- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

The Monitor. June 2, 2017.

We commend U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Republicans from Texas, who are putting pressure on the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent to better coordinate federal agents with Texas officials on the best Zika control methods. The senators also are insisting the CDC spend money that Congress already has appropriated for such efforts, especially in places like Brownsville, which has been designated as a high-risk area for the disease.

In a May 18 letter to CDC Acting Director Dr. Anne Schuchat, the senators wrote: “We write to inquire as to the steps the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is taking to implement and develop the strongest possible Zika response plan and encourage you to work closely with Texas public health officials throughout this process. . Protecting against a Zika outbreak is a critical public health priority. In Texas, the Zika threat is of particular concern, as the state’s Gulf Coast location, warm climate, and concerns for flooding, have the potential to attract high volumes of disease carrying mosquitoes.”

That “threat” is very real right now after unseasonal rainfall recently struck the Rio Grande Valley and will most likely result in a batch of millions more mosquitoes.

Furthermore, we applaud their questioning the financial oversight by the CDC, which they say was given $394 million by Congress “to combat Zika.” The agency apparently has not yet spent $144 million of these funds. This money came from $1.1 billion in supplemental funding appropriated in September 2016 for Zika prevention and response initiatives, which the senators wrote could have a “significant impact” in preventing a Zika outbreak.

We agree with them that this money needs to be put into an active plan to help prevent this mosquito-borne illness, which when infected during pregnancy can cause microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects in infants.

So we also ask how the CDC plans to utilize these funds and what is the time frame for usage? Particularly, how much of this money will go to South Texas - where there have been two confirmed cases of Zika, including transmission of the disease locally? And are federal agents working hand in hand with local and Texas state officials to come up with a solid game plan?

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt attended a roundtable discussion on Zika in Brownsville hosted by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Abbott was clear that local officials need to get a jump on Zika before it gets the jump on us.

“We’re very concerned about an even greater proliferation of Zika this particular year,” Abbott said during the May 5 meeting. “This is something that we need to tackle as robustly as possible. We also want to emphasize the importance of working as a community.”

We believe that our local health officials in Hidalgo and Cameron counties have been steadfast in spreading the message to our communities about protecting themselves from exposure to Zika, and in testing for the disease. And we believe our community is embracing and understanding the severe ramifications that this disease can have on families. But prevention takes funds and as of Thursday afternoon, we’re told by Sen. Cornyn’s office that the CDC has not responded to them with answers on how and when the agency intends to spend this money, or even if it plans to spend it in South Texas.

We believe the need is clear here. And the answers must come soon.

Brownsville is currently listed by the CDC as a “Zika cautionary area,” and warns on its website against travel to that part of South Texas. Specifically, the CDC states: “Pregnant women should consider postponing travel to Brownsville.”

Unfortunately for many pregnant women in the Rio Grande Valley who live and work in Brownsville, this is not an option.

We therefore turn to our federal lawmakers to continue to put the heat on the CDC, and whomever else they can, to deliver these much-needed funds to South Texas and to bring relief to the thousands of families here who are threatened by this dangerous disease.

___

San Antonio Express-News. June 4, 2017.

The indictment of Genene Jones, Central Texas’ most notorious child killer, in the death of 11-month-old Joshua Sawyer is decades overdue.

Jones, 66, worked as a licensed vocation nurse in the 1980s in San Antonio and the Hill Country, and is a suspect in at least 40 infant deaths. She has been in prison since 1984, serving two concurrent sentences.

One is a 99-year sentence for the murder of Chelsea McClellan, a 15-month-old Kerrville toddler; the other is a 60-year sentence for injury to a child in a case involving month-old Rolando Santos of San Antonio. In hindsight, those two sentences should have been stacked to run one after the other. However, at the time of her sentencing there was no reason to know legislative changes would later affect how much time Jones would actually serve.

State prison overcrowding prompted the Texas Legislature in 1996 to significantly cut the amount of time felons convicted between 1977 and 1987 have to serve before mandatory parole. That change in the law has allowed Jones to earn two days of “good time” for each day served, and she is looking at a March 1, 2018, mandatory release date.

A prison term of just under 35 years hardly seems just for a suspected serial killer who preyed on children and appeared to thrive on being in the midst of life-threatening medical emergencies. The lack of a statute of limitation on murder allows prosecutors to seek justice for at least one more family.

The latest indictment alleges Jones caused the child’s death with a massive dose of an anticonvulsant drug. Working a cold case more than 30 years old has its challenges. The longer a case languishes, the more difficult it becomes to locate witnesses, access records and validate the chain of custody on evidence.

Bexar County Assistant District Attorney Jason Goss and DA’s investigator Larry DeHaven deserve credit for their hard work in pursuing the latest Jones indictment. Peter Elkind, author of “The Death Shift,” a book published in 1989, writes in Texas Monthly that the Jones case has been a personal project of DeHaven’s for years. He piqued Goss’ interest in 2015 when he told the prosecutor that Jones was facing mandatory release. Goss, 36, was unfamiliar with the Jones case.

Goss, a first chair prosecutor in a busy criminal court, received District Attorney Nico LaHood’s permission to pursue an indictment in December. But due to his primary duties, he had to do all the work after hours.

Family members of children who died under suspicious circumstances while under Jones’ care have also been instrumental in bringing new charges against Jones. When they learned she was set for mandatory release, they came together to form a 1,100-member closed Facebook group named “Victims of Genene Anne Jones” in 2013. Their goal was another indictment.

The Jones case has been assigned to 399th District Judge Frank Castro, who is serving the first year of a four-year term on the bench. A trial date is probably two years away, meaning the prosecution will extend well beyond LaHood’s current term of office. In the interim, Jones will likely remain incarcerated under a high bond.

