CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – A lawyer for a man accused of organizing fights among developmentally disabled Texans for entertainment argued Monday that cell phone videos of the events should be suppressed.
The grainy cell phone videos showing the students forced to fight each other was expected to be the evidence centerpiece this week as four former employees at the Corpus Christi State School go on trial.
State District Judge Sandra Watts was hearing arguments Monday on a motion filed for defendant Timothy Dixon, who allegedly recorded the fights on a phone that was turned over to police. His attorney, Ira Miller, contends the phone was stolen and police should have obtained a search warrant before examining the videos.
Jury selection, expected to begin Monday morning, was delayed. Jurors were expected to be picked for the trial of Dixon, 30, D'Angelo Riley, 23, and Jesse Salazar, 25, all charged with multiple counts of causing bodily injury to a disabled person. In a separate courtroom, Stephanie Garza, 21, was to face a lesser charge of not intervening to stop the fights. Two other former employees are scheduled to go on trial later this year.
"These people did horrific things," said Jeff Garrison-Tate, of the advocacy group Community Now!, which has called for closing the state schools in favor of community-based services. "But they were given silent permission for these heinous acts."
District Attorney Carlos Valdez did not return calls for comment. Defense attorneys for the accused declined to comment.
Almost 20 videos dating back to 2007 were found on a cell phone turned in to police, showing staff at the Corpus Christi State School forcing residents into late-night bouts, even kicking them to egg them on. Eleven staff members were identified and six were charged.
Dixon is believed to have shot the videos, though other staff members can been seen pointing cell phone cameras toward the brawls. None of those charged still works at the facility.
The state has taken pains to close the issue. In May, the Legislature approved a $112 million settlement with the Justice Department for widespread mistreatment found at Texas' 13 residential facilities for the developmentally disabled. Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation last month aimed at improving oversight of the facilities that house nearly 5,000 people.
The settlement is "a big step that will certainly bring improvements and changes to the system," said Laura Albrecht, a spokeswoman for the Department of Aging and Disability Services. She said the agency is making unannounced visits to the Corpus Christi facility and cameras are being installed.
The school's director remains in place, to the consternation of some who say that the incidents showed a disturbing lack of supervision.
Beth Mitchell, the managing lawyer for Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit with federal authority to monitor abuse and neglect at the facilities, asked what the administration's role in the alleged crimes was.
"They (those charged) were probably the ones instigating the fight clubs, but my concern is: How can you have it going on as long as it did without the administration knowing about it?" she asked.