Man spends 200 days in Dallas jail, but wasn't convicted

DALLAS (WFFA) – Attorney Laura Buehner is still trying understand how her client could have gotten lost in Dallas County criminal justice system for seven months.

He was put in jail for a misdemeanor criminal trespass case and wasn't even convicted of the crime. Yet, he was in jail longer than even the maximum punishment under state law.

"If your system is such that people are getting lost and serving more than the max jail time even on one offense, it's just not acceptable," Buehner said. "There's no instance in which this would be considered justice."

The Dallas County District's Attorney Office told News 8 that a clerk failed to follow procedure. The wheels of the criminal justice never even got rolling as a result.

"Additional safeguards have been put in place to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Bill Wirskye, the second-in-command for newly sworn in District Attorney Susan Hawk.

Buehner requested that her client's name not be used, because she could not reach him after being released from jail.

She questions whether there could be others in jail in similar situations and believes the county needs to do a top-to-bottom review to determine exactly how the situation occurred and why it wasn't discovered sooner by either the jail, the court clerks, or prosecutors.

Buehner says the man's constitutional right to a speedy trial was clearly violated.

"I think it's definitely a civil rights issue," she said. "Every person in this country is guaranteed due process and the right to a speedy trial. This is in no way speedy."

The 37-year-old man has been a frequent visitor at the Dallas County jail since 2009. He's been arrested and convicted criminal trespass 27 times.

But it was his 28th trip that started his problems.

He was arrested at a Garland DART Station on June 21. He was booked in and bail was set at $500. He was arraigned, and then nothing happened on his case for more than 200 days.

Officials say he fell through the cracks of the justice system -- initially because a clerk with the DA's office didn't deliver case paperwork to the county clerk's office, so the case was never filed with the courts and he wasn't appointed an attorney.

Buehner said as the situation dragged on, the inmate told her that he tried to tell jailers and deputies that something was wrong.

"He was either met with people just ignoring his pleas or requests, or people saying, 'I don't know what to do to help you. It's not my area. It's not my job,'" Buehner said.

Raul Reyna, a Dallas County Sheriff's Department spokesman, said he believes "someone would have listened to him if he was actually telling people that he was in there too long." He said the job of the jail is to detain and that the sheriff's office followed its procedures.

"Until we get an order from the court or other document that says he is to be released, our standard operating procedure is to detain him in jail," Reyna said.

Dallas attorney Pete Schulte, a former prosecutor, said he can believe that the guards dismissed the man's complaints.

"When an inmate asks, 'When I am going to get a court date?' nothing is going to prompt a jail guard to run that up the chain, because it's asked probably a hundred times a day," Schulte said. "You would have to get a very unique circumstance where a jailer would take it upon himself to go look into it."

In a normal situation, if a case like that isn't filed within 72 hours, he would have been released under court order. No order ever came, so he was not released.

The wheels of the system didn't start moving again until the inmate wrote a letter to the public defender's office, begging for help.

"He was desperate," Buehner said. "He hadn't heard anything, wasn't sure what was going on, and [had] no way of knowing when or if he was going to be getting out of jail."

Buehner, who takes misdemeanor court appointments, said she had several cases assigned to her. His was among them.

The night before court, she was reviewing the cases and noticed that he had been booked into the jail in June, and had remained there without a court date.

"That struck me as very odd," she said.

A public defender approached her when she arrived for court on Jan. 9.

"I said, 'Please tell me I'm wrong, and my assumption that this gentleman has been in jail since June 21 is wrong.' He said, 'I wish I could. No. he's been waiting that long,'" Buehner said.

Many questions remain about this happened and why no one noticed sooner. Buehner said the court coordinator told her that he was not showing up on her lists.

The DA's office ultimately decided to dismiss the case against the inmate "in the interest of justice."

The inmate was released Jan. 9 -- more than 200 days after he was incarcerated for an offense punishable by a maximum of 180 days by state law.

The most time that he could have spent in jail on that offense, if convicted, was just 60 days under county rules. The county gives three days credit for each day served.

It was also costly to keep the man behind bars unnecessarily. Jail officials say it costs roughly $60 a day to house an inmate, so the jail stay cost the county more than $12,000.

"I would not have probably been as gracious as he was, but he had a positive attitude," Buehner said. "You know, he was happy with the outcome, but he was very clearly frustrated."

Schulte said what happened in the case may also be a reflection on the inadequacies of the county's jail and court management systems.

The two systems do not talk to each other, he said.

"If there's an error in the old system, it's not going to communicate with the new system and people can get lost in jail," he said. "This is a manual process, and when you have a manual process, it's going to introduce human error."

Schulte said a solution is on the horizon.

Dallas County and other dozens of other counties are working with the state to develop and implement a new adult case management system, which would integrate all of those separate systems into one. The goal is to have a standard case management system used statewide.

"The new case management system is going to automate much of the process, so that it doesn't introduce new human error," he said.


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