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In recent weeks, local and national news outlets have reported that the Harris County District Attorney’s office in Houston, Texas, jailed a victim in a rape case in order to compel her to testify at her attacker’s trial. Though there has been some excellent coverage of the case, such an obvious and disturbing example of prosecutorial misuse of discretion could use more attention. A summary of the story and associated news articles is below, and a PDF copy of the woman’s federal lawsuit is available here.

 

Summary

Following a hearing in which a rape victim testified against her attacker in December, 2015, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston, Texas, had the woman jailed on a witness warrant to ensure that she would return to testify at trial.

The woman, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was held in jail for a month over the holidays, placed in a pod with other inmates and subsequently abused. After being denied a request to spend Christmas with her mother, who is suffering with cancer, the woman had a psychiatric episode on January 8, 2016 and says she was punched in the eye and slammed on the ground by guards who were handcuffing her as a result. She was charged with assault. Three days after testifying at her attacker’s trial, she was finally released from jail and the assault charge against her was dropped.

On July 18, the woman filed a federal lawsuit that names Harris County, its Sheriff Ron Hickman, Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Socias, contract jailer Taylor Adams and 40 John Doe employees of the county jail and DA’s office as defendants.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) condemned the treatment of the woman in a letter to District Attorney Devon Anderson’s office on July 22. Anderson initially defended her office’s actions suggesting there “were no apparent alternatives that would ensure both the victim’s safety and her appearance in trial.” However, the woman’s attorney disputed Anderson’s version of events, noting that though Anderson said the situation was complicated by the fact that the woman was homeless, her own investigators had actually arrested the woman from her apartment.

Following a public outcry and the letter from NAMI, Anderson has said her office is looking at ways to deal with these sorts of situations differently in the future.

 

Examples of News Coverage

“Rape Victim Says Texas Jailers Were Brutal,” Cameron Langford, Courthouse News Service, July 20, 2016

A schizophrenic woman claims through her attorney that Texas prosecutors jailed her for a month to testify against her rapist, and charged her with assault after a guard punched her for “loudly pleading with God” to rescue her.

Jane Doe says she had a “mental breakdown” while testifying on Dec. 8, 2015 against the man who choked, raped and sodomized her. She was taken to a Houston hospital, prompting the judge to postpone the trial for several weeks.

She sued Harris County, its Sheriff Ron Hickman, Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Socias, contract jailer Taylor Adams and 40 John Doe employees of the county jail and DA’s office on July 18.

She claims Socias obtained an attachment order to detain her as a witness and had her arrested at the hospital, preventing her from going home to Longview, 200 miles north of Houston, to spend the holidays with her cancer-stricken mother…

Though jailers knew she was mentally unstable, Doe says, they denied her medication and put her in a “pod” with 24 other inmates, all of whom were black.

Some of them taunted Doe about her race and one of them pushed her down and slammed her head into the floor the night of Dec. 23, Doe says.

“Following this brutal attack, jail staff finally moved Jane Doe to a different pod,” the complaint states.

 

Houston Chronicle, reporters Brian Rogers, Mike Glenn and Samantha Ketterer

July 20, 2016: “Rape victim jailed after breakdown on witness stand files federal lawsuit

The 25-year-old rape victim, frightened and long-suffering from mental illness, agreed in December to testify against the Houston man who brutally assaulted her in 2013.

She hoped to put him behind bars for life.

But that decision landed her in the Harris County jail for more than a month over the Christmas holiday – terrified, helpless and hopeless, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week in Houston….

District Attorney Devon Anderson said the woman, who was homeless when she was raped, was going through a “life-threatening mental health crisis” and told prosecutors she was not going to return to testify.

“If nothing was done to prevent the victim from leaving Harris County in the middle of trial, a serial rapist would have gone free – and her life would have been at risk while homeless on the street,” Anderson said in a video statement. “This was an extraordinarily difficult and unusual situation. There were no apparent alternatives that would ensure both the victim’s safety and her appearance in trial.”

July 22, 2016: “Independent probe of rape victim’s incarceration sought

A nationwide mental health advocacy group is calling for an independent investigation into the treatment of a rape victim who was jailed after having a breakdown in court.

“It is inexcusable to jail someone experiencing a ‘life threatening mental health crisis,'” the National Alliance on Mental Illness wrote in a letter dated Friday to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, a Republican running for re-election in November…

The letter follows a similar call for an investigation on Thursday by Kim Ogg, Anderson’s Democratic opponent.

July 25, 2016: “DA seeks help from mental health group to prevent repeat of rape victim jailing

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson on Monday expressed sympathy over jailing a mentally-ill rape victim for almost a month to ensure the attacker’s conviction and said the office now is working with a national mental health advocacy group to avoid similar situations…

We feel for this victim, and what happened to her shouldn’t have happened,” said Jeff McShan. “We are asking (the mental illness group) to work with us on finding solutions so when a person with life-threatening mental issue is refusing help, we can get it for them.”

He said those solutions could even mean advocating for legislative changes but did not elaborate.

July 26, 2016: “Ogg says DA’s office needs reform to protect rape victims

District attorney candidate Kim Ogg pushed for reform Tuesday in the treatment of crime victims following the high-profile jailing of a rape victim so she would testify in court.

Ogg said the district attorney’s office could use funding to better house the victims if they are worried witnesses might not show up in court, and she suggested creation of a new division in the city that would be responsible for prosecuting people who commit sex crimes.

“I will never put a crime victim in jail to secure a conviction,” she said at a Tuesday press conference. “There are so many other things we can do.”

Ogg said she wants to eliminate the backlog of rape kits by using drug forfeiture funds.

 

“Texas Rape Victim Was Jailed for Fear She Would Not Testify, Lawsuit Says,” Daniel Victor, New York Times, July 22, 2016

A rape victim who was jailed in Texas for nearly a month because prosecutors feared she would not return to testify after having a mental breakdown on the stand has sued the Harris County district attorney’s office, county officials and jail employees…

The Harris County Jail, one of the nation’s largest, has become known for allegations of deaths, beatings, civil rights abuses, unjust prosecutions and medical neglect, according to a six-part series in The Houston Chronicle.

 

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