The Harris County District Clerk acknowledged Tuesday that it uncovered about 100 appeals of criminal defendants who said they were unlawfully incarcerated, but their cases had languished in the court system for years or even decades.
The appeals, at least one of which dates back to the mid-1990s, were discovered last year during efforts to reduce the case backlog in the Harris County criminal courts.
In a statement released Tuesday in response to questions from the Houston Landing, the Harris County District Clerk’s Office said its staff forwarded all the old cases to Texas’ highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, after deliberations with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
“By the end of 2022, all of these cases had been properly forwarded,” the clerk said.
The Landing had previously reported on two of the known cases of dormant appeals. Although the exact number is unknown, the clerk’s office said it found “approximately 100.”
All the court filings dispute unlawful incarceration. When successful, these applications can potentially overturn sentences or convictions.
‘I don’t remember’
To date, the Court of Criminal Appeals has responded to at least three of the filings found by the clerk’s office – all of them decades old.
Syed Rabbani, a Bangladeshi immigrant convicted of capital murder in 1988, filed a challenge to his sentence in 1994. In June, after the Court of Criminal Appeals sent his challenge back to the Harris County court that convicted him, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office formally agreed with the claim that Rabbani deserved a new sentencing hearing – nearly 30 years after it was originally filed.
Rabbani, who is mentally ill, was declared incompetent to face execution but remains on death row.
Likewise, Tony Dixon is a man with intellectual disabilities serving a life sentence for capital murder who filed a challenge to his conviction in 1998. However, neither the courts nor his attorney ever resolved it. The Court of Criminal Appeals sent the case back to the trial court last week with instructions to review Dixon’s claim that he was incompetent to stand trial when convicted.
Asked why he took no action on the filing after 1998, Dixon’s attorney, Alexander Calhoun, told the Landing, “I don’t remember.”
The third case is that of Tommy Nathaniel Taylor, a Harris County man convicted of aggravated robbery and possession of a controlled substance in 1994. Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the aggravated robbery and 20 years for the possession case. In 1995, he filed an appeal challenging his incarceration for possession.
However, as in the Dixon and Rabbani cases, the Court of Criminal Appeals did not receive the appeal until 2022. Court records show Taylor served 20 years for the possession case and has been released from prison, but it’s unclear when.
“Mr. Taylor stated unequivocally that he suffered and continues to suffer a great deal because of the convictions,” wrote a private investigator hired by the court to locate Taylor after his appeal resurfaced. In an affidavit, the private investigator said Taylor’s employment and career prospects have been adversely affected, and he is unable to “rent a decent apartment in his name because of the convictions.”
“Mr. Taylor was surprised to hear from me, but at the same time relieved to know that this (appeal) is finally being looked at,” the investigator concluded.
“Mr. Taylor works at the Port of Houston in the labor pool only because of the convictions. Mr. Taylor cannot be promoted because of the convictions. Mr. Taylor cannot rent a decent apartment in his name because of the convictions. Mr. Taylor added that he is forced to live with his brother because of the convictions.”
‘Lost and found’
As in the Dixon and Rabbani cases, the Court of Criminal Appeals sent Taylor’s case back to the convicting court for review in an opinion issued last November. In a scathing dissent, Judge David Newell raised serious concerns about the “lost and found” cases of Harris County, describing an apparent “systemic failure” of unknown scope that left a large number of appeals forgotten.
“The Harris County District Court has informed us (informally) that there are an unspecified, but significant number of habeas applications in Harris County that have been delayed for several years, sometimes, as this case demonstrates, even for decades,” Newell wrote.
Newell called for the court to set a hearing for the Harris County District Clerk to explain the delay in Taylor’s case and others.
“I hope that in doing so, we can collectively get to the bottom of what is going on with these ‘lost and found’ cases,” Newell wrote. “There are many more of these cases to come, we should resolve the easy ones when we can.”
In an interview, Joshua Reiss, chief of the Post-Conviction Writ Division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said the responsibility to ensure resolution in the legal challenges fell on the individuals’ attorneys and the courts.
“Any court has the right to order the parties before it to resolve legal issues that have been raised,” Reiss said.
“I think the clerk’s office is to be commended for pushing resolution of these matters that should have been resolved by the defendants’ attorneys years ago.”
Ben Wolff, Rabbani’s newly appointed attorney and the director of the state Office of Capital and Forensic Writs in Austin, called the Rabbani and Dixon cases “appalling and inexplicable.”
“Regrettably, cases like Mr. Rabbani’s and Mr. Dixon’s appear to be the tip of the iceberg,” he wrote in an email to the Houston Landing.
“We are all poorly served when potential cases of wrongful conviction get lost by a court clerk for decades. And, unfortunately, persons like Mr. Rabbani and Mr. Dixon, along with other incarcerated persons petitioning for their rights, are powerless in the face of such incompetence.”