Author Topic: New DA's early efforts aimed at quicker case handling, shorter pretrial jail stays  (Read 164 times)

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WacoTrib By TOMMY WITHERSPOON 2/16/2019

In the 47 days since Barry Johnson became McLennan County district attorney, he and his staff have tried to reverse the ravages that the Twin Peaks shootout cases and the stagnant final nine months of Abel Reyna's administration took on the county's criminal justice system.

After Johnson beat Reyna in the March primary, a frequent mantra around the courthouse was, "Let's wait to see what Barry wants to do about that."

That wait-and-see philosophy and the unprecedented overall slowdown created by 151 felony Twin Peaks cases being dumped into the system all at once ballooned the dockets in Waco's two felony state district courts and kept people in jail waiting for trial for unusually long periods of time.

Johnson hit the ground running, hiring veteran prosecutor Nelson Barnes away from Bell County as his first assistant and convincing his former longtime law associate in Dallas, Tom Needham, to move to Waco as his executive assistant district attorney.

The job quickly became more challenging than Johnson had imagined. The office computer system crashed Jan. 11, in large part under the weight of new video being added from police body cameras. And Johnson, who thought there might be 4,000 misdemeanor cases pending, learned to his surprise that there are more than 9,000, with some dating back to 2002. And as promised, Johnson and staff members started reviewing the 24 remaining Twin Peaks cases to determine how to proceed with the almost 4-year-old cases.

So as he doused one grass fire after another, Johnson and his team have freed the hands of assistant prosecutors, who once had to seek permission from Reyna or his top assistant before extending plea offers and were prevented from speaking to the media. They also are trying to heal existing rifts among the DA's office and area law enforcement agencies while proposing changes Johnson thinks will make the system more efficient and decrease docket backlogs and the county jail population.

"It's a lot deeper hole than we thought it was going to be as far as the backlog of cases," Johnson said. "It is a huge problem, but we are bound and determined to get it fixed."

"And we have a group of people with some real strong shovels and they are filling the hole every day," Barnes added. "Very early on it became clear to us that we have a really good team and they are really strong about knowing what they need to be doing. We just think they have been held back. We inherited a very talented football team, if you want to say it that way."

To punctuate the slowdown, about 85 to 90 percent of new cases brought in are disposed of each year, Barnes said. In the past two years, that figure dropped off dramatically. Last year, it fell to 28 percent, he said.

There are about 2,500 pending felony cases in McLennan County, with about 900 pending in Judge Matt Johnson's 54th State District Court and about 1,600 pending in Judge Ralph Strother's 19th State District Court.

Before the Twin Peaks shootout in May 2015, Johnson said his docket was down to about 300 pending cases, which he considered good at the time.

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