Jurors voice thoughts on Texas drug law in court
HOUSTON (KTRK) -- A juror's job is to decide guilt or innocence. We don't ask them to make the law. But last week in a Harris County courtroom, dozens of potential jurors said a Texas drug law is no good, and no matter how strong the evidence, they wouldn't convict.
Tens of thousands of cases come and go every year in the Harris County courthouse. But every once in a while, one of those run-of-the-mill cases causes you to stop and take notice.
"I wouldn't say it was that different from another type of possession case," prosecutor Sedric Walker said.
But after it was done, it was far from any other case.
"It was a wow moment," defense attorney Todd Dupont said.
Israel Rangel was charged with possession of less than a gram of cocaine. Cops said he had half as much coke as there is Sweet'N Low in a single packet.
When citizens showed up in court to pick a jury, it started the way all cases do.
"The prosecutor asked a question to the first 65 people," Dupont said.
"The jurors if they believed beyond a reasonable doubt that the offense was committed, would they convict?" Walker said.
"I was surprised, first of all, of the bluntness of the question," juror Lou Ellen Wheeler said.
But Wheeler - who was eventually picked for the jury - was even more surprised by the answers. She said yes, but 50 out of 130 jurors said no, they would not convict someone even if it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
"I was surprised it was that many," Walker said.
One juror was more blunt than the others.
"She said, 'I can't believe I had to get in my car and come down here for this,'" Dupont said.
"It says there is a segment of the population that doesn't think small possession cases should be punished as severely as the law call for them to be," Assistant District Attorney Julian Ramirez said.
This isn't a so-called trace case, the DA says she won't prosecute. A trace is equal to single grain of equal; this was 40 times that. The law is clear.
"It's against the law," Ramirez said.
But Rangel's defense lawyer says something else is clear too.
"They said they weren't going to make somebody a felon and ruin their lives over less than a gram of cocaine," Dupont said.
Rangel was found not guilty. Wheeler says it was weak evidence was weak, not the amount of drugs that did it.
But she did tell us, "Given our government is struggling with resources that possibly it was not the best judgment call to have brought a case with such weak evidence to a jury trial."
The DA's office warns that one case isn't a sea change. But do remember this was a campaign issue and the DA's Republican opponent Mike Anderson who beat Pat Lykos says not only would he prosecute cases like this, but cases with far less drug evidence.
in focus, ted oberg
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