In the interest of justice, the politics and posturing surrounding this high-profile case need to be kept to a minimum.

___

Beaumont Enterprise. June 5, 2017.

Republicans and Democrats in Texas can argue about a lot of things - and they do - but they should be able to agree on the integrity of the state’s attorney general. Unfortunately, that’s been up in the air for the past three years, and the answer to that question has been surprisingly pushed back again.

Embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton recently succeeded in getting the Collins County judge who had presided over his case removed in favor of an- as-yet-unnamed judge in Harris County. That’s where his trial on two felony counts will take place.

Paxton felt that the judge was biased against him, and he has the right to argue that point in court. But legal observers can’t recall this happening to any other case that has been moved, so at best it’s rare. It does suggest that a high-ranking official might not be receiving the same consideration in a courtroom as John or Joan Q. Texan might, and that’s unsettling.

The bigger issue is that the Sept. 12 trial date for this case has now been cancelled, and no one knows when the next one will be scheduled since the presiding judge has not been selected. It’s also typical in cases like this for several trial dates to be set before one actually survives the various motions to delay it.

Which means that Texans will have to wait even longer to find out if the attorney general - the highest law enforcement officer in the state, mind you - is guilty of two felonies.

He is facing two counts alleging securities fraud and was also sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, though a federal judge dismissed those cases.

This cloud was hanging over Paxton when he won the AG’s job in 2014. Unless it is resolved soon, it may be hanging over him when he runs for re-election in 2018, as he has indicated he will.

One way or another, this case needs to be decided. Legal maneuvering on either side delays that resolution.

___

The Dallas Morning News. June 5, 2017.

It was welcome recent news that the death penalty is continuing to fall out of favor with Texas juries.

In the 15 death penalty cases tried in Texas since 2015, jurors have sentenced only eight men to death. In Dallas County, prosecutors have sought capital punishment in just two cases since 2014; juries declined to sentence defendants to death in both.

They’ve got good reasons to be reluctant.

This newspaper has been calling for the end of the death penalty in Texas since 2007. This error-prone system has proved to be expensive, arbitrary and unfair - and does little to discourage heinous crimes. It’s clear that even in Texas, once the nation’s death penalty leader, county prosecutors are seeking it less.

Fellow advocates against capital punishment call that progress. It’s promising that district attorneys are showing that they can live without the death penalty. There were seven executions in Texas last year, four so far this year. And national momentum is already swinging against support.

It may have been too much to hope for that Texas lawmakers would finally abolish the death penalty this legislative session. They once again left repeal legislation stuck in committee.

But there were hopeful signs that Austin is moving in the right direction.

A bill to repeal the death penalty at least received public hearings this session. And three bills that would have made more crimes eligible for the death penalty were never heard in committee.

Legislators also sent a bipartisan bill to Gov. Greg Abbott aimed at preventing wrongful convictions, one of the main reasons for waning confidence in the system.

Police would be required to record interrogations, and prosecutors would have to provide jurors more information about testimony from so-called prison snitches. Stricter protocols also would be in place for eyewitness identification.

That’s all good news.

Evidence continues to mount that this system is too ripe for mistakes. Arkansas’ recent rush to execute eight men before its lethal injection drug could expire highlighted the outside forces that can affect the course of justice.

In Texas, two men were removed from death row in recent weeks based on evidence of their mental disabilities. Pedro Sosa, on death row for 32 years for a 1983 abduction and murder, had his sentence reduced to life. And Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office determined that Robert Campbell, in prison for 25 years for rape and murder in 1991, should receive a new sentencing hearing after it was discovered that his disabilities had been concealed by prosecutors.

No one wants hardened criminals roaming our streets. But no one should want a system that unconstitutionally executes the mentally disabled, either - or one that doles out different brands of justice to different types of defendants.

There are other tools - life without parole, for example - to punish the worst of the worst among us. Texas can live without the death penalty - and is better off without it.

___

Houston Chronicle. June 5, 2017.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke directly with the American people in his fireside chats.

Ronald Reagan mastered the art of the nationally televised address from the Oval Office.

Donald Trump paved a path to the White House on Twitter, 140 characters at a time.

An exemplary media strategy and communications skills sit at the heart of a successful presidency - but it can’t end there. Roosevelt and Reagan both knew that their radio and television broadcasts existed to bolster, not replace, the real job of running the federal government.

It isn’t clear whether Trump understands the difference.

London recently was struck by a terrorist attack that left seven dead and dozens wounded. Trump had no shortage of tweets in response. However, the duty of supporting our ally across the Atlantic Ocean fell to Lewis Lukens, a career diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in London. Normally that’s the job of the ambassador, but there is no ambassador. Trump has yet to make a formal nomination and submission to the Senate.

In fact, out of the 559 executive positions that require Senate approval, Trump has left 442 empty, according to the Washington Post.

The vacancies at the U.S. State Department include: coordinator for counter-terrorism, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, and coordinator for threat reduction programs. At the U.S. Department of Justice, Trump has yet to nominate a new director of the FBI after firing James Comey. He’s also failed to replace any of the 46 U.S. attorneys after firing them three months ago.

(As we enter hurricane season this month, Houstonians should ask when the president plans on nominating an undersecretary for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

No board of directors would tolerate a CEO who didn’t hire a staff. No owner of an NFL team would put up with a coach who refused to hire an defensive or offensive coordinator.

After all, the White House is more than the president. Skilled public servants are the ones who work behind the scenes to promote the president’s agenda and keep our nation safe. Yet Trump continues to act like he can run the federal government with little more than a Twitter account.

Trump’s presidency is still in its first few months, but sooner or later he’s going to face a terrorist attack, or economic crisis, or natural disaster, or any litany of challenges that will have the American people crying out for help. And the president will need be prepared to offer leadership more substantive than 140-characters.

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