In a surprise move, a Texas judge has ruled to suppress shocking cell phone video showing former Texas State School employees forcing mentally disabled residents at the Corpus Christi State school to fight one another while the employees used their cell phones to videotape the "fight clubs."
Judge Sandra Watts told prosecutors that she would not allow the videos to be used against one of the defendants in the case – Timothy Dixons, 30 - on the grounds that the phone containing the video was stolen property. She said the State had not proven Dixon intentionally abandoned the phone. However, she has not ruled out using the videos in cases against the other defendants.
"This is not a popular decision and I understand that," said Watts. "I don't have any choice in this case."
The State argued that the phone had been found in a public place, which constituted abandonment, rather it being in a private place where it would have been left. Watts rejected their argument.
"This was a big setback in our case against Mr. Dixon," admitted Catherine Chopin, Assistant District Attorney. "We feel he was the most culpable of the defendants." However, she went on to say, "We are still going to prosecute Mr. Dixon and do all we can with what we have."
Prosecutors have appealed the judge's decision to suppress the video in Dixon's case. It is now up to the Texas Court of Appeals to make a determination on Watts' ruling. The decision could take months, thus delaying Dixon's trial.
"We feel confident that in the long run, the Court of Appeals will find for us," said Chopin.
While relatives of the victims were excited about the start of the trials, others expressed disappointment at the judge's decision.
"It's crazy,"said an outraged Michelle Crayton, whose brother George Brazil was a Corpus Christi state school resident who was made to fight. "I'm dumbfounded, upset and don't think it's right because he [Dixon] was shown to be the main person involved." Crayton insists the videos should be permitted.
Fighting Sessions Among Mentally Disabled Residents
Dixon and five others have been charged with multiple counts of causing injury to a disabled person for their participation in the fighting sessions that took place amongst mentally disabled residents for the fun and pleasure of workers. One of the defendants – D'Angelo Riley, 23 – pled guilty to the third degree felony and will be sentenced by the Judge on Thursday. Three additional former employees - Jesse Salazar, 25, Guadalupe DeLarosa, 22, and Vincent Johnson, 22, are scheduled to go on trial later this summer.
Proceedings for another defendant - Stephanie Garza, 21 - took place in a separate courtroom with Judge Richard Longoria presiding. Garza is being charged with the lesser crime of failing to intervene. She and her lawyer requested immunity and that the case be dismissed. Judge Longoria denied Garza's requests, calling the case "one of the most egregious crimes ever exposed in South Texas."
The State along with Garza's attorney have appealed Longoria's ruling to the Court of Appeals and expects a response within the next week. Prosecutors are hoping to use Garza as a witness against all other existing and potential defendants.
"I don't know how this is going to go," said Ken Botary, attorney for Garza.
Despite the decision of Longoria's court, Judge Watt's did grant Garza immunity in the cases involving Dixon and Riley. Garza is expected to testify against her former co-workers in upcoming trials.
Early on in their investigation, prosecutors identified Dixon as the ring leader who orchestrated the brawls between the residents and recorded the fights on his cell phone. Police said he can be heard on the video directing and calling the fights as if he were a ring announcer.
The videos are key pieces of evidence in the State's case. The nearly 20 videos were made using cell phones over a one year period beginning in 2007, by former employees of the Corpus Christi State School. As previously reported by ABC News, the videos were discovered in March of this year when one of the school employees lost his cell phone and it was turned over to police. The disturbing videos were found when police tried to identify the owner of the phone.
Number of Abuse and Neglect Cases
"It's great to see that they're actually going to prosecute the individuals on the ground who were involved in this incident," said Beth Mitchell, Senior Managing Attorney of Advocacy Inc., an organization that works to protect the rights of Texans with disabilities. "Hopefully this will send a strong message to other staff that if they abuse or mistreat residents, that they will be held accountable."
The Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) is responsible for overseeing the Corpus Christi State School along with 13 other state run schools. The agency has come under attack in recent years over the number of abuse and neglect cases that have been reported among the nearly 5,000 residents that call the schools home. The Corpus Christi State school case raised ever greater concerns about hiring and training practices of the agency.
"It's in the hands of the judicial system," said Laura Albrecht, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) about this week's trial. "We have taken the appropriate action to send a message to Corpus Christi and the other facilities that abuse and neglect of residents will not be tolerated."
Albrecht said the agency and executive have been making unannounced visits at the Corpus Christi school and that cameras will be installed.
Last month, DADS released a report that revealed nearly 270 employees across the states' residential facilities were fired or suspended last year for abusing or mistreating residents. Days prior, Governor Rick Perry signed emergency legislation that would invest $48 million over two years to improving oversight and safety at state schools and facilities servicing Texans with mental disabilities.
The move by the Governor came after the state reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in late May to spend $112 million over the next five years to improve state schools. The financial commitment by the state came after a 2008 DOJ report noted widespread mistreatment of mentally disabled residents in the Texas State school system.
While this week's trial seeks to hold those former employees involved in the Corpus Christi state school accountable for their actions, many believe others should also be held accountable.
"The trial doesn't necessarily target anybody in management to ensure they overseas and supervises staff to make sure abuse and mistreatment doesn't occur" said Mitchell. "Management needs to be held responsible as well."