In July 2021, Neida Tijerina was shot and killed during an armed standoff with San Antonio police after her ex-husband, Angel Sanchez, held her hostage for hours.
Evidence suggests Tijerina was struck by police gunfire after Sanchez pointed a shotgun at officers, according to news reports, and Sanchez now faces charges of felony murder and unlawful restraint in her death.
There had been red flags aplenty regarding Sanchez’s propensity for violence. A year earlier, he was charged with aggravated assault for allegedly threatening Tijerina with a knife, strangling her and hitting her with a TV set while she was pregnant — serious crimes for which Sanchez was released from jail on bail.
Two months before Tijerina was killed, Sanchez was charged with attempted arson, harassment of a public servant, attempted burglary with intent to commit assault and resisting arrest — again, serious offenses, but he was soon out on bail again.
Five days before his ex-wife’s death, a judge finally issued a warrant for his arrest after he removed his ankle monitoring device.
It would be tempting to think of Sanchez — clearly a dangerous man who was freed only to wreak more devastation — as an aberration, but that’s far from the truth.
Of the 204 victims of intimate partner homicide in Texas in 2021, almost a dozen involved cases in which the perpetrator was out of jail on bail or bond at the time they committed murder.
The list includes Martell DeRouen, who died when police charge he was shot by his girlfriend, who was out on bond from a previous charge of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon in the death of a previous boyfriend. (Of the 204 intimate partner homicides in 2021, 35 were male victims.)
In Texarkana, Travis Turner was charged with killing his girlfriend two weeks after being released on bail from two previous violent offenses. In Houston, Christopher Anderson, charged in the shooting death of his wife, was previously convicted of an aggravated assault against a family member and had been arrested seven months earlier for allegedly strangling his wife’s young son. He, too, was out on bond when he allegedly killed Tonya Davis.
The remaining narratives, compiled by the Texas Council on Family Violence, are equally depressing and feature the same story arc: A defendant charged with a violent offense is released from jail on bail or bond to await his or her trial, only to use that very freedom to kill.
It’s a pattern that undergirds the reason for a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that has garnered strong bipartisan support — a rarity these days in Texas — among lawmakers in Austin.
The proposed amendment, which recently passed the Senate on a 30-1 vote and goes before the House soon, would (if it passes) be placed before Texas voters in the Nov. 7 election.
It goes to the heart of what happens when violent offenders are set free before trial to kill or harm again. It would grant judges wider latitude in denying bail or bonds to defendants who have committed violent or sexual crimes, such as kidnapping, aggravated rape, assault with a deadly weapon and human trafficking.
The proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 44, is co-sponsored by state Sens. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen). In presenting it to her peers, Huffman didn’t specifically name domestic violence victims as the raison d’être of her legislation, but she may as well have.
“We have continued to see our communities terrorized by violent defendants out on bond, including offenders out on multiple bonds,” she said. “It’s the victims of the crimes who live in fear when certain defendants are out on the street.”
The legislation aims to better protect the public while ensuring defendants show up for court and fail to evade prosecution.
Judges choosing to deny bail — the law would be discretionary, not mandatory — would have to issue a written order explaining why releasing a defendant would pose a threat to the community, law enforcement and victims.
“It has become starkly clear that our local officials making bail determinations day in and day out need this tool to protect the people of Texas from future harm,” Huffman said in a news release.
The proposal comes amid fierce debate over cash bail practices in Texas, with civil rights advocates arguing the rules disproportionately hurt defendants of color and the poor, who often can’t afford bail. Conservatives and law enforcement officials argue the rules aren’t strict enough, especially when it comes to felony offenses.
As it stands now, the Texas Constitution guarantees a right to bail except in capital murder cases or for defendants with multiple felonies.
Not surprisingly, opponents of the proposal are many and voluble.
They argue that people shouldn’t be forcibly kept in jail before their trials, when they have the presumption of innocence. They say such judicial power would fall (like cash bail practices) disproportionately on poor people and nonwhite defendants.
State Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston), a former law enforcement officer, said he worried defendants would be kept in jail “on an accusation” or because they might potentially miss a court date for everyday life reasons.
“I’m worried we will turn back the hands of the clock” on social justice, he said during Huffman’s Senate hearing.
Other critics say it will force some defendants to plead guilty, even if they’re innocent, to avoid lengthy detentions in jail. They point to the long, abysmal history of wrongful convictions in this country.
“This amendment would mean that more Texans would remain locked in jail away for weeks, months or years without having been convicted of a crime,” one civil rights official argued.
Huffman said the new law would fall equally on the wealthy and poor alike and would pertain to “extreme” circumstances, such as habitual violent offenders or those who have shown a predilection to flee prosecution.
Others opponents point to studies that show pretrial detention can have “devastating personal consequences” for defendants and increases the chance they will eventually re-offend.
They say jails are already overcrowded and dangerous; denying bail to violent or sexual defendants will only worsen an already horrid situation. They say the proposal violates alleged offender’s rights to due process, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
My gut reaction: What about the comfort and safety of victims? What about their constitutional right to not be murdered — as in, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
The proposed amendment makes strange bedfellows.
I’m a rock-ribbed progressive, but I can understand the value of keeping violent perpetrators off the streets prior to trial, despite the civil rights quandaries.
Sen. Huffman is the kind of lawmaker whose conservative politics I typically abhor — she’s behind the bill, for example, that would remove district attorneys from office if they refuse to prosecute Texas’ draconian laws against abortion — but I found myself nodding as I watched her present the proposal in the Senate.
The Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV), which advocates at the state level for victims of domestic violence and intimate partner homicide, seemingly finds itself in the same queasy territory.
Let’s face it, it’s hard to find balance on this one.
“Increasing access to safety, justice, and opportunity for all survivors means supporting a bond system that meaningfully addresses lethality and victim safety,” wrote Molly Voyles, public policy director for TCFV, in an email. “Research underscores that a firearm in the home, as well as a history of stalking and strangulation, exponentially increases the risk of intimate partner homicide.”
But bail reform is “inherently complex,” she added. It means weighing the safety of victims against an unjust cash bond system that has existed historically in Texas and the nation.
“We cannot lose sight that poverty and access to wealth play leading roles in exacerbating bail and bond issues for too many Texans,” she wrote.
In an equally queasy way, the proposal asks judges to predict the future, in even starker terms than they already do:
Will a defendant kill or maim while out on bail? Will he or she rob their victim of their own future?
If the resolution passes the House, Texas voters will soon get to wade into this ethical morass.
It poses a hefty question: Do we have the gumption to lock away violent predators prior to trial, potentially saving untold lives? Or is that a bridge too far in a free America?