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Does the Harris County shake-up mean good news for defendants?

There's been a big shake-up at the Harris County, Texas, prosecutor's office as incoming district attorney, Kim Ogg, handed out more than three dozen pink slips to some of the top prosecutors. The total represents a little more than 10 percent of the overall staff and a big change in managerial style.

It probably also means good news for defendants hoping for a fair trial under the current administration, something that few felt was possible under the past administration.

The previous administration had a history of mistakes and abuses involving the mistreatment of defendants and even witnesses over the last few years that left it with a reputation for only upholding the rights of defendants when forced to by a lawsuit.

In a rare victory for defense attorneys in the county, the revelation that Harris County deputies improperly disposed of thousands of pieces of evidence forced the dismissal of at least 90 drug cases. However, the prosecutor's office had taken a number of other actions over the last few years that defense attorneys and human rights activists have characterized as abusive, including jailing a mentally-ill rape survivor in the general prison population after she broke down on the witness stand while testifying. The outgoing DA justified her imprisonment based on a fear that she would disappear before the trial resumed, which illustrated the "win at all costs" mentality many said the office had developed.

Other reported abuses have included holding a man in jail for eight months after his conviction was overturned while the previous district attorney decided whether to retry him and blaming the Black Lives Matter movement for a deputy's shooting death despite a total lack of evidence that the movement was involved.

It's likely that more changes are coming to the prosecutor's office in the coming year once the new district attorney settles in and has more time to review the situation in her office. Defense attorneys and private citizens alike are welcoming the changes, because it indicates a willingness by the new DA to make reforms that will enforce the rules meant to protect the rights of the accused—something that has seemed to be far from guaranteed in the last few years.

Source: Houston Chronicle, "Shake-up at the courthouse: Incoming DA Ogg hands pink slips to 37 top prosecutors," Brian Rogers, Dec. 16, 2016

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