The news just keeps rolling on, and not every story has a neat ending. Sometimes it pays to stop and take a look back to see what's happened with stories we reported during the year. That time is the day after Christmas, when all the new newsmakers are sneaking in an extra day off. So here are Amy Silverstein's updates from 2014.
Dallas Senator Tries To Keep In-Person Visitation at Jails Next year people will be able to skip the lines at the Lew Sterrett Jail and talk to their loved ones from home, through a video chatting software. The catch is that it's going to cost $10 for a 20-minute visit, and the company installing the software, Securus, really wants to eliminate in-person visits to push everyone to pay that fee. At least five other counties in Texas have already eliminated in-person visits after they installed Securus' software.
When the Dallas County Commissioners voted to approve the video visitation contract with Securus in November, they promised verbally that Dallas would be the exception and keep in-person visits just as they are. But the written contract says otherwise, vaguely suggesting that Dallas County will have to restrict its in-person visits so that Securus can make back its money. The final decision on jail visitation is ultimately up to the Dallas County Sheriff's Office, whose spokesman never returned our messages inquiring about video visitation.
Recently, however, a local lawmaker is joining the chorus of advocates who want to be sure that in-person visits remain. On December 18 state Representative Eric Johnson filed a bill that would require counties to continue to offer in-person visitation in jails. That includes the counties that have already eliminated in-person visits and replaced them with on-site video chatting kiosks installed at Securus' expense. "People in the Dallas community are justifiably upset at the idea that the county might end in-person visitation. So this bill merely locks in their promise not to do so," Johnson said in a statement with the announcement of his bill.
Frisco Sign Guy Stops Holding Sign For Now The Frisco traffic cops patrolling El Dorado Road in an unmarked car were understandably annoyed by Ron Martin, a Frisco homeowner who kept ruining their cover. For hours at a time, Martin would stand in the median of the road holding a sign that said "Police Ahead." Police noted in their report that cars driving by would wave to them as they passed, and they arrested Martin late last year for violating the human sign ordinance, a law that's meant to target illegal advertising. It turns out, that was all they could charge him with, because there's no law against warning people about traffic cops.
After we reported on Martin's pending criminal charges at the beginning of the year, his story got picked up by most of the local news outlets, and a Dallas DWI attorney named Mark Meisinger decided to represent him for free. Martin ultimately got the charges dropped with his attorney's help, but Frisco wasn't going to let it go. Afterward, Frisco passed a law that seemed designed specifically to target Martin -- a law against hanging out in medians. Frisco's new median ordinance, passed in March, bans people from "stopping, standing, walking, running and/or otherwise entering in and/or upon a median."
Since then, Martin says he's held the "Police Ahead" signs from the sidewalk a few times but has stopped protesting from the median, where it's illegal. He has a family and still works as a sign-painter as a living, along with creating pop art for fun. He understandably doesn't want to get arrested anymore. He once saw what looked like police enforcing Frisco's new median law, he says. The cops were talking to a person who was standing in a median and holding a sign asking for money. Median-walkers, you have been warned.
Rape Centers: Still Not Accepting Rapists Volunteers Just as those elite coastals at New York Magazine have dubbed 2014 the year people finally talked more progressively about sexual assault, a Dallas County official showed that we still have a long way to go. In April, Dallas County Judge Jeanine Howard sentenced an 18-year-old male named Sir Young, who admitted to raping a girl at school, to 45 days of jail. In her sentencing, Howard implied that the girl was promiscuous and "not the victim she claimed to be," pissing off sexual assault advocates nationwide and making the victim say she regretted coming forward.
And, then, for the second part of his sentencing: Once he got out of jail, Howard said he should volunteer for 250 hours at the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center. Maybe it sounded good on paper, but officials at the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center were horrified by the news. Judge Howard changed that part of the sentence after we called her office to let her know that no rape crisis center was willing to accept Young as a volunteer.
Dallas Rape Crisis Center Executive Director Bobbie Villareal says she's considered inviting the new judges elected this year to the center so they get a better sense of the work people do there. Perhaps that will help any future judges from repeating the same mistake of trying to sentence convicted rapists to counsel rape victims. The girl's family also filed a complaint against Judge Howard. The law firm representing them says they haven't received a response yet from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Despite "Closure" By TEA, Prime Prep Remains Open A charter school run by an NFL player accused of choking employees, with suspiciously good sports teams kicked out of the UIL for recruiting violations, athletes who left behind their families in the Caribbean, and a curriculum that consistently fails state education guidelines. What could academically go wrong? Nothing too much so far.
Even after we published leaked audio of Deion Sanders alluding to favoritism by the Texas Education Agency (shortly before he asks for a raise then threatens to break his co-founder's neck), and even after the TEA announced late this year that it would finally shut Prime Prep down, the school is still in business.
In fact, as we uncovered in the fall, a few parents from out of-state and out-of-country have continued to send their student athletes to Prime Prep. The out-of-town kids live in an apartment with coaches near the school. At the time, Prime Prep's hearing with the TEA about its pending closure was scheduled for late November, but the parents were confident that Sanders would get the school out of the mess simply by paying a fine. "The parents of kids going to Prime Prep, as far as all the information I have gotten, it has all been positive," said Herbert Been, the father of a student from the Caribbean who now plays football for Prime Prep.
Late November came and went, and Prime Prep never had its hearing. It got delayed, according to a TEA spokesman, for reasons not disclosed. "The hearing has been moved to the end of January," says the TEA spokesman via email. In the meantime, the sports program is still alive and well. Prime Prep's last football game was on November 29 against a high school in Tomball, a suburb of Houston. The Prime Prep boys won, 66-2.
Scrappy Local "Mesh Warrior" Activist Gets Attention From National Advocates and Personal Injury Firm Those odd attorney informercials seeking victims of "transvaginal mesh" seem like a bizarre joke. But they're the result of thousands of women who had no recourse from their doctor or the Food and Drug Administration when they were implanted with a cheap medical device that had unexpectedly horrific complications. Dallas activist Aaron Horton began writing about the procedure after her mother got implanted with the device and suffered those complications. Horton threw herself into the issue and soon dubbed herself the "mesh warrior."
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At the trial of a Dallas woman this year who was suing Johnson & Johnson, Horton showed up in blue lipstick, her tactic of getting people to ask her about her odd make-up so she has an excuse to talk about the injured women. As we reported in a May cover story, Horton has become a voice of support to women who have lost everything after the procedure and have no one else to talk to.
Since the spring, Horton's work has picked up more attention nationally. In August, Horton was invited to join the Consumers' Union Safe Patient Project, a national initiative focused on health policy that brings together advocates from across the country. More recently, Horton made her activism official with a nonprofit called the Mesh Warrior Foundation. In the fall, one of the personal injury law firms fighting the device-makers announced it would become a sponsor. The announcement came just as a Dallas County jury awarded another plaintiff in the mesh litigation with $73 million -- the largest amount so far resulting from any "transvaginal mesh"
A group of Texas women also asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to pursue legal action against Johnson & Johnson, the largest device-maker, and his office announced over the summer that it has been investigating the company since 2012. Activists are still waiting for the result of his investigation.