McLennan County felony court officials designed the accelerated “rocket docket” for inmates like Ray Charles Stone.

After being in county jail for more than 594 days, Stone, 61, decided to accept a drastically reduced plea bargain of 20 months in state jail for burglary of a building.

Stone was charged as a habitual criminal, facing a minimum of 25 years and up to life in prison for burglary of a habitation. The prosecution’s previous offer was 40 years. Judge Matt Johnson noted this when accepting the plea recently.

“If the district attorney’s office had offered you 20 months originally, would you have accepted it and not been in our jail for that entire period of time?” the judge asked.

Stone said “yes,” he would have accepted the offer.

The implementation of the rocket docket, designed with the intent of clearing the overcrowded county jail of its longest-serving inmates, has renewed the debate and complaints from defense attorneys and their clients that plea offers from District Attorney Abel Reyna’s office are unreasonably high, a factor pointed to by some for increases in the jail population. Spending on overflow inmate housing was a chief concern in last year’s county budget dilemma, which contributed to a tax rate increase.

Reyna disagrees that unreasonable pleas are the reason for jail overcrowding.

He says, despite Stone’s answer, he thinks Stone stayed in jail so long because Stone was holding out for a misdemeanor plea offer. Reyna said Stone’s case clearly had problems, including a key witness who died and one who is related to Stone.

Still, Reyna said, his office was unwilling to dismiss the case or reduce it to a misdemeanor because of Stone’s lengthy criminal record. Stone has five felony convictions and three misdemeanors. Stone’s attorney, Richard Ferguson, declined comment on the case.

Of the 20 cases judges chose for the initial rocket docket, 12, including Stone, pleaded guilty in recent days; three cases were moved to priority settings; three cases were reset because of witness availability issues; and one defendant filed a grievance against his lawyer, delaying his case until he gets a new one.

So with five of the county’s seven judges on stand-by to hear felony trials, only one case from the rocket docket is headed to trial Monday.

Many defendants prefer to spend time in the county jail instead of prison and have learned how to “ride the docket,” officials think. Johnson and Strother figured that by setting their cases for trial, it would break the logjam by holding both the defendants’ and prosecutors’ feet to the fire and sharpen their focus on the strengths and weaknesses of their cases.

At least six defense attorneys declined to speak publicly about the plea bargain issue, citing fears that their comments might not help their chances in future plea negotiations.

“Generally speaking, my clients do not believe that they are receiving reasonable offers and turn them down as a result and request a jury trial,” Waco attorney Rod Goble said.

But Reyna counters that defendants are growing accustomed to the higher offers, particularly once they realize that McLennan County juries, according to Reyna’s figures, are giving defendants equal or higher sentences than the plea offers 92 percent of the time.

Reyna said that for every case that ends up like Stone’s, he can point to one like Michael Allen, a parolee who was offered 40 years for possession of methamphetamine.

Allen had been in county jail 460 days when his case was placed on the rocket docket. He pleaded guilty last week and agreed to a 35-year prison term.

Evaluating the process

“The jail overcrowding could be fixed by having more courts to try cases, and that is what this plan does,” Reyna said of the rocket docket. “It is too early to say if the central docket is a success, but it is moving cases.”

The judges that designed the accelerated docket call it a success.

“As Judge Johnson says, ‘Making sausage is not always pretty,’ but we made some sausage,” Strother said. “For the initial public offering here, I don’t think you can argue with the results, and I would definitely call it a success for something we’ve never tried before.”

Johnson agrees, saying the intent was to move the oldest cases from their dockets and hasten the disposition of the almost 2,400 pending felony cases in the county.

“We have gained some insight into how to manage and run a central docket, and hopefully, the March central docket will be as effective in resolving these cases,” Johnson said.

Other cases resolved by the rocket docket include Joseph David Diaz, 41, who accepted a 10-year prison term for burglary of a habitation after rejecting a 40-year offer; and Christopher Daniel Hill, 34, who accepted a 10-year prison term for burglary of a habitation after rejecting a 40-year offer.

Diaz has been in jail 540 days and Hill for 530 days.