Witness for the Prosecution

Did lack of manpower leave a felon on bail free to kill? Maybe. Sort of.

Last week, when news broke that a violent drug dealer out on bail allegedly killed a man in an Oak Cliff drug den, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins largely blamed the murder on his office's lack of resources. In fact, there's a more accurate explanation of why Michael Wyatt, who two years earlier pleaded guilty to attempted murder, was allowed to walk the streets: Wyatt was a star witness for the District Attorney's Office.

In April 2004, Wyatt entered a guilty plea to an attempted capital murder charge stemming from a shooting in a drug house in Duncanville. But three years later Wyatt still wasn't sentenced, and a court hearing in his case was rescheduled more than 50 times. The reason for the delay was that Wyatt was set to testify against his co-defendant in the case, Aaron Lamont Vaughn, who Wyatt's attorneys say was the gunman. (Wyatt, they claim, merely drove the car.) Because prosecutors needed Wyatt to testify against Vaughn, they delayed his sentencing for years, allowing him to make bond and enjoy life outside of prison. In exchange for his testimony, the District Attorney's Office would recommend to the judge a more lenient sentence for Wyatt.

"My understanding after the fact was that he was going to be a witness for the state, and for that reason the case was continued by agreement for a period of time," says Judge Pat McDowell, who presided over Wyatt's case in one of Dallas County's drug courts.

Wyatt's attorney, Timothy Jeffrey, confirms that his client was working as a witness for the District Attorney's Office.

"After he pled guilty, they didn't sentence him," Jeffrey says "They were going to see if Michael cooperated in the trial of the co-defendant."

That decision had deadly results. Had the prosecution not delayed sentencing for Wyatt in exchange for his testimony, he would almost certainly have been sentenced to prison immediately, given his criminal history. In a 10-year span, Wyatt has been charged with nearly 30 offenses and was convicted of crimes ranging from injuring a child to making terroristic threats. Even after his guilty plea, Wyatt continued to find trouble with the law. Just this past November, he was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in Hunt County.

The deal with Wyatt was struck before Craig Watkins was elected to the District Attorney's Office. Terri Moore, the office's second-ranking attorney, says that no such agreement would be allowed today.

"If you plead guilty to an attempted capital murder charge you ought to go to jail right then and there," she says.

But Watkins' office is not without blame, since it had a chance to revoke Wyatt's bond six months ago.

In January, a Dallas police officer arrested him in the Fair Park neighborhood for drug possession. As the police closed in, Wyatt tried to escape arrest, fought with the officer and stole his gun.

Still, despite these new charges, the District Attorney's Office didn't move to revoke Wyatt's bond. In a prepared statement Watkins shared with the press, the district attorney implies his office simply didn't have the staffing to keep up with people like Wyatt.

"When a District Attorney's Office is inadequately funded and understaffed, it translates into not having the proper resources in place to monitor the activities of defendants once they made bond," Watkins said. "Due to the circumstance of this particular case, an unfortunate error was made, however, we are seeking proper funding and staffing for this office to minimize and eliminate errors like this one in the future."

But Moore acknowledges that the prosecutor on the case, Patrick Jordan, should have moved to revoke Wyatt's bond after his scrap with a Dallas police officer.

Instead, he did nothing and Wyatt remained free. Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle says that Wyatt is now a suspect in a homicide and says that he should have never been free in the first place. The District Attorney's Office agrees.

"The prosecutor in that case just made a terrible, terrible mistake, and he regrets it terribly, and so do we," Moore says. "But if you came down here and see what our guys are up against—they have up to 300 cases per prosecutor—that's a heavy caseload. Does he feel awful about it? You bet he does, but it's a bad situation to be in."

Wyatt is not the only defendant to commit serious crimes while out on bail. On June 15, Nicholas Hernandez was shot after he tried to run over two Dallas Police officers in his pickup in West Dallas. Just two days earlier, Hernandez was arrested for burglary of a motor vehicle and was released from jail on only a $500 bond even though he was a convicted felon. Hernandez, 30, has been arrested 12 times and convicted of crimes ranging from burglary of a motor vehicle to domestic assault.

Like Wyatt, Hernandez also avoided jail time earlier this year, despite his lengthy criminal history. On April 16, Hernandez was sentenced to 240 days in jail after a November arrest for unlawful possession of a firearm and burglary of a motor vehicle. In between the time of his arrest and conviction, Hernandez was again apprehended in Irving for breaking into a car—his sixth related offense in just less than three years. But Hernandez wound up serving only a fraction of his 240-day sentence behind bars. Just 10 days after Hernandez was released from jail, Garland police arrested him yet again for burglary of a motor vehicle. He was released from jail that day on $500 bond. Six weeks later, after yet another arrest for breaking into a car, Hernandez attempted to run over the Dallas officers.

"If you want to know why the crime rate is so high, look at someone like him," Kunkle says. "I know he's not arrested for every offense, so there are probably scores if not hundreds of offenses for every one he is arrested for."

The District Attorney's Office is under pressure from both the county and the state to keep so-called nonviolent offenders (like Hernandez was before his latest arrest) out of jail in order to ease overcrowding at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center. Over the last three years, state inspectors have continually flunked the Dallas County jail in part because it has too many inmates per jailer. Still, after Watkins was elected, Kunkle and Assistant Chief Ron Waldrop asked him to separate low-level defendants into two groups. The first are more or less first-time offenders who may be better served by a strict probation than a stint behind bars. The second are those police call "impact offenders," who have essentially made a career out of crime. Kunkle and Waldrop have asked the District Attorney's Office to push for them to receive the maximum sentence allowed by law.

"It is understandable, even for us, that when someone gets arrested for a crime, you should try to help them get out of that lifestyle and not incarcerate them," Waldrop says. "But the second group are the chronic offenders—people who are committing as many as 100 crimes a week."

Moore says that the District Attorney's Office is sympathetic to the police department's concerns but that their prosecutors have to strike a tough balance between adequately punishing people for crimes and not overcrowding the jail.

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