FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) - Repeated, direct criticisms of decisions by judges and magistrates, from the top prosecutor in Tarrant County, were not just unusual but could have a chilling effect in some courtrooms according to attorneys who spoke about the issue Monday, Feb. 28.
The reaction followed back-to-back press releases from District Attorney Sharen Wilson on Friday and Saturday. In each release her office named specific magistrates and judges, pointing out bond amounts they had set for defendants who later were released from jail only to become accused in violent crimes.
While frustration from law enforcement and prosecutors over bond amounts is not uncommon, it isn't typical for parties to publicly complain about the process involving specific cases.
"While you can criticize facts, and disagree with a ruling, you should always show respect for the process," said Fort Worth criminal defense attorney Benson Varghese, who said he couldn't remember another instance where an elected DA had named judges to criticize bond amounts.
Wilson's office sent out a release Friday during an active Amber Alert in the disappearance of a 11-month-old girl.
As police were looking for Lancelot Dawkins, the girl's father, the release pointed out and named a magistrate who had set a $3,500 bond for Dawkins after he was accused of strangling the girl's mother in December. It also named the judge who set the same bond again for Dawkins, the day before the baby was taken.
Saturday, another release named a magistrate who set a total bond amount of $15,000 for Valerian Osteen.
The release said after Osteen was released, he is suspected of murdering Marissa Grimes, who disappeared in mid-February.
Each release pointed out magistrates and judges had access to risk assessment and criminal histories on the accused, suggesting that information should have led to higher bond amounts preventing their release.
In the past Wilson has declined to comment on bonds judges have set in specific cases, where someone has been released and reoffended.
She said Tuesday though that she had decided people need to know what's happening.
"We're supposed to speak about issues," she said.
Wilson remarked that the process happens out of the public eye, with unknown magistrates handling the process in places the public can't access. One of the magistrates involved with a case she highlighted has written in a blog online how his work happens in a cinderblock room, in the basement of the jail, or during the pandemic, through a closed circuit video system.
Attorneys said prosecutors can provide input if they think a bond amount is too low.
"The place for a DA to complain about judge's bonds is in the courtroom, and they should be fighting every single motion to reduce bond if they feel that's the right thing to do," said Steve Fischer, an El Paso attorney who has been a State Bar director and on the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Wilson countered though that her department doesn't have the staff to be able to do that on every case, and doesn't know when each initial appearance even happens. Rather they count on magistrates and judges to set an appropriate bond.
Criticism of a judge on a case is against decorum, Fischer said, and that state rules of professional conduct warn attorneys not to make public statements that could prejudice a case.
In the case involving Dawkins, Varghese said he the judge's actions were what every other judge in the county would have done on the same case.
The statements came just days before a primary election that will narrow down the field of potential successors for Wilson's job. Six candidates are vying for the position after she announced last year she would not run again.
for more features.