Capital murder is a crime in Texas that is a step above felony murder. While a person convicted of felony murder can qualify for probation, even with a life prison sentence, a jury in a capital murder case has only two options, life without parole or the death penalty.
Yet a review of records by KRLD News shows there are 25 capital murder defendants in Dallas County who have been released from the Dallas County jail on bond. The reason can be traced to the coronavirus pandemic.
There is a balancing act between departments. The Dallas County Sheriff’s office has the responsibility ofkeeping the jail safe. Judges have the job of setting bond and keeping the community safe. Dallas County pretrial services is tasked with keeping track of everyone who is able to post bond then monitor the defendant to assure compliance.
Court observers say it is not unheard of to have one or two capital murder suspects who are able to meet the usually-strict conditions: high cash bond and a set of guidelines such as home confinement, abstinence from drugs or alcohol and no weapons. But to have 25 out of jail at once is a first.
“I do think that these bonds and the people being out on bond for this is something that would be a concern for a District Attorney because this is a violent offense. But we have all of these contributing factors that are so unusual right now.” said Messina Madson, who served as Acting Dallas County District Attorney after Susan Hawk’s resignation. Madson is now a criminal defense attorney. “We have the fact that Dallas County is facing a lawsuit for their bond procedures. We have the fact that the criminal justice system because of COVID has basically come to a standstill for six months.”
Adding to the mix is the number of capital murder cases that Dallas County is registering this year, pouring more potentially dangerous accused into a jail system that is fighting a virus and a court system that cannot dispose of the cases.
There is also the question of a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, when they are in custody. Home monitoring buys the State more time.
But there is a downside to the electronic monitoring (ELM). While the ankle monitoring system is sophisticated it is also subject to a lag in notification time. Multiple sources tell KRLD news that the system can detect drugs or alcohol and it can send an alert if a defendant either strays too far from home or tries to cut off the ankle monitor. But there could be a delay of 10 to 15 minutes before the notification makes its way to authorities, who then have to spring into action and try to locate the defendant.
Former DA Madson can understand the two sides and the tightrope everyone is walking.
“I do think that the pandemic is the number one factor that is contributing to that large number.” she said.
Neither the Dallas County Pretrial Services nor the Sheriff’s Office wanted to comment on the record for our story.