excessive, and go beyond what would be considered a normal and acceptable judicial predisposition because he implies that given the opportunity, he would civilly commit all Texas sex offenders, even those who do not meet the criteria for civil commitment."
The motion also cites this exchange from Seiler during a speech to the Montgomery County Republican Women's monthly meeting in September 2011, as captured by the Conroe Courier:
"I'm dealing with 50, usually pedophiles, that are about to be released from prison," he said, to a room clambering with applause that he has never released anyone. "Of all the ones I've heard, they've been committed."
Responding to a question about whether castration is successful in stopping predators from hurting others, Seiler said research shows that it is not because sexual offending is a mental illness.
"The castration would have to kind of occur at neck level," [Seiler] said.
Just this week Seiler was recused from three more civil commitment cases, adding to the eight others he's been forced to step aside from in recent months. Russel Brothers, director of the State Counsel for Offenders, which represents men in civil commitment proceedings, told the Chron his attorneys plan to file motions to remove Seiler from every such case going forward.