Inside jail

With a loophole called the dead suspect's exemption, Texas law enforcement agencies misuse a law enacted to protect the privacy of the accused to conceal information about in-custody deaths. 

Texas law enforcement agencies are twisting the law to conceal vital information about in-custody deaths.

The so-called dead suspect's exemption to the Texas Public Information Act permits sheriffs, police chiefs, and district attorneys to withhold documents and other information on cases that don't result in a criminal conviction or deferred adjudication -- even after a suspect dies.

 Negligence is not typically considered a crime, even when lethal. Thus, the loophole conceals information, even from family members, on practically all jail and other in-custody deaths. 

Legislation often has unintended consequences. The Texas House and Senate in 1997 enacted the exemption to protect the privacy of people investigated, but not indicted, by a grand jury -- not to cover up how suspects died in jails.

More than 20 years later, legislator ought to abolish this loophole in open government law, or amend it to require law enforcement agencies to release information after a person either dies or consents. 

To keep taxpayer-funded agencies accountable and transparent, neglect and incompetence should be subject to the same oversight and scrutiny as is criminal wrongdoing.

Many of the more than 100 deaths a year in Texas jails involve negligence, a Herald-Press investigation found. When that happens, the public deserves to know how and why. 

Without the release in June of a Texas Rangers report, the people would not have known prisoner Rhonda Newsome, 50, died in the Anderson County Jail nearly seven hours after the hospital informed medical staff she faced imminent death without immediate medical attention.

Nor would Herald-Press readers have known medical staff tried to use an improperly stored defibrillator on Newsome that lacked adult pads and working batteries.

Anderson County officials and taxpayers need information like that to correct mistakes and hold the jail's medical contractor accountable.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, said her group will work with legislators next session to make information on in-custody deaths subject to public information law.

Eliminating the loophole might need only a clarification from the Attorney General's Office.

In May, Anderson County District Attorney Allyson Mitchell, citing the dead suspect's exemption, withheld the Rangers report on Newsome's death, after a grand jury found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Later, however, the Department of Public Safety voluntarily released the investigative report on Newsome, as well as two dozen others, to the Herald-Press.

The release of the reports by DPS raises the question of whether the exemption meets the customary standards for concealing information under Texas law, such as posing a security threat.

Either way, the easiest way to end these shenanigans is to abolish or amend the law.

Given the troubling number of in-custody deaths in Texas, the Freedom of Information Foundation and other open government advocates ought to make ending this misused exemption their top legislative priority. 

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