Thursday, January 21, 2016

lessons from Waco biker shootout: dubious behavior by authorities crushes families

The Dallas Observer carries an interview with John Wilson who was at the Waco Twin Peaks restaurant May 17, 2015, when all hell broke loose and nine men were killed in a shootout. Reports say 177 people were arrested that day; 171 were charged with organized crime activity, and 106 were indicted for murder. 

That's a lot of paperwork.

The interview includes some interesting and infuriating details--the cops refused to give aid to bikers who were dying of gunshot wounds, and refused to let anyone else care for them, either--but some of his observations apply to more than the Waco biker gunfight.

Asked if the prosecutor had information on each of the 106 people indicted on murder charges, Wilson says:
No. No — that’s why the grand jury indicted 106 people in a day. They obviously didn’t review 106 cases. The DA says, “Here’s a list, and this is what we allege they do, and indict ‘em for these murders.” And one of the guys — shows you how much the grand jury looked at this case — there were nine people killed out there; they had 10 people listed. They had a guy that wasn’t even out there shot listed as one of the killed, yet they were able to indict 106 people for that person who wasn’t even shot there. A completely different person. That shows you how much burden of proof there is for the grand jury — how little the grand jury looks at anything … The grand jury indictments are a complete joke. They don’t mean anything. All it does is let the DA go to the next step, where he’ll sit there and try to make plea bargains with people so they can’t sue him for false arrest. If they plead anything, they had reason to arrest you. I did nothing illegal. As far as I know, I’ve seen no evidence that they have saying that I did. If they come up with something, it’s wrong, because I didn’t. [My emphasis.]
It is worth remembering that prosecutors have powerful motivations to push defendants to take a plea agreement; protecting the government from false arrest accusations is only one more.

The interviewer asks how the aftermath affects families and Wilson's answer is all too familiar:
Well, you know, most of ‘em weren’t self-employed. Most of them not only have that to deal with, but they lost their jobs. Some of them have lost their homes. Some of them have lost custody of their children. Then go try to find a job when you’re under indictment for killing 10 people. [Chuckles.] It’s had a terrible effect on them. I can’t go out and contact these guys and reach out to them and stuff, but I can assure you there are families being crushed over this. You have 177 families, not individuals, that were affected by this. There are children who will not go to college now because of this. And their parents, in 90 percent of the cases, had nothing to do with the violence or anything wrong. And these children are being punished. These wives are being punished. And this is gonna resonate for generations …
Heartbreakingly familiar.

Over 100 were indicted for murder before a proper investigation was completed and without serious consideration by the grand jury. 
And it’s all being done just so that the local DA can save face for handling this the wrong way. It’s a tragic thing. I’m not saying there aren’t people who should be in trouble. There probably is. But it’s hard for me to believe that [McLennan County District Attorney] Abel Reyna didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and think, 'Dang, I wish I’d have done this thing differently.' Because now if he drops charges on everybody, then he’s gonna face a storm of civil suits. They’ve got to make this thing stay alive long enough to try to get people to plea. [My emphasis.]
Again, the need to get defendants to take a plea agreement. If defendants take plea agreements, there are no trials, no need for the prosecution to prove their cases.

It's a sweet deal for the prosecution but families are being crushed.

Conor Friedersdorf has a piece in The Atlantic about the Waco biker gunfight in which he says it seems likely that two to four of the dead bikers were killed by rounds fired by police. Friedersdorf is appalled by the way the cases have been handled.
[Prosecutors] are entrusted with charging murders in a state with the death penalty. Their due diligence is sufficiently inadequate that individuals totally innocent of murdering William Anderson––and known to be innocent of that by everyone––still find themselves on the wrong end of an indictment for that crime. And an indignant district attorney calls that “a minor error”! 
Dubious behavior by the Waco authorities hardly ends there. From the start, they’ve actively suppressed evidence, making it impossible for the public to know how many of the nine dead bikers were shot by other bikers and how many were shot by police. In September, I noted an Associated Press report that the gunfire that day “included rounds fired by police that hit bikers, though it isn't clear whether those rifle shots caused any of the fatalities.”
Dubious behavior by authorities? Hardly a surprise to anyone who has been through the criminal justice system.

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