HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html A Good Shepherd
Pubdate: Fri, 20 Jul 2001
Source: Texas Observer (TX)
Copyright: 2001 The Texas Observer
Author: Chris Macleod
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


Interview With Juan Hinojosa

Despite Governor Perry's last-minute veto rampage, the 2001 session was a 
good one for criminal justice reformers in Texas. Though weakened somewhat 
by amendments, the Fair Defense Act revamped the indigent defense system by 
setting statewide standards for court-appointed lawyers and providing money 
to improve the systems in each county.

Lawmakers also banned racial profiling and the use of race as a predictor 
of future criminal behavior.

Two of the "Tulia" bills, named for a now-notorious undercover drug sting 
in the Panhandle, also became law: Police must now corroborate evidence 
collected by undercover informants in drug stings; and law enforcement 
agencies now have easier access to the disciplinary records of potential 
employees, making it harder for rogue cops to hop from job to job with no 

Representative Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen), chair of the House Committee on 
Criminal Jurisprudence, deserves much of the credit. Instead of looking for 
issues with which to browbeat his ideological opponents, he searched for 

The 55-year-old attorney, who served a 10-year stint in the House from 1981 
to 1991 before being re-elected in 1997, credits his experience as a Marine 
squad leader in Vietnam for his approach to lawmaking.

"The legislative process is a lot like Vietnam," he said. "You never know 
when you're going to get ambushed.

It could come from the right, from the left, from behind, from the front.

Even friendly fire-when somebody you thought was on your side starts taking 
shots at you on a bill because they're getting pressure."

Despite considerable fire from cops and prosecutors, criminal justice 
reformers found a staunch ally in Hinojosa this session. "It was genuinely 
an honor to work with him," said Will Harrell, Executive Director of the 
ACLU of Texas. "He's not there for Hinojosa, he's there for Texas. He's got 
a deeply honed philosophy, but he's pragmatic.

He's without question the most effective member of the House." Hinojosa 
also got high marks from Keith Hampton of the Texas Association of Criminal 
Defense Lawyers. "His process is healthy because it's wide open. He tries 
to give a full hearing to the widest variety of criminal justice bills that 
he can. Some committee chairs are smitten with their power as chairs.

He's not like that."

Hinojosa spoke with T.O. after the session.

Texas Observer: How would you rate the past session? Rep. Juan Hinojosa: 
We've had a great session in terms of the Tulia bills and corroboration of 

We've reformed to a certain extent the asset forfeiture laws. We now 
prohibit the use of race to predict the future criminal behavior of a person.

We stopped racial profiling. We have had a great session.

TO: To what do you attribute the success in moving criminal justice reform 
bills this session? JH: President Bush's campaign brought a lot of scrutiny 
of the Texas criminal justice system.

People were able to see some deficiencies-some perceived, some real-in the 
way we apply the death penalty, in the way we deal with people who are 
mentally retarded, in the way we deal with asset forfeitures, the way the 
system did not seem to be as fair as we thought it should be. I've always 
said this: One of the foundations of any criminal justice system is the 
trust and confidence of the people.

I think that trust and confidence was shaken when DNA [testing] nationwide 
exonerated over 92 people, including a very visible case here in Austin, 
the Christopher Ochoa case. This guy served in the penitentiary for 12 
years, but he was coerced by the police to confess.

We knew then that there were flaws in the system, that we needed to try to 
correct those errors.

TO: The sting in Tulia, which sent many black citizens to jail on the word 
of a discredited undercover officer was one of the events that crystallized 
demands for reform.

What is your reaction to the system that allowed that to happen? JH: What 
happened in Tulia is just completely wrong.

To allow a citizen to be convicted based on the testimony of an undercover 
agent without any corroboration whatsoever, when that agent has a long 
criminal record or disciplinary problems-it tells you that there are flaws 
in the system.

The War on Drugs has become a war on people. We're losing our civil rights, 
the right to privacy, because of our quest to prosecute people who use 
drugs instead of looking at drugs as a health issue.

