VIDEO: Sheriff, DA Tangle - Unfiled cases releasing the accused

Published on Saturday, 19 July 2014 22:49 - Written by Kenneth Dean kdean@tylerpaper.com

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At least eight people arrested on felony charges — including drug crimes and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — have been released from jail the past two years on personal recognizance bonds after the Smith County Sheriff’s Office failed to present cases for a grand jury in the allotted 90-day period as set forth by law, according to records.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph obtained records through the Texas Open Records Act after requesting the information from the Smith County District Attorney’s Office.

The records show the eight people, including 56-year-old Jerry Gene Allen, accused of shooting three people during a disagreement earlier this year, were released between November 2013 and June 30 of this year.

The seven others included two for manufacture and delivery of a controlled substance, two with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, one on assault of a public servant, one forgery and one burglary of a habitation and possession of a controlled substance.

The records further show an additional 13 people could have been released, but they were held on additional charges or federal detainers.

Of those 13, one man was accused of engaging in organized criminal activity, stealing a firearm and possessing body armor. In five of those cases, the person was arrested in late 2012 under the former administration before Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith took office, but the 90 days expired since he took office.

A personal recognizance bond is a signed document in which the defendant promises to appear for all future court dates in a case. The defendant does not have to pay bond money.

Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham, who has served the county as a prosecutor for 19 years, said this is the first time he or his office has seen this issue, and he is concerned about potentially violent criminals being released onto the streets of East Texas because of cases not being filed in a timely manner.

“The only agency we are having a problem with in this area is the Smith County Sheriff’s Office. That only started in January 2013,” Bingham said.

However, Smith said the problem is being addressed, and he would hope for better communication with the DA’s office and an ease on the current guidelines required by the DA on cases.

“I have been in law enforcement for 37 years, and many of those in criminal investigations, so I know what it takes to get a case indicted,” Smith said. “However, I am not going to say that the people you have brought up were not on this department and ultimately me.

“Anything like this that occurs is on me. I am not passing the buck to anybody else. But I do think with a 24- hour operation and 362 employees, we’re going to have things happen. The general public may think we have dropped the ball or put them at risk or whatever, but all this has done is to allow this individual to make bond or PR bond. It does nothing whatsoever or change whatsoever the outcome of the criminal case.”

Bingham said when a person is arrested, under state law, there is a 90-day period when a case must be presented to a grand jury, and the prosecutor must be present at that time to take the case to trial if asked to do so by a judge.

If a case is not presented to a grand jury, the person’s attorney can ask for a personal recognizance bond hearing, and if there are no other reasons the person should be held, the court has no choice but to grant the bond and set the person free from jail.

Bingham reiterated the release does not mean the case is over, and most of the time, the person is rearrested and the case finally makes it through the system.

Susie Saxion, the prosecutor responsible for submitting cases to the grand jury, said the situation is frustrating.

“I can’t do my job unless the officers that bring me their cases do their jobs,” she said.

Mrs. Saxion said she emails the officers, telling them that time is running low, but in some cases, she does not even get a response from the officers.

Smith said staffing issues might have contributed to the problem, but he added he has implemented new policies to keep cases in line with the allotted time period to present them to a grand jury.

The sheriff said the communication about cases should be between the sheriff’s office and DA’s office and not in the public eye.

But Smith was only aware of one person being released this year because of cases not being filed, but records show five people were released on PR bonds between May 12 and June 30.

Smith said there have been meetings with Bingham and his staff about problems Smith sees with the DA’s office

Tyler Police Chief Gary Swindle said he has had meetings with Bingham and Smith about what is required to submit a case. Because of new technologies, the number of items required can be staggering, Swindle said.

Although he agreed to a certain extent, Swindle said his office is filing on-site arrest cases within eight days, and cases requiring a detective to obtain a warrant are filed well before the 90-day period.

“There is a ton of stuff they want, but we have a civilian employee who works all of that for us and does an awesome job. We typically get most of our patrol cases to the DA in eight days,” he said.

Bingham said the late filing of cases was only the tip of the iceberg and believes there is a lack of cooperation with the sheriff’s office, which is leading to the problems in court.

“For 19 years that I have been here, this office has been called to homicide scenes to assist the officers and deputies and to be able to get a better idea of what we will ultimately be prosecuting,” he said. “Unfortunately, with the sheriff’s office, that is not happening under the current administration, and I don’t know why. Many times, I don’t find out about a crime in the county until I get the breaking news alert on my phone or the media contacts me.”

Smith said he believes having a prosecutor on the scene could be detrimental to the case, but said in certain cases they have called Bingham to the scene.

His counterpart at the Tyler Police Department said he believes having DA representatives on scene is a great thing for the case.

“I feel like it is better that they are on scene. They help us out, and them being there is different than looking at photos of a crime scene,” Swindle said.

A jail list from the DA’s office dated July 14 showed multiple current cases in which the person was arrested from 37 to 87 days ago and might be eligible for release on personal recognizance bonds if cases don’t go to a grand jury within the 90-day limit.

“This continues to be a problem, and though there have been conversations with the sheriff, we have not seen any solutions at this point,” Bingham said.

Smith said the case involving Jerry Gene Allen, accused of shooting three people, was handed to the DA’s office on a Tuesday, but it was not presented to the grand jury on Thursday.

Mrs. Saxion said there were several interviews missing from the case, and it was not accepted.

Smith responded, “I’m not a prosecutor, but I am a 37-year law enforcement veteran, and 35 years of those years being in criminal investigations, and I know what it takes for an indictment. I submit to you that there was enough there for an indictment. There may need to be some revamping where we get it indicted and then say we need this for trial. We’re not going to trial that week.”

Bingham said cases should be ready for trial, and he doesn’t understand why the other agencies can get the cases filed and Smith’s office is having difficulties.

“We do require a lot, but we are the ones prosecuting the case, and we need that to ensure the persons alleged to have committed the crimes, whether guilty or innocent, and the victims are all given a fair shake at justice,” he said.

Bingham said he was unaware of any of the eight people committing new crimes after being released.