CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Editor's note: This story is part one in a series.
James Wesley Lucas was killed on Sept. 20, 2021, after getting into an argument with people while he was in line at the Stripes on Ayers and Port.
Terry Stafford was indicted on murder charges in Lucas' murder, but the Nueces County District Attorney's Office later dismissed that charge, saying the evidence against him was insufficient.
Instead, Stafford pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.
"I’m so angry, and I can’t believe it that they would send (Stafford) to prison just for holding a gun,” said Lucas' mother Linda Vela. "They circled around the Stripes and shot my son."
6 Investigates started looking into Nueces County dismissals on April 6 — Stafford's case was one of them.
The acquired data shows that the Nueces County court system dismissed nearly three out of every four cases between January 2019 and December 2021, disposing — the legal term for cases which have been resolved by the courts — of 24,060 cases during that time through convictions, deferred adjudication, and dismissals. This number does not include motions to revoke probation.
Of those cases, 7,075 were convictions and deferred adjudication; 16,955 of those cases were dismissed.
“I don't know what's going on in there, they're just not, they're not doing their jobs,” Vela said.
The 6 Investigates team spent months digging through nearly a 1,000 documents to find out why so many cases were dismissed.
Comparing the numbers
For context, KRIS 6 News compared numbers between several counties. The criteria was:
- counties similar in size to Nueces;
- counties whose district attorneys handle both misdemeanor and felony cases.
Cameron County dismissed 48 percent, Webb County, 49 percent, and Brazoria 25 percent. Nueces County dismissed 70 percent.
Nueces County also carried thousands more cases on the docket than these counties.
When asked about the dismissals, Nueces County District Attorney Mark A. Gonzalez did not respond to questions.
First ADA Angelica Hernandez agreed to meet without cameras, but KRIS 6 News had to reschedule the meeting. Hernandez then did not respond to attempts to reschedule.
Following a July board of judges meeting, KRIS 6 News caught up with Hernandez, who said she would have to look at the cases dismissed in order to comment, adding that "dismissals" include active cases, and termination from probation, or pre-trial diversion.
She later said Gonzalez had directed her to not do an interview with 6 Investigates.
The questions addressed to both Gonzalez and Hernandez focused on the link between dismissal numbers, and the county's attempt to remain compliant with its reporting to the Criminal Justice Information System, also known as CJIS, the criminal justice database accessible to law-enforcement agencies and third parties across the country.
In 2021, Nueces County was eligible for roughly $1 million of state grant money for being compliant with the CJIS requirements.
According to documents from the Department of Public Safety (DPS), counties are required to close an average of 90 percent of cases over a five-year period either by the courts or DA’s offices. Courts get 30 days to finalize dispositions and then results must be reported to DPS within five days.
If counties don’t meet the requirements, it puts future grant money from the governor's office in jeopardy.
"The only way to meet any kind of numbers that the state requires is either dispose of the case by plea or dismiss the case,” 148th District Judge Carlos Valdez said.
Emails confirm the DA's office submitted motions to dismiss to the courts en masse in March 2021 to help meet the CJIS numbers.
“I know we're still at 89 percent right now on CJIS compliance, but truth be told, our office takes a lot of hits from the public and the media for trying to assist with that CJIS compliance,” Hernandez said during a June 7, 2021, Nueces County Commissioners Court Meeting.
Hernandez talked about her office’s efforts with CJIS while presenting the office’s budget needs.
“People don't understand the bigger purpose and we feel bad but we can't stop what we're doing,” she said. “If it means dismissing cases and clearing our backlog that's what we have to do for our part.”
Valdez, who is a former Nueces County DA, agrees.
"You can't just say just dismissing a bunch of cases results in injustice being done,” he said. “I don't think anybody can say that. You have to look at each case individually."
During a board of judges meeting in July, Hernandez said the DA's office is at 90 percent CJIS compliance before the Aug. 1 deadline, and during Tuesday's meeting, Gonzalez also defended the move.
“I am a public servant, and so it does matter to me about CJIS," he said. "And I will dismiss as many cases as we need to. And I do care about how many people are in the jail because that affects taxpayers. And, so I have no obligation to do that. I continue to do that because I wanna make sure we get our funding and grants and I wanna make sure that that jail people aren’t languishing, especially if they’re not guilty.”