Residents, potential jurors and family members of the victims are all waiting for several high-profile trials to get underway in Wichita Falls.
Charges have been leveled against suspects in the cases Monica Partida (February 2011) and Muhammad "Mo" Ahmad (January 2012) and against former Wichita Falls police officer Teddy Whitefield, but no juries have been seated. We went digging for answers to why the process takes so long and just how much work goes into investigating and prosecuting those authorities believe to be responsible.
Officer Brian Bohn has been with the Wichita Falls Police Department for nearly 20 years, spending time with the tactical unit, crime free unit and as a detective with the criminal investigative section.
Officer Bohn sat down with Newschannel 6to discuss the process investigators go through during their investigations. He used a homicide as an example and said as soon as first responders arrive the calls start being made. He said, "You've got detectives being called, I.D. techs being called. You've got to log all your evidence, you've got to interview all the witnesses. Then you need to figure out what needs to be sent to the lab and even determine if there's any video evidence."
Much of the evidence collected also needs to be analyzed. For those services, the Police Department and District Attorney's Office rely on larger out-of-town labs. District Attorney Maureen Shelton said, "We use Tarrant County Medical Examiners Office, so were competing with the Fort Worth area for our autopsies, and ballistics and those types of things, and DNA testing." Depending on the wait, evidence could take months to come back.
Both Bohn and Shelton said fast-paced crime dramas on television give the public the wrong idea about how investigations proceed. Bohn said, "Your shows like CSI, I mean everything goes to the lab, they've got it back within an hour. Your crimes been committed, your suspects been found, interviewed, all your evidence has come back from the lab, you've got an arrest, you've got a trial and they're sent off to jail."
Shelton added, "From that standpoint it's not realistic. What we have to do is take our time, make sure we have the right person and we can prove they're guilty of the offense."
Even with the lengthy evidence process, neither the Partida case nor the Ahmad case are terribly behind schedule. Shelton said, "Most cases take at least two years on major cases because of the dockets and the testing and because of scheduling of experts. We tell our victims' families about 2 years is when we get to trial."
One of the most recent capital murder trials in Wichita Falls, involving Benjamin Jerome Prince, took nearly three years from murder to conviction.
There are other factors which can also contribute to a delay. Shelton spoke with us about the case 2012 case involving then 17 year-old Clifton John Russell IV and the legislative reason she's waiting to proceed. She said, "Currently pending in Wichita County we have one case where the defendant is a 17 year-old, we believe to be the shooter in the case. We are awaiting trial just because we're waiting for the legislature to set some range of punishment for us."
The United States Supreme Court has ruled both the death penalty and life in prison without the possibility of parole unconstitutional for 17 year-olds. The ruling meant Texas legislators needed to set a new range of punishment before prosecutors state-wide could proceed.
Lawmakers in Austin planned to address the issue during a special session, but the bill was pushed because of the abortion filibuster. Two weeks ago the bi-partisan bill finally came up again and passed with more than 2/3 support.
Governor Perry signed the new law last Monday. It says 17 year-olds may be sentenced to life in prison, but with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
Whether they wear a badge or carry a law degree, both sides of the criminal equation say the most important thing is to get it right. Maureen Shelton said when her office gets a conviction, many times the victims' families don't mind how long it took. She said, "That's the hardest thing for us to ask a family to do is to be patient and that well get there. Most of the time they understand and then once the process is over they understand why we took so long to make sure we handled the case properly."