HOUSTON (CN) — Challenging a settlement that led to bail reforms in Texas’ largest county, a mother filed a federal lawsuit against the county and several judges for instituting the changes she says are to blame for her daughter’s murder.
On behalf of the estate of her daughter Caitlynne Guajardo, Melanie Infinger sued Harris County, 10 magistrates who set bail at probable-cause hearings and 16 misdemeanor court judges in Houston federal court late Tuesday.
Guajardo and her unborn child were stabbed to death on Aug. 3, 2019, by her husband, Alex Guajardo.
Alex, now 24, stabbed Caitlynne 20 times and told investigators he stabbed her in the stomach to ensure no other man would raise his child.
Less than 24 hours before the murders, Alex had been released from jail on a personal recognizance bond, also known as a personal bond, for which a small or no payment is required, following his arrest on a misdemeanor family-violence charge for beating Caitlynne, according to the lawsuit.
Two months before the murder, Alex was arrested on a DUI charge but released from jail on another personal bond.
Infinger claims Alex’s release from custody was a direct result of Harris County’s “improper” settlement of a 2016 federal class action in which three misdemeanor arrestees claimed they had been held in Harris County Jail, in the county seat Houston, based on an unconstitutional system in which magistrates set bail with a fee schedule based on their charges with no regard for their financial circumstances.
The 2019 settlement built off a preliminary injunction U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal imposed in the summer of 2017 after finding Harris County unconstitutionally favored those who could afford cash bail.
After sweeping Republican judges who were defending the old bail system in court out of office in the November 2018 elections, the county’s 16 misdemeanor court judges, all Democrats, imposed new bail rules that were included in the settlement.
Under the new regime, most people arrested on misdemeanor charges are released within 24 hours of their arrest on personal bonds.
Infinger claims in her lawsuit the settlement took away the broad discretion Texas trial judges and magistrates are supposed to have in setting bail under state law.
Neal Manne, managing partner of the Houston firm Susman Godfrey, served as pro bono counsel for the class that took on Harris County’s misdemeanor bail practices.
Calling Infinger’s lawsuit “completely frivolous,” he predicted it will be dismissed because he believes she has no standing to challenge the settlement.
“Ever since the tragic murder occurred, opponents of bail reform have tried to use it to scare the public and spread misinformation about bail reform,” Manne said in an email. “Their arguments make no sense, and this lawsuit makes no sense.”
Manne said people arrested for DUI and domestic violence charges, and several other offenses, are not subject to the rules put in place by the settlement. They are not quickly released on personal bonds, but can be held up to 48 hours for a bail hearing.
For his May 2019 DUI arrest and August 2019 domestic violence arrest, Alex Guajardo faced bail hearings and a magistrate or judge opted to release him on personal bonds, court records show.
Manne said the judges had total discretion to set bail as high as they wished. “Of course, if they had set money bond . . . there is zero evidence that the husband [Alex Guajardo] was financially unable to pay the bond and be immediately released anyway. The husband was not indigent,” he said.
The attorney said Infinger’s claim Guajardo was only out of jail when he killed his wife because of the bail-system settlement is an “absolute lie.”
Infinger is represented by Beaumont, Texas, lawyer Brian Mazzola and civil rights attorney Ben Crump. The latter has made a name for himself representing the families of Black people killed by police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Mazzola and Crump did not immediately respond Wednesday to emailed questions about the lawsuit, nor did Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee.
Making claims of civil rights violations and wrongful death, Infinger seeks punitive damages and a declaration the class action settlement and new bail rules folded into it were not narrowly tailored to address the problems with the former wealth-based detention system Rosenthal deemed unconstitutional.
Houston, like major cities across the nation, is grappling with a rash of murders.
As of June 21, there had been 222 homicides in Houston, compared to 156 by the same day last year, Houston’s ABC affiliate reported, citing data from the Houston Police Department.
When the bail settlement was reached, advocates hailed it as a blueprint for nationwide reforms and said it would end the injustice of people being confined in jail, possibly losing their jobs and custody of their children, for low-level offenses in Harris County, the most populous in Texas with more than 4.7 million residents.
But critics have blamed the increased murder rate on the bail reforms, despite the fact they made no changes to the county’s felony bail system.
The Houston Chronicle reviewed murder cases in Harris County from 2013 to 2020 and found 221 cases in which the defendant was out on bond at the time of the killing, as detailed in a July 9 article.
But criminal justice experts point to a backlog of more than 90,000 cases in Harris County felony and misdemeanor courts, due to Hurricane Harvey courthouse flood damage in 2017 and the pandemic-triggered suspension of jury trials last year, as the culprit for more crimes being committed by people out on bond because their cases are taking longer to adjudicate.
Harris County officials on July 20 approved spending $2.5 million to hire judges and prosecutors to help clear the backlog.
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