Congratulations to my father Russ Hunt Sr's law partner Michelle Tuegel on a fantastic outcome to a hotly contested case in Waco. Michelle, along with Walter "Skip" Reaves and Mark Dyer were able to reach a deal in the retrial of a 28-year old arson case because of their superior understanding of the operation of historic parole laws.
The case involved Ed Graf, a Hewitt man who was accused of capital murder by starting a fire that caused the death of two boys in 1986. Thanks to the hard work of Skip and Mark, the original verdict and sentence were overturned due to questions surrounding the arson science used in the investigation of the original case. Because the fire science was sketchy, the prosecution had to resort to a classic prosecutorial approach in proving the case in the retrial. Texas Observer Story with details.
After a long trial, and after the jury had indicated their deliberations were deadlocked at 10-2 in determining Graf's guilt, the defense team negotiated an agreed guilty plea to the lesser-included offense of murder for a 60-year sentence. Why was this a favorable outcome for Mr. Graf? Because the defense team understood that the parole rules applied in every case are the rules in effect at the time of the offense, not the rules in effect at the time of conviction.
Prior to September 1, 1987 every offense was eligible for "Mandatory Supervision" which is a form of non-discretionary parole release. Mandatory Supervision laws instructed the parole board that once an inmate's calendar time plus his good time equaled his sentence, they must release the offender on parole supervision. Hence the term "Mandatory Supervision." After 9/1/87, Capital Murder was made ineligible for Mandatory Supervision.
Research Pays Off
Michelle consulted with Riverside parole attorney Bill Habern and even verified Graf's accrued time credits with the prison system prior to arranging the deal. She was able to confirm that the deal would guarantee Graf an almost immediate release from prison onto Mandatory Supervision because he had already served more than enough time and earned more than enough good conduct credit for mandatory release to kick in. Had he plead to a life sentence he would not have qualified for Mandatory Supervision. On the day when this offense was committed, a person receiving a 60-year sentence for any offense was eligible for Mandaory Supervision after serving 28 yrs, 4 months, 24 days. Mr. Graf had already served enough time to be eligible for Mandatory Supervision, and was released on October 29, 2014.
The truth is that this area of law is very complicated and there seem to be only a few specialized attorneys who really understand the ins and outs of the arcane parole system in Texas. The attorneys involved in this case did a consistently outstanding job, starting with obtaining the new trial, and culminating with arranging a fantastic outcome for their client.
Was reaching a plea bargain a betrayal of their client who had consistently maintained his innocence in the case, even before the case was overturned due to faulty science? Jeff Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas told the Associated Press that he did not think so:
The most important thing is that we get the science right,” Blackburn said. “Not everybody who got convicted on the basis of junk science is innocent. Not everybody who got convicted on the basis of junk science deserves an acquittal or a pardon, and this is proof of that.”
Good Lawyering: Inpiration Plus Perspiration
What is good lawyering? Hard work, a thorough understanding of complex issues, a willingness to explore all options and the ability to craft the most favorable outcome then convince the participants to accept that outcome. Whether at trial, to a judge, or in negotiation, these are the essential pieces of successful lawyering, and the outcome of this case perfectly illustrates some outstanding lawyering from Michelle and the entire defense team.
Following are links to documents that explain in greater depth the somewhat arcane operation of the parole laws in Texas.
Parole In Texas produced by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, lists offenses included in mandatory supervision law according to date offense was committed. Chart on page 12 of "Parole in Texas" reflects the law in effect up to 8/31/1987.