A Walker County jury deliberated for more than five hours before unanimously deciding that a verdict could not be reached in the trial of a former state parole official accused of falsifying government documents.
District Judge Don Kraemer declared a mistrial Friday night around 10:45 p.m. in the case against Pamela Freeman, who allegedly claimed in reports that five inmates "refused" their 20-year mandatory parole interviews because they chose to go to lunch since fried chicken was being served instead of meeting her for their scheduled appointments at the the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Wynne Unit in Huntsville on April 30, 2014.
The jury of nine women and three men were split 8-4 in favor of a conviction.
Freeman was facing five counts of tampering with a government record with the intent to defraud or harm another, which is a state jail felony, punishable up to two years in a state jail facility for each charge upon conviction. The jury also had the option of finding Freeman guilty of a lesser charge of tampering with a government record, a class A misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of up to a year in jail.
“While we are disappointed that the jury couldn't reach a verdict, we are very appreciative of the time and attention they put into this case. Public corruption cases are never easy,” said Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Stroud, who prosecuted the case, along with Andria Bender.
“As a society, we want to believe that the people we entrust to make sure the system is fair are people who are honest and of the highest integrity. It is often difficult to accept that a public servant would stray from those ideals but, as this case shows, it happens.”
Four of the five inmates testified during the four-day trial that they arrived early for the 11 a.m. interviews, including Alejandro Martinez who said he saw Freeman after another offender in the holding tank identified her in the hall because he had met with her in the past.
The inmates became worried when no one came to speak with them for their 20-year review, which is their first opportunity during their incarceration to speak with a voting member of the parole board, who would have a say in whether they were released from their sentences early or not, and reported it to the Wynne Unit institutional parole officer, David Paluka, at about 11:30 a.m.
Paluka testified that he called Freeman, who he did not see that morning where the interviews would have been conducted near his office, around 11:45 at her office a few miles away at the First National Bank building on 11th Street to tell her the inmates were waiting to see her. He said she told him she was not going to reschedule the interviews and hoped they "enjoyed" the chicken, which testimony showed was a "rarity" being served for lunch that day, so Paluka reported it to his supervisor because he felt the inmates "deserved" their interviews.
It was later revealed that Freeman wrote in a parole interview memorandum that the inmates “refused interview” and they “went (and) ate chicken," which the prosecution said was false and harmful to the offenders because multiple witnesses during the four-day trial testified that "refused" showing up in an offender's parole file could hurt his or her chances at parole each time they came up for review in the future.
The document also said it had been verified by two correctional officers, including a sergeant.
Freeman's attorney, Tiffany Hill of Houston, claimed the inmates later concocted their stories because they believed this was their "get-out-of-jail card" and that two correctional officers told Freeman the inmates went to lunch when she could not find them, so she did not knowingly falsify a government document. Hill also contended that the document was only one issue that the parole board took into consideration when deciding if an inmate should be paroled or not and that each inmate was later granted a special interview and are still in prison.
One of the correctional officers testified that he told Freeman it was fried chicken day and that some inmates were known to miss a variety of different appointments on those days, but he also said he never said those five inmates refused to be interviewed. The other correctional officer who allegedly provided Freeman with the information she wrote in the reports, testified he never said the offenders refused to be interviewed and told Freeman "all" the inmates in the holding area went to "chow," but he never went to the tank to see if anyone was waiting in there.
Both testified that their encounters with Freeman were brief and they didn't even know who she was there to see.
Martinez's wife contacted his parole attorney, Mary Samaan, either on April 30 or the following day to tell her how distraught her husband was that he did not get his 20-year interview. Martinez, who is serving a life sentence for murder, testified he would not have skipped the meeting because of how important it was since his only way to get out of prison was parole.
Samaan testified Friday she called Freeman, with whom she admitted to having problems with in the past, after speaking with Martinez's wife and said that Freeman told her the inmates "wouldn't be believed" when Samaan said Martinez saw Freeman pack up her things at the Wynne Unit and leave without speaking to the offenders waiting in the holding area.
"I felt like she didn't want anyone sticking up for these inmates," Samaan said.
Martinez's wife filed a complaint with the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole ombudsman who conducted an administrative investigation. In the meantime, Samaan contacted fellow parole attorney Kevin Stouwie to see if there was civil action that could be taken to help Martinez get a new interview.
After speaking with Martinez