TO: How do you  view your role as chairman of Criminal Jurisprudence? JH: 
I'm very up front with them and I tell it the way it is. I'm not here to 
favor the prosecution. I'm not here to favor the defense bar. I'm here to 
look in terms of the overall picture of the whole system in terms of public 

So sometimes I'm going to go with the prosecution and sometimes I'll go 
with the defense lawyers, but my main objective is putting a fair and just 
system in place in terms of good public policy for the state of Texas. We 
need to abide by our Constitution and by our laws and protect people's 
privacy and due process.

To: What were some of your disappointments this session? JH: I was very 
surprised by Perry's veto of the bill banning the execution of the mentally 

I think it was a lack of courage. Even President Bush said he would support 
the ban. Another big disappointment was the life without parole 
[Bill,  which encouraged juries to give an alternative to the death penalty 
in capital cases]. I had the votes.

Unfortunately, the debate started late in the day the day after Mother's 
Day and some of us didn't make it in. That hurt, losing that bill.

To: What's your reaction to Perry's veto message for the ban on execution 
of the mentally retarded, in which he said the bill would be an insult to 
juries? JH: I don't think it has anything to do with juries.

That's as simple as it gets. We need to provide guidance to the juries.

You cannot leave all of that discretion to them. Let me be very clear.

A civilized society does not execute the mentally retarded.

Our society should not be so bloodthirsty. There's a difference between the 
mentally retarded, who don't know the difference between right and wrong, 
and those who know what they're doing.

To: What action of the Legislature will have the biggest effect on the 
criminal justice system in Texas? JH: It's a combination. We passed two 
very important bills.

Now, when a peace officer moves from one law enforcement agency to another, 
he has to disclose all the disciplinary actions taken against him [H.B. 
2353]. [Before the law was enacted], you could be hired as a police officer 
if you've beaten up people, if you've had a lot of complaints filed against 
you. Even if you have a criminal record. The new employer doesn't know 
that. The bill will have an impact on [officer] quality and improve law 

The second one [H.B. 2351] deals with informants. It is unacceptable that 
on the word of some weasel that you can convict a citizen and sentence him 
to 99 years to a penitentiary without any corroboration. I think that'll go 
a long way. You'll find that a lot of law enforcement people agree with 
this. The vast majority of law enforcement people are hard-working 
individuals who try to do their job right.

They take pride.

They're professionals. They also know that they have some weasels, some 
crooks within law enforcement. If pressure is put on law enforcement to 
clean up their act and not hire people like Tom Coleman [the undercover 
officer in Tulia], it'll have an impact.

We don't want people like Coleman taking shortcuts and convicting people 
who are innocent.

Law enforcement in general agrees with that position.

TO: What are the prospects for a death penalty moratorium? JH: I don't 
think it's going to happen here in Texas. We have a killing machine in place.

We can slow it down to make sure that we are actually convicting the guilty 
and executing those who are guilty and deserve to be executed.

We need to be very cautious.

We have already shown that there have been innocent people who have been 
found guilty and had to spend years in the penitentiary before they were 
exonerated by DNA. I support the death penalty, but I want a fair, just 
process that provides every opportunity for the defendant to prove that 
he's not guilty or if there's any other mitigating factor.

TO: What is on your agenda for the next session? JH: One of the areas I'd 
really like to look into is the drug task forces. How they operate.

How they're supervised. What accountability is in place.

How they hire informants and peace officers who move from task force to 
task force without having a background check.

What they do with the money.

TO: What is the biggest challenge the Texas Legislature will face in the 
next 10 years? JH: One is to keep the Texas Legislature from being partisan.

The reason I say that is, the vast majority of the time it doesn't matter 
if you're a Democrat or a Republican. There's a lot of crossover on votes.

You need to look at issues based on merit, public policy, on what's good 
for your district and the state of Texas.

In Congress, they're so partisan that they kill that type of initiative. If 
you don't vote along party lines, they punish you and they take away 
committee assignments. Here we assign committee chairmanships to both 
Republicans and Democrats, and that's the way it should be. I think when 
every issue is partisan it's a great disservice to the general public.
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