An ancient Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu (544 BC – 496 BC) is credited with the observation, “the wheels of justice grind slow but grind fine.” It is an observation most of us in the newspaper profession find very astute. The reporting of a story that traverses the justice system can be trying, frustrating and can tax one’s patience.
I wrestle with myself at times over the newspaper’s practice of identifying people in print at the time they are charged with a crime. At base and bottom I believe in the tenet that someone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. In this business one has to weigh the merits of the principle with the equally compelling one of the public’s right to know about illegal activity that occurs within their community and affects their lives. The newspaper diligently attempts to track cases through the process until there is a resolution in the matter. If the person charged with a crime is proven to be innocent, then that fact is reported in the newspaper with the same prominence as the arrest and arraignment received.
At times that is an extremely difficult task, given the volume of cases and the time that can expire between arrest, arraignment and adjudication of some cases. Brown County voters several years ago approved the creation of the County Court-At-Law to reduce the backlog of cases and to expedite resolutions. However, a number of hoops one has to navigate within the legal system remain. An example is a case residents of Brown County are following regarding a county commissioner. The Bulletin reported charges had been made against Steve Adams that allege Adams had repairs made to his personal equipment and had the charges (around $19,000), billed to, and paid for by Brown County taxpayers. An investigation was authorized under the direction of the Department of Public Safety and an investigative report was filed by a Texas Ranger with the District Attorney’s office in Brown County.
The delays in the case began through a legal procedure that allows officers of the court, if they feel there may be conflict of interest, to recuse themselves from a case. The local Texas Ranger exercised that option and the case was investigated by a Ranger out of the Midland office. The investigation was completed and a report was filed with the district attorney’s office in Brownwood. The report was held up in the district attorney’s office while the district attorney evaluated the legal options available to him. One would have been to present the case to a Grand Jury and let it determine if crimes had been committed and if an indictment should be issued against Adams. Another option would be follow the example of the Texas Ranger and refer the case to another district attorney. The third avenue available was to forward the report to the State Attorney General’s office for a ruling. Micheal Murray, the district attorney, chose the last option and forwarded the Texas Ranger’s report to Austin. There the investigative report remains.
Following up on the case, so the Bulletin could report on progress toward a resolution last week, I was reminded again of how difficult a process it is to obtain substantive information from public officials. It should be noted here that the information in the case is not a public record, nor should details of an ongoing criminal investigation be made available to the press or anyone. However, in this instance, I was merely trying to ascertain if indeed there was an ongoing investigation, and if so the progress made toward a resolution. First, I was told there had not been any report or request originating from Micheal Murray’s office in Brownwood that had arrived at the Attorney General’s office. Two days later, after obtaining confirmation of an investigation being conducted by the Texas Rangers from the Department of Public Safety, the same person acknowledged that he just learned of the request. He confirmed the request was made by Murray, but of course he could not comment on the investigation.
Meanwhile, many months have passed and the citizens of Brown County continue to wait for a ruling on whether the expenditures made for repairs on Adams’ personal equipment by the county are indeed warranted as he alleges. Adams also is forced into a waiting game to see if or when his name and reputation in the county will be cleared. Both can only hope that the second part of the Chinese philosopher’s observation also rings true, and the wheels of justice do grind fine.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield@brownwood