After jailing a rape victim for 27 days so she could testify against her attacker, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office announced Monday it had audited itself to make sure something like this never happens again.
District Attorney Devon Anderson said it was a KPRC news story about a mentally ill woman referred to only as "Jenny" in media reports — who was jailed awaiting her rapist's trial because prosecutors feared she would run away — that prompted her to begin reviewing similar cases pending right now. And it turns out, they found some more missteps.
After KPRC's story broke, Anderson defended her prosecutors amid nationwide criticism for their decision to put 25-year-old Jenny in jail. The woman, who is bipolar and schizophrenic, endured a mental health crisis while testifying against the man who raped her, spent ten days in a hospital recovering, then, under a witness bond, spent 27 days in the Harris County jail. Saying she was homeless, prosecutors held Jenny to ensure she wouldn’t flee before they could convict the serial rapist with her testimony.
Since then, Jenny has filed a federal lawsuit alleging a myriad of civil rights violations and unconstitutional arrest and seizure. The suit, as well as KPRC's original story, recounts how Jenny was allegedly thrown in general population and assaulted by other inmates and guards despite needing mental health treatment. Yet even though Anderson called the story "misleading" and, yesterday, "incomplete," it apparently prompted her office to dig into its other bench warrant and witness bond cases to find any shortcomings.
Here's what they found: Currently, 35 people are being held in jail on bench warrants — meaning they have been convicted of crimes in different counties but were transferred to the Harris County jail so they could testify in trials here, Anderson said. Only one person is being held on a witness bond — as in Jenny’s case — so that he can testify in a capital murder trial; he is homeless, Anderson said, and has nowhere to go but the jail.
He has been held for three months, Anderson said.
During the audit, the DA’s office also discovered a sex assault victim who had been held in the jail on a bench warrant two months longer than she should have. Anderson said the woman had been convicted of felony drug possession in another county, then was extradited to Harris County to testify against her rapist. Her sentence for the drug possession was only supposed to last six months — but once it expired, Harris County prosecutors apparently forgot to let her out, and she spent two extra months in the jail on no legal grounds.
“This should not have happened,” Anderson said. “We are looking into why it happened and what went wrong in this case…It was our fault.”
In Jenny’s case, her lawyer, Sean Buckley, sent a letter Monday to Anderson’s office, asking that she appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether criminal charges of official oppression should be filed against the prosecutor who sought to book Jenny in jail. At the news conference, Anderson said Buckley's request is nothing more than an attention-grab for the civil lawsuit, and that there was no evidence that the prosecutor, Nicholas Socias, committed a crime. Anderson instead thinks Socias did “everything he could” to find a place for Jenny other than jail before the trial resumed.
Anderson claimed the lead prosecutor who dealt with Jenny had “many conversations” with her mother while Jenny was in the hospital, trying to figure out where she could go after she was discharged. Apparently, the mother said that taking her daughter into her home would be “too stressful,” Anderson said. Because Jenny had told prosecutors that she was leaving and never coming back following her breakdown in court, Anderson said prosecutors feared they would lose their key witness and a serial rapist — who prosecutors said had 11 victims — would walk free.
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After the hospital stay following her breakdown, Jenny still showed no signs of ever wanting to return to court, Anderson said.
“That’s the worst thing about being a rape victim: You have to stand up in a courtroom and talk about what happened to you in front of the person who did it to you. Nobody wants to go through that. It’s the worst thing ever, but if nobody went through it, these [rapists] would be preying on all of us. And this is a man that we know. We know he will get out and do it again, because he got out and did it to her.”
To change things after the audit, she plans to appoint an “inner office tracker,” whose job will be to monitor people in the jail held on witness bonds and bench warrants to make sure they aren’t sitting in jail because authorities forgot about them. She also wants a prosecutor to petition the Texas Legislature to pass a new law requiring people like Jenny, stuck in jail on a witness bond, to be appointed their own attorneys.
Asked if she had anything to say to Jenny, Anderson said, "I’m very sorry about how all of this played out. ...It was just an awful situation, and I regret it very much."