Author Archives: Jolie McCullough

Texas Gov. Abbott signs bill to enforce reporting of police shootings

Starting in September, Texas law enforcement agencies could be fined $1,000 a day if they don’t report police shootings to the state in a timely manner.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday signed into law a bill that will add teeth to a law passed two years ago requiring departments to report to the attorney general’s office any time an officer is involved in a shooting that results in injury or death. State Rep. Eric Johnson, the author of House Bill 245, said repeatedly during this year’s legislative session that the threat of a fine will ensure the state has complete data on police shootings, a requirement to accurately study the issue in the state.

“House Bill 245 goes a long way toward making sure Texas continues to lead the nation in collecting this type of information and hopefully, armed with facts, Texas can lead the nation in reducing fatal encounters involving law enforcement,” Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, said in a statement after the bill’s passage in the Legislature.

Last year, a Tribune investigation into Texas police shootings highlighted the inconsistency across departments in keeping records on the incidents before the state reporting requirement took effect in September 2015. Some departments volunteered information on their own websites, but others fought public information requests, gave heavily redacted records or said they did not keep track of police shootings.

After the state mandated law enforcement agencies report shootings to the attorney general’s office last legislative session, most have complied. But there have been some cases where reports were filed months late, often only after the media pointed out the information was missing.

Under the new law, departments will still get some leeway if they don’t report a shooting right away. There is a 30-day window to file a report after the shooting. After that, if the state is informed of an unreported shooting, the attorney general’s office can investigate and notify the department it has seven days to report it. Only then will the state be able to fine the department $1,000 a day, with the money being funneled into the state’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund.

Rep. Tony Tinderholt, an Arlington Republican, expressed concerns last month about fining police departments before the House voted to send the bill to the governor, saying that it is a large fine coming from taxpayer dollars. Rep. Phil King, a Republican from Weatherford who chairs the House panel that voted out the bill, countered that the notification process in place makes the bill “a gentle nudge rather than a hammer.”

As it moved through the Legislature, the bill initially faced some unexpected opposition on the House floor when it failed by one vote, caused partially by what Johnson called Republican retaliation for Democrats purposefully drawing out debate on the bill heard just before HB 245. The bill was quietly brought up for reconsideration the next day, and easily drew enough approval on a final vote.

On the other side of the Capitol, the bill breezed through the Texas Senate, though state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, failed to add to the bill a requirement for the attorney general’s office to build and maintain an online portal to collect and analyze police shooting reports. The language — taken from another of Johnson’s bills that failed to make it to the House floor — was added in committee but struck from the legislation on the Senate floor.

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Execution halted for man convicted in Texas real estate agent’s murder

Another Texas execution has been stopped by the state’s highest criminal appellate court, giving relief to the man convicted in 2007 in the robbery and murder of a McKinney real estate agent.

Kosoul Chanthakoummane, 36, was scheduled to die on July 19 after more than nine years on death row. He was convicted in the 2006 stabbing death of Sarah Walker in the model home of a subdivision where she worked, according to court documents. On Wednesday morning, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution and sent his case back to the Collin County trial court to review claims of discredited forensic sciences.

On July 8, 2006, a couple coming to view the model home found Walker dead, stabbed 33 times with a bite mark on her neck, according to a federal court filing. Her watch and ring were missing from her body. Bloody fingerprints found at the scene and DNA under Walker’s fingernails linked the crime to Chanthakoummane, who was arrested nearly two months later.

Chanthakoummane told police he went to a model home after his car broke down, and that he had cuts on his hands that could explain his blood at the scene, according to the filing. At trial, the state presented forensic experts who claimed a bite mark on Walker’s neck and DNA at the scene pointed to Chanthakoummane.

This is the third time the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has halted a scheduled execution this year (two of those scheduled executions were for the same man, Tilon Carter.) Another execution was halted by a federal court.

There have been four executions in the state this year.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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Gov. Abbott signs bill to eliminate straight-ticket voting beginning in 2020

After remaining quiet on the issue during the recent legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law Thursday that will eliminate the straight-ticket voting option starting in 2020.

Straight-ticket voting, the option for voters to check one box to cast a ballot for every candidate from a single political party, is not available in most states, but it accounted for nearly 64 percent of total votes cast in Texas’ 10 largest counties in the 2016 general election. House Bill 25 removes the straight-ticket option from Texas ballots after September 2020.

Supporters of the bill say removing the option will force voters to make more informed decisions in individual elections, but opponents say the legislation will disproportionately impact minority voters. A federal judge found as much last year in Michigan, blocking a similar law from going into effect.

During the Legislative session, the measure from state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, drew strong opposition from Democrats.

Though the state does not collect data on straight-ticket votes cast, there have been generally fewer Republican straight-ticket votes and more Democratic straight-ticket ballots in Texas’ largest 10 counties over the past four presidential elections. 

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