The letter arrived in Houston from Gatesville, dispatched from a men’s prison in this Central Texas town and addressed to the Harris County Clerk of Court.
Short, polite and neatly handwritten, it got straight to the point.
“I’m writing to you to ask if there has been any change in my habeas corpus 1107 writ,” Calvin Haley Jr. wrote. “I haven’t heard anything back on it yet. I would appreciate it if you can give me a reply on if it’s still pending there.”
It was October 2009. Haley, an inmate in the Alfred D. Hughes Unit, was serving a 99-year sentence for murder. A Harris County jury had convicted him of shooting his girlfriend to death in 2002 at their Houston apartment, a conviction later affirmed by an appeals court.
But Haley maintained the shooting was an accident, and he wanted to fight for his freedom. So he filed an appeal, a special legal challenge disputing his incarceration – a writ of habeas corpus.
A lawyer helped Haley file the challenge on Aug. 10, 2006. Within days, the Harris County District Clerk acknowledged that it had received and processed the filing, and a judge initiated the process of resolving the claim.
Haley would wait 16 years for any indication that the process had continued.
In December 2022, the Court of Criminal Appeals issued an order in Haley’s case. In it, the justices expressed incredulity that Haley’s application could have languished unresolved for so long, and sent it back to Harris County for review.
“(Haley) has alleged facts that, if true, might entitle him to relief,” the court wrote.
A review by the Houston Landing has identified more than three dozen similar opinions issued by the Court of Criminal Appeals since November, all in response to habeas applications that – like Haley’s – lay dormant in the Harris County criminal courts for years and even decades.
More cases are coming. In a statement released Tuesday in response to questions from the Landing, the Harris County District Clerk’s Office said it had discovered “approximately 100” lost habeas challenges last year.
“By the end of 2022, all of these cases had been properly forwarded” to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the clerk said.
This latest review by the Landing demonstrates the extent of what the Court of Criminal Appeals has called a “systemic failure,” and its considerable impact on those affected.
In some instances, the court denied the appeals outright. More frequently, as in Haley’s case, the court sent them back to Harris County, where district courts must determine whether the claims for relief have merit – years after the crimes, trials and convictions in question occurred.
In their opinions, multiple justices have commented on the “extraordinary” situation.
“It has recently come to this Court’s attention that dozens, possibly hundreds, of applications for writs of habeas corpus filed in Harris County during the past several decades were not timely forwarded to this Court,” wrote Judge Michelle Slaughter in response to one challenge filed in 2013. “The situation is extremely troubling, completely unacceptable, and terribly unfair to the applicants who have waited for years for any response regarding their applications.”
Another judge, David Newell, excoriated the Harris County courts for failing to contend with the issue.
“(This) case is not an isolated incident, but we do not know if it is an island, part of an archipelago, or an entire sub-continent,” he wrote in response to a filing from 1995. “Further, there does not appear to be any systemic response in Harris County to what appears to be a systemic failure.”
‘Good potential claims’
In some respects, the people affected by the breakdown in the Harris County courts have little in common.
All tell a different story in their habeas appeals. Their crimes range from serious (possession of a controlled substance, like cocaine) to deadly (murder). Some say they deserve relief because their attorneys at trial were inattentive and ineffective. Others say their rights were violated during sentencing.
Some filed with the help of a lawyer, while others did everything on their own – crafting long, painstaking legal briefs that implored the courts to consider their cases, following with letters of inquiry that met with silence.
All saw their appeals swallowed up by the Harris County courts without word for years.
The dormant appeals were rediscovered last year during efforts to reduce the case backlog in the Harris County criminal courts, the Harris County District Clerk’s Office told the Landing in a statement on Tuesday.
The clerk’s office ultimately decided to forward the old cases to Texas’ highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, after deliberations with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
“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,” said Josh Reiss, chief of the Post-Conviction Writ Division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
But Mandy Miller, an attorney appointed to represent Haley after his habeas application resurfaced in the Court of Criminal Appeals, said the passage of time could fatally compromise even a strong claim for relief.
“You’re filing a writ, making a claim, then decades go by,” she said. “Witnesses are gone, people pass away, files are lost. Some of these could have been good potential claims but now there’s not going to be any factual basis to back them up.”
In his appeal, Haley argued that he deserved relief on the grounds that his lawyer had made a number of serious errors, including by presenting the testimony of a firearms expert who barely examined the murder weapon.
“If I had known (the expert) was my only real hope,” Haley wrote, “I would have begged (my lawyer) not to let him testify.”
In May, after Haley’s appeal was sent down from the Court of Criminal Appeals, Haley’s original trial attorney submitted an affidavit responding to the argument.
“I do not remember (the expert),” the attorney said. “I had a stroke in April 2017, and I do not remember those particular facts.”
Case appeared forgotten for 30 years
The stakes of appeals like Haley’s can be high. In some cases, successful challenges can overturn sentences or even convictions.
“We are all poorly served when potential cases of wrongful conviction get lost by a court clerk for decades,” said Ben Wolff, the director of the state Office of Capital and Forensic Writs in Austin. Wolff is also newly appointed counsel for Syed Rabbani, a death row prisoner whose legal challenge lay dormant for nearly 30 years. “Incarcerated persons petitioning for their rights… are powerless in the face of such incompetence.”
Wolff called particular attention to the cases of Rabbani and another Houston-area man, Tony Dixon.
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 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.
“These cases are appalling and inexplicable,” Wolff said. “Mr. Rabbani and Mr. Dixon deserved more. We all did.”