SAN ANTONIO – Criminal defendants in Bexar County — some charged with heinous offenses — are being released on their own recognizance after being held in jail 90 days or longer.
It's a concerning statistic that increased every year under former District Attorney Nico LaHood and has continued to happen under his successor Joe Gonzales, according to data obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders.
From Jan. 1 to early June this year, 94 defendants were released on PR (personal recognizance) bonds after jail stints of 90 days or longer, according to figures released by the county's Office of Criminal Justice Policy, Planning & Programs.
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That puts the county on pace for well over 200 releases of this type this year.
During 2015, LaHood's first year in office, only 117 defendants fell into this category. The number peaked last year at 228.
"I will tell you that part of the reason that we moved prosecutors around to focus on the more violent cases is to avoid this from happening. And I'm committed to try and keep these numbers down as much as possible in order to keep our community safe," said Gonzales.
The comments came just months after Gonzales proclaimed during a press conference announcing reforms to this office that jail is for "people that are truly violent. Not people that are languishing, awaiting their day in court."
In February, 22-year-old James Tate was charged with aggravated assault of a public servant, after witnesses saw Tate get on top of a VIA driver near a bus stop in the 1000 block of San Pedro Avenue, scratching the man's face and then repeatedly spitting into the open wounds and the man's eyes, according to a VIA Police Department report of the incident.
Evidence gathered at the scene confirmed Tate is HIV-positive.
Despite the seriousness of the felony offense, Tate was released from jail in late May without paying bail.
Bexar County Court records show his attorney filed a motion seeking release because of delay on May 21, since 90 days had passed since Tate's arrest and he had still not been indicted.
Judge Ron Rangel, whose court is hearing Tate's case, had no choice but to sign the order granting bond.
"The law is very clear in explaining that if an individual has been arrested for a crime and that crime is a felony offense, they can be held in custody up to 90 days prior to the case being presented to a grand jury. If that case has not been presented to a grand jury up to that 90th day, then the court has zero discretion in doing anything other than allowing the individual to be released upon presentation by a writ of habeas corpus from a defense attorney," said Rangel.
Since Tate was categorized as indigent, he was able to get a PR bond that allowed him to walk free without paying any money.
On Tate's signed order of release, Rangel added conditions that included an order for Tate to have no contact with VIA employees.
Court records show Tate was rearrested Aug. 9, after missing a court appearance.
During a hearing earlier this week, Tate admitted that he moved and did not update the county on his new address, and therefore was not aware he had a court date in July.
Rangel denied his request to be released and Tate remains in custody at the Bexar County Jail.
"If an individual is a threat to society, you know, the most important thing for a judge is the safety of the community. So if the individual was released on a PR bond, then it's arguable that there would not be safeguards there to protect society," said Rangel. "I think the most frustrating part to judges as it related to cases within the law, within the court system is that folks don't understand that judges are never allowed to understand what the allegations of the case are, other than what the charge is."
A source close to the VIA driver said blood tests done on him after the attack tested negative for HIV.
Pressed by the Defenders about why his office failed to indict Tate within 90 days of his arrest, Gonzales said the arresting agency, the VIA Police Department, failed to hand over information and evidence in a timely fashion.
"There were numerous emails that were exchanged by not one but at least two prosecutors attempting to get this information. Unfortunately, we did not get the information in time for whatever reason," said Gonzales.
The Defenders provided VIA's press office a copy of Gonzales' comments.
A VIA spokesman then said via email, "VIA provided all of the items requested by the District Attorney's office in a timely manner. The DA's office requested the video related to this incident on May 9, 2019, and it was delivered and entered into the DVD log at the DA's office intake desk the following week. On June 17, the DA's office contacted VIA by email to confirm they had a list of items related to the case already - including the surveillance video - and asked for a few more items, including the victim statement and the witness statement. The additional items were provided by July 2."
Asked by the Defenders for a response, Gonzales cited the Michael Morton Act, which requires law enforcement to provide all reports, witness statements and video relevant to the case and then said the case filed by VIA police in March was incomplete.
"As accurately mentioned before, the evidence we did request from VIA Police was not delivered all together, nor was it received in a timely manner. VIA Police did not provide us with the video until 91 days after Mr. Tate's incarceration, which was May 22, 2019. In fact, it wasn't until July 2 (132 days after Mr. Tate was arrested) that VIA Police sent us its complete report (including the complainant's statement - something we first requested May 9, then made a second request for on June 17). We always strive, in every case, to make sure we fully understand the facts so we can make appropriate charging decisions. If we don't have all the information necessary to make those decisions, we cannot proceed to indictment," Gonzales said via email.
Defendant Jessie Pearson, arrested in February 2018 on felony charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child by contact, was released on his own recognizance June 10.
Officials with the District Attorney's Office now admit that Pearson's case highlighted a weakness in its system for notifying prosecutors of a rearrest.
Pearson, who remains free on a PR bond awaiting his next court appearance, confessed to being sexually inappropriate with two girls, ages 11 and 8, on multiple occasions at three area residences, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by the Defenders.
Records show Pearson posted bond days after his initial arrest, but was rearrested this February on a bond forfeiture warrant.
Christian Henricksen, chief of litigation under Gonzales, said the notification system that allowed his rearrest to go unnoticed by prosecutors has now been fixed.
Defendant Bryan Hernandez was arrested March 1 after San Antonio police said he and an unidentified man robbed a woman of her vehicle at gunpoint and then crashed it while fleeing from pursuing officers near Roland Avenue and Rigsby Avenue.
Hernandez, who was booked on charges of aggravated robbery and evading arrest with a vehicle, was released on his own recognizance June 8.
Henricksen said prosecutors knowingly did not indict Hernandez within 90 days. He said he could not discuss their reasons for doing so.