Former TOP board director warned group of bail program that bonded out man accused in killing spree

Texas Organizing Project bonded out man accused of killing 6 people in San Antonio, Austin

SAN ANTONIO – A former board director of the Texas Organizing Project says he warned the organization of its bail program, saying it would be a risk to public safety.

In January 2022, TOP bonded out Shane James, 34, on misdemeanor assault charges against family members who he is now accused of killing. Law enforcement authorities said James went on a killing spree in San Antonio and Austin on Tuesday, killing six people.

“In their efforts to end cash bail, they’re actively trying to bail people out who they feel are being hindered economically,” said the former board member, who asked to remain anonymous

The former board member, who worked with TOP from 2018-2021, explained the organization’s bail program goal is criminal justice reform and pays bail for people it believes cannot afford it.

“What is their protocol when they decide if they’re going to pick up the financial cost?” asked KSAT reporter John Paul Barajas.

“They have no requirement. It’s purely economic, and this is an example of their lack of oversight when it comes to who they are bailing out,” the former board member said.

“What was the feedback when you voiced your concerns?” Barajas asked.

“Ignored, they ignored it, that it wasn’t my purview, and it wasn’t my position to talk about that,” he answered.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said James had three warrants in Bexar County for misdemeanor assault causing bodily injury-family. He was bonded out by the Texas Organizing Project in early 2022.

TOP did not respond to KSAT’s phone calls, emails, or in-person visit, on Thursday, but did send this statement Wednesday.

Texas Organizing Project (TOP) is profoundly saddened and deeply troubled by the recent tragic events involving Shane James. We condemn his most recent egregious acts, full stop. Our heartfelt condolences go out to the victims and their families during this incredibly difficult time.

Through our justice program, we bailed out James in coordination with the Bexar County’s public defender’s office, nearly two years ago in February 2022 on misdemeanor charges where his bond fees totaled $300. The events that have unfolded are devastating, and we recognize the pain and suffering this incident has caused. We take our responsibilities seriously and acknowledge that we must address both the immediate impact of this tragedy and the broader implications for our bail program.

TOP was founded with a commitment to transforming Texas into a state that works for everyone. A piece of our work is reforming the criminal justice system, advocating for fairness, and providing support to those who have often been marginalized and underserved. We firmly believe in the presumption of innocence until proven guilty and our mission is to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to address their legal challenges while awaiting trial in a just and equitable manner.

We want to make clear that TOP has a thorough and rigorous screening process in place to assess individuals who are eligible for our bail program, with a focus on assisting with misdemeanor offenses. James was deemed eligible based on our criteria at the time. However, TOP has had no interaction with James since March 2022. We acknowledge that our assessments cannot anticipate the future actions of individuals. We are committed to conducting a comprehensive internal review of our program and processes.

We understand that some may try to use this tragedy to criticize bail programs, even for misdemeanors. We remain steadfast in our commitment to our mission, advocating for the rights and representation of all Texans.

Additionally, we are acutely aware of the urgent need to address gun violence as an endemic issue in Texas and across the United States. We can’t ignore the larger context in which incidents like these occur. Our commitment to transforming our state and nation’s criminal justice system includes advocating for sensible gun control measures and community safety initiatives that can help prevent tragedies.

On Friday afternoon, TOP released a full statement titled “clarifying the facts.”

The statement sent by co-Executive Director Michelle Tremillo to news organizations states:

Texas Organizing Project (TOP) extends our deepest condolences to those affected by the recent tragedy involving Shane James. In this time of grief, we stand united with the community.

Recent discussions have scrutinized TOP Education Fund’s bail work, particularly our involvement with James. Here are the facts: Initially, James’s bail was set at $1,500 for a misdemeanor, later reduced to $300 by the judge – a decision reflecting a non-high-risk assessment. TOP Education Fund in partnership with Bexar County’s public defender’s office, facilitated James’s bail for his first-time misdemeanor charges in February 2022. Our involvement concluded in March 2022. It’s also important to note that even if James had been convicted to the maximum extent for his charges, the legal system would likely have released him within a year, and more likely in six months or less. TOP has worked with Bexar County officials to advocate for policies that balance the rights of the accused, safety of the community, and cost to taxpayers for pretrial incarceration. The pretrial assessment, the judge’s decision, and the actions of the district attorney’s office and the public defender’s office in this case were consistent with current best practices for low-level misdemeanors in the state of Texas.

It's vital to cut through the misinformation and lies. The core issues extend beyond this incident and our bail program. There is an urgent need for comprehensive mental health care services and substantial gun reform in Texas. We remain steadfast in our goal of transforming the justice system and our bail program is one piece of that work. Root causes including poverty, addiction, and mental health must be addressed to ensure lasting public safety.

Our commitment to TOP Education Fund’s bail program is unwavering, grounded in the belief that financial constraints should not be a barrier to pretrial release, especially for low-level or first-time offenses. We will continue supporting our bail program and our Black and Latino communities, who are overwhelmingly disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.

Again, our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We also reinforce TOP’s pledge to continue advocating for a more equitable and fair justice system for all Texans – regardless of age, race, gender, or income level.

About the Authors:

John Paul Barajas is a reporter at KSAT 12. Previously, he worked at KRGV 5 in the Rio Grande Valley. He has a degree from the University of Houston. In his free time, he likes to get a workout in, spend time on the water and check out good eats and drinks.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.