Saturday, 26 July 2008

Inquiry hears horror tales of injustice

At hearing in Houston July 18,immigrant workers who had beenarrested in ICE raid.

At Houston prisons hearing, July 18.Left front, Wilma johnson, mother andTeresa Turner, cousin of Lonnie Johnson,executed last summer. Behind themis Njeri Shakur from the Texas DeathPenalty Abolition Movement.
WW photos: Gloria Rubac

By Gloria Rubac Houston
Published Jul 24, 2008 11:40 PM

“I’ve been stunned. I’ve been shocked. I’ve been deeply moved by what I have heard today,” said U.S. Congressperson John Conyers after hundreds of people crammed into Houston’s City Hall on July 18 to give testimony at an Inquiry of Crime, Justice and Race in Harris County. Conyers is chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

The inquiry was hosted by Texas Congressperson Sheila Jackson-Lee and organized by her staff, along with the Coalition for Justice. Preparations for the hearing began last winter after revelations of shocking racist and sexist e-mails sent by the Harris County District Attorney.

The hearing attracted community leaders, grassroots activists, and dozens and dozens of victims of the criminal justice system. When the City Council chambers could no longer hold the crowd, an overflow room was set up with television monitors for those who kept arriving.

Joining Conyers and Jackson-Lee on the panel were Texas state legislators and Houston City Council members.

Speaker after speaker condemned the criminal justice system for being systemically racist and uninterested in true justice. Applause broke out many times and signs were hoisted that read, “Houston, we have a problem!” and “Time to clean house!”

Jose Saavedra cried as he told the panel how his mother died in the county jail after being arrested for a minor traffic ticket. She was diabetic and was refused the insulin she needed, he said. She had also injured her knee in the jail and was denied treatment for that. “There is a problem at the jail,” he stressed. “We could not get any medical care for my mother. She told us they were not caring for her, but we couldn’t get the jail to do anything. We are young and we have lost our mother. And over a ticket?”

Long-time immigrant rights advocate Maria Jimenez spoke about a raid in June by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at a local rag factory. Over a dozen people who had been arrested in the raid stood up with her in the chambers. The workers, mostly women, attended the hearing with their children.

Brothers Sean Ibarra and Erik Ibarra told how Harris County deputies stormed into their home six years ago as Sean was taking photos of deputies’ misconduct toward his neighbors. “They beat my brother and almost beat my mother, pulled guns on my mother and brother, stole evidence, stole my film, and filed false charges on us and arrested us. We tried to have the sheriff investigate these deputies and he did nothing. Six years later, they still work for the sheriff. They have not even been investigated or disciplined,” said Sean Ibarra.

The brothers recently won a $1.7 million lawsuit against Harris County.

Stephanie Storey was engaged to Hernando Torres, one of two men shot and killed by vigilante Joe Horn in November of 2007. “I want justice for these men. They shouldn’t have been burglarizing the house, but they never got to face a jury. Joe Horn was their judge, jury and executioner. Horn took the law into his own hands. This is not right. I want this case to be presented to another grand jury so they can investigate the case,” she told the panel.

Invited speakers included Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, the first African American D.A. in the state of Texas. “We run our office in Dallas with the goal of seeking justice, not convictions,” he told the inquiry panel.

Over 20 innocent people have been released from prison since Watkins took office in January of 2007. Many had served 15 to 25 years and were exonerated after DNA evidence was examined. Watkins has told prisoners convicted in Dallas County that, if they claim innocence, his office will investigate. He has allowed the Innocence Project of Texas to have space in the D.A.’s office and its volunteers work with assistant district attornies to look into cases of innocence.

Many people left the three-hour hearing frustrated because they had not been called to testify. Dozens turned in written reports of abuse because time expired before they could speak. Relatives of those locked in prison or executed submitted information on behalf of their loved ones.

The mothers of Lonnie Johnson, executed on July 24, 2007, and Joseph Nichols, executed on March 7, 2007, submitted information of prosecutorial misconduct in the cases of their sons, who they both said were innocent. Regina Schmahl Guidry submitted documentation on the wrongful conviction of her husband, Howard Guidry, who is a prisoners’ rights activist on Texas death row.

The Judiciary Committee staff will review statements and submitted documents to determine if a full congressional hearing by the committee should be held, Conyers said after the hearing.

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