As lawyers threaten civil rights lawsuits, seek bond reductions and clamor that their biker clients have done nothing wrong, McLennan County is spending $7,958 a day to house those jailed in the May 17 Twin Peaks shootout.
According to county records, 173 of the 175 people who were arrested in the wake of the deadly brawl, which left nine dead and 18 wounded, remain jailed. Two bonded out with ankle monitors.
The mass arrests are presenting unprecedented challenges to the county’s criminal justice system and have McLennan County officials keeping a close eye on the potential devastating budgetary fallout from the incident. A week and a half after the shooting, the county has spent upward of $80,000 just to house the inmates.
“We’ve never had an issue of this magnitude, but another thing is all the other business here at the courthouse is still going on,” said 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother, the county’s senior judge who presides over one of McLennan County’s two primary felony courts.
Lawyers are filing motions for expedited hearings to try to get their clients out of jail while county officials are processing pauper’s oaths to determine which defendants are entitled to court-appointed attorneys, paid for by the county.
Cathy Edwards, the county’s indigent defense coordinator, said of the 175 bikers at the county jail she interviewed, 63 have requested court-appointed attorneys. Edwards said she appointed 14 attorneys Wednesday to represent the bikers, including attorneys from Waco, Corsicana, Temple and Copperas Cove.
The bikers are jailed in lieu of $1 million bonds on first-degree felony engaging in organized criminal activity charges. That limits the number of attorneys who can be appointed because not all are approved by the courts to handle first-degree felony cases.
The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association is rallying its forces to try to help provide enough attorneys to represent the defendants, and some already have retained lawyers from Waco, Dallas and Austin.
Strother said Billy Ray Stubblefield, administrative judge of the Third Judicial District, has offered state funds for the county to bring in visiting judges if necessary to handle the onslaught of new cases.
It is likely that not all 173 in jail now will face criminal charges, some attorneys have said, claiming their clients merely were in the wrong place at the wrong time and then swept up in an all-encompassing area dragnet.
Strother and Judge Matt Johnson have set hearings for early next month to consider motions to reduce the $1 million bonds. The judges did not set the hearings sooner because prosecutors haven’t gotten offense reports from Waco police yet and need them to be prepared for the hearings.
90 day deadline
It is not clear when or how many of the cases will be presented to a grand jury for indictment. If they are not indicted within 90 days of their arrests, the bikers are eligible to be released on personal recognizance bonds or bonds reduced sufficiently for them to be released.
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna did not return phone messages Wednesday seeking comment for this story.
Court-appointed defense attorneys are paid $750 for a guilty plea in a first-degree felony case, $500 for a second-degree felony and $400 for third-degree and state jail felonies. They are paid the same fee if cases are dismissed.
If they itemize their time and prefer to be paid hourly, they are paid $75 for out-of-court preparation and $80 an hour while in court.
With the influx of new cases, county officials are keeping a close eye on how the cases are affecting budgets.
“We are watching it all with a cautiously optimistic approach,” Precinct 4 County Commissioner Ben Perry said. “The commissioners court obviously has to support the decisions that law enforcement and the district attorney’s office make, and any adjustments that need to be made to the budget, we will do so. We are monitoring the situation to make sure we are all on the same page and prepared for whatever may come.
“It is a process and something we have to be patient with and know and trust that the folks with the county who are handling this are good. They have done a great job, and there is no reason for us to think anything other than that.”
Stan Chambers, the McLennan County auditor, said if many of the bikers are released in coming days or weeks, the current county budget should be sufficient to handle the increased costs.
It costs the county $51 per day to house inmates at its own facility. The county pays $45.50 per inmate per day to LaSalle Corrections to house them at the privately operated Jack Harwell Detention Center.
The county budgeted $5.5 million to cover any cost overruns from overflow prisoners at the jail, Chambers said, and has spent just less than $2 million during the first six months of the fiscal year.
If that money is expended, the county has $700,000 left in a $1 million contingency fund from which it could draw if necessary, he said.
In terms of paying for the additional court-appointed attorneys, Chambers said some of that expense likely can be carried over into next year’s budget because of the time it takes for cases to be heard in court.
He said the county budgeted $4.2 million this year to pay for indigent defense, including $3.8 million just for court-appointed attorneys. The remaining funds go toward paying for investigators, evidence analysis, psychological testing and related matters.