By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"We're just being as patient as possible," Wakefield says of the grants, which were expected to cover the period of September 1 through August 31, 2011. "I think the governor may be applying for re-election."
Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Tarrant are home to the lion's share of Texas' 1.7 million veterans, with Harris housing the most at around 190,000, according to the TVC. The TVC also estimates at least six other counties have a veterans court program in place or under consideration. Denton County commissioners approved theirs in December, but it has yet to see its first participant.
While Dallas also modeled its veterans court after its 13 other specialty courts—10 of which have popped up within the last five years—unlike those with acronyms like DIVERT and STAR that handle cases of drug addicts and prostitutes, these handpicked veterans' and service members' records are expunged, meaning all evidence of their crimes is destroyed. Essentially, wife beaters, car thieves and drug dealers are transformed into law-abiding citizens overnight.
"I would have never guessed in a million years that it had an expunction mechanism written into it," says board-certified criminal defense lawyer Bill Wirskye. "That's a pretty big carrot to put out in front of those guys. I guess it's payback for their service—that's the theory."
Wearing a flowing black robe, Snipes walks slowly around his office, pointing out the military photos and memorabilia on the walls and cabinets. He's immediately drawn to the saber he received after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1976—a class profiled in July 2009 by The Wall Street Journal because of the surprising number of cadets who would become the generals and key deputies running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A cadet lieutenant at West Point, Snipes gave the sword to his father, a Korean War veteran, but he has it back now after his father's recent death and mother's subsequent move into a nursing home. "I believe it was my destiny to serve in the military," he says, misquoting Lieutenant Dan Taylor, a character from the movie Forrest Gump who believed it was his destiny to die in battle.
"What I want to do is help these guys, because I've been there," Snipes says.
His 14 years of active duty in the Army included a stop in 1986 as a trial defense lawyer in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and a gig as a special assistant to Major General John Batiste during a 2004 deployment to Iraq. Snipes pauses and reflects on a picture of himself in fatigues sitting at a desk inside one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. "I was a glorified speech writer," he says humbly, adding later that he was also responsible for "preaching the gospel of freedom and democracy to anyone who would listen."
Snipes, a Democrat elected to the bench in 2006, takes a seat in a metal chair in front of his desk and outlines three challenges facing his court. The first: machismo. "These guys are indoctrinated to think they're invincible warriors who don't need help," he says.
Then there are the homelessness and addictions that accompany several of these cases. Snipes has found a partner in Dallas LIFE, a Christianity-based organization just south of downtown that provides food, shelter, clothing and job assistance to hundreds in need, including two court participants. Even with Dallas LIFE's help, keeping veterans with mental health problems clean has proven difficult. "If someone is having nightmares about someone's leg getting blown off, they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol," Snipes says.
Finally, the judge says he'll always battle the perception that his court gives a "free pass" to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illnesses. But he estimates that 90 percent of the cases he accepts would be granted probation by the District Attorney's Office anyway, and by only taking on offenders with honorable discharges, he's connecting veterans with VA benefits they were unaware they had.
Tracy Little, a Dallas County veterans service officer, says most veterans don't know about the benefits they're entitled to from the VA, such as disability payments, insurance and even mortgage assistance. "[Dallas] is not a military town, and so a lot of times when you get military folks here, they are not well aware of everything that's available...If it was a military town, you could go to the base or post or talk to some of the local military folks and get some information."
State Representative Vaught says the VA does a poor job of reaching out to veterans and providing them with adequate information. "I'm a combat veteran. I'm a Purple Heart recipient. I'm a disabled veteran. I'm vice chairman of [the Committee on] Defense & Veterans' Affairs in the Texas House. And I don't even know what all my benefits are. And there are a lot of great things out there, but it's hard to know what all you have."
Snipes begins discussing the participants in his program by admitting that two of them—Marquez and Spears—are "borderline getting kicked out." Marquez, a 22-year-old charged with stealing a car from a 77-year-old man after putting him in a headlock and demanding the keys, is officially part of the program, meaning he and three others—Melendez, Carmack and Adame—have been approved by Snipes and the District Attorney's Office to have their records potentially expunged. Spears, charged with two felonies for possession of crack and using a headlock to choke a woman, is part of a group of five waiting for their mental health assessments from the VA.