Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Legendary reporter stops DPS try at withholding info

AG opinion will have statewide impact

A minor victory for Grub Street journalists

Waco – When Booker Vantwon Sterling accompanied a female known only as “Victim #1” to her home and allegedly raped her at gunpoint, he had been out of prison only one day, authorities having released him on Sept. 21, 2011.

According to statements Victim #1 gave a Waco detective and an FBI Special Agent, Mr. Sterling held the gun to her head and told her if she did not “comply with Sterling's commands,” he would kill her.

Mr. Sterling has a criminal history for unlawfully carrying a weapon, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated robbery, and murder, according to a probable cause affidavit filed by Texas Ranger James Burson, Jr.

Ranger Burson's affidavit says the sexual assault was so violent that Victim #1 visited her doctor and the emergency room on successive days, seeking relief for the pain in her genital area.

Mr. Sterling's crime spree was far from finished.

One Man Crime Wave

It takes the signature of a judge to put a violent offender in jail, as much as it takes a judge's signature to order the offender's release.

The reason officials put such a death grip on the information and leave claw marks all over it when they are finally ordered to turn it loose becomes very apparent when you look at the facts and dates and gauge the impact on the victims' lives by the antisocial actions of the criminal and the lackadaisical and sluggish reactions of the prosecutors and jurists who allowed his ill-advised release into the midst of an unsuspecting public.

After all, normal people just do not behave the way Booker Vantwon Sterling does – habitually, perhaps routinely.

On Oct. 3, in the middle of an otherwise sunny and serene autumn day, Mr. Sterling and another party to his crime followed a woman driving an SUV from a business location in Bellmead to the corner of 4th and Franklin in downtown Waco.

Her errand was straightforward enough. She was taking the bank sack to the depository.

Driving a 4-door Chevy sedan, Mr. Sterling and his running buddy purposely rammed the rear end of the woman's SUV. When she alighted to survey the damage, he forced her at gunpoint back into the SUV and forced her to drive across the bridge into east Waco, where he left her and the money on a back street, then fled Waco police officers who had been alerted by an eyewitness to the carjacking.

Here is a man who had been out of prison for less than a fortnight, and in two known criminal incidents, he has been accused of subjecting two women to circumstances you wouldn't wish on a dog.

Pressing a gun to a human being's head, well, it does something to you. That it does.

When a Grand Jury indicted him on January 6 – three days past the 90 day deadline – his attorney gained his release through an application for a writ of habeas corpus on a $50,000 personal recognizance bond.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a corresponding amendment to the Texas Constitution guarantee criminal defendants a right to a speedy trial. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure regulates the speed of justice at 90 days in which prosecutors are allowed to investigate offenses and obtain true bills of indictment from a Grand Jury.

A release on personal recognizance is a transaction which requires no outlay of cash. Mr. Sterling merely signed an oath guaranteeing he would return for his court date, or have a $50,000 lien placed against his real property. The bond agreement does not stipulate exactly where this real property is located, its size, shape, or circumstances of ownership.

All this brings us to the point of our story. When the Texas Rangers obtained the arrest warrant on the aggravated sexual assault case, which was committed well in advance of the day the aggravated robbery-carjacking took place, Deputy U.S. Marshal Slavich of the Fugitive Warrants Division effected Mr. Sterling's arrest.

We of The Legendary requested the “police blotter” information on the offense, including the offense and arrest reports and the affidavit of probable cause, and got turned down flat by the receptionist at Ft. Fisher.

Her reason: It is the policy of the Department of Public Safety's Office of the General Counsel that all such requests must first be cleared by the lawyers, even though Sect. 552 of the Texas Local Government Code says the information must be turned over “promptly.”

Would she forward the request?


She furthermore stated that if one left the material there, she would put the paper through the shredder.

Oh, well, all righty, then. That's what we thought you said, honey.

At the rate law offices move, the response to any such request is hardly newsworthy; at that point, it becomes a matter of historical detail.

Somewhere, buried deep in the arcana of the news trade, there is a subchapter that says if merchants pay to advertise on broadcast outlets, or in the pages of mighty organs of public opinion, they are informed immediately – if not in advance, as in the case of the “ill-fated” BATFE raid on the Branch Davidian compound.

So, what's a boy with a broken rice bowl to do?

One steps back in the pecking order and begins to write for the second edition of history, all the chairs in the first edition bank of writers having been filled with more qualified, more attractive journalists approved by the merchants, financiers, politicians and – yes – the cops and prosecutors. Such a deal.

One chooses to write historical details, naturally, about the foibles of government lawyers who seek to – do whatever it is they do. Ask them, I'm sure they will tell you, but you might have to wait six months for their reply.

The Office of the General Counsel – one would expect a full-dress trumpet alarum and some crazy cats thrashing the bongos on that one – told the Open Records Division of the Office of the Attorney General that they refused to release the information because it contained these words:
“Sterling has a criminal history of Unlawfully carrying a Weapon, Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon, Aggravated Robbery, and Murder.”

Oh, well, la-de-da, brother. Ain't it the truth?

Said Assistant Attorney General Kathleen J. Santos, the request to “issue a ruling of previous determination...” because the affidavit and arrest records contain “information in document maintained in department files that have been filed with a court, without the necessity of seeking a decision from the office. We decline to issue such a previous determination at this time.”

She ordered them to turn the information over to R.S. Gates, a certified peace officer, skilled investigator, and investigative journalist.

With that response, the Open Records Division defeated the DPS lawyer's attempt to insert a redundant, time-consuming, pointless procedure in an open records release policy supported by statutory and case law – for the past 40 years.

I guess it takes the lawyers and cops longer to get used to some things than others. Chalk one up for social media journalists, denizens of “Grub Street.”

R.S. Gates said, “The way I read it, DPS attempted to set up a little deal so all they had to do was include some criminal history information in any document and they would have an AG opinion that said they did not have to release it. The AG shut that down...It is a good day!”

So mote it be.

I have spoken.

I am sincere.

- The Legendary

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