Travis County D.A.: High-profile hung juries won’t deter her office

Crime

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nearly a week after the second hung jury trial in Travis County so far in 2019, District Attorney Margaret Moore maintains her office plans to retry the case.

Althea Johnson, 29, was released on a personal bond last Friday, after the judge declared a mistrial in her case. The hung jury was deadlocked after hours of deliberations. 

Johnson is accused of abandoning her newborn daughter in a dumpster on Oct. 25, 2017. A homeless man who was dumpster-diving at the Mira Vista Apartments in Austin found the baby girl who lived.

Johnson was arrested and charged with second-degree felony abandonment of a child a couple of weeks after the baby was found. She was 27 years old at the time of her arrest.

Moore told KXAN they will get a setting soon and try the case again with a brand new jury. As is the case with any hung jury case, prosecutors will step back and reevaluate a plan for the new trial moving forward.

“The feedback that we can get from the jurors is helpful. We also reassess if there’s any additional evidence that can be developed in the meantime,” explained Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore.

Mistrials, Moore says, are just a reality of the job.

“The criminal justice system requires 12 people to come to a unanimous verdict of guilt in order to convict. So, in some ways, it’s almost miraculous how many times juries are able to do that. They’re 12 strangers. They come from completely different backgrounds,” Moore said. “It’s a very difficult undertaking for a group of people to organize and be able to reach a conclusion together. Nonetheless, it happens many more times than it does not.”

So far in 2019, Travis County has had five mistrials, two by hung jury. In 2018, there were eight mistrials overall and five hung juries.

Prior to 2018, system data did not track overall mistrials, but it did track the number of hung juries. There were nine hung juries in 2017, the first year Moore was district attorney. Prior to that, there were four in 2016 and five in 2015. 

“On the whole, I think the reason we have more mistrials — or we seem to have more hung juries; we’ve had a number — [is because] we are trying many more cases than they were trying before I got here. We’ve just increased the odds,” Moore added. “I do place a greater emphasis on trying cases. I do think it’s important that this community speak through its juries to inform us as to what kinds of sentences we should be seeking with these particularly disturbing crimes. We also inherited a substantial backlog of cases.” 

The district attorney says the time and money it takes to retry a trial for a serious violent crime in Travis County is worth it when public safety is considered.

Moore says she doesn’t think trials can be quantified, and specifically the need for retrials, in some particularly heinous crimes. As an example, Moore referenced the April 2018 capital murder trial and November 2018 retrial for defendant Shawn Gant-Benalcazar — the man accused of killing an Austin choir teacher in December 2014.

Kathy Blair, 53, a choir teacher with the Christian Choral Society of Austin, was killed during a robbery attempt at her northwest Austin home. She was stabbed and strangled.

“How are you going to quantify in dollars the harm done by that defendant? I suspect that no one would ever say, ‘Wait a minute, it’s going to cost too much to retry that case.’ None of us would say that. We’d say, ‘We gotta do what we gotta do to protect this community from someone who is that violent,'” Moore said.

The district attorney clarified, however, that her office will consider other factors — other costs — after trials for less violent crimes have ended in hung jury trials. She said after a sexual assault case ended in a hung jury, her office realized the cost for the victim involved, knowing she would have to testify again in what was a very emotional trial.

In that particular case, after the hung jury, a plea bargain was reached in order to prevent the victim from having to endure the inevitable pain that would result from having to retry the case.

“We look at: should we be resolving this case with a plea now after we’ve had a mistrial, weighing how hard it’s going to be to retry it,” Moore said. “We do look at the merits of the case and the difficulty of trying it, but I can’t say we look at it in terms of what it is costing taxpayers.” 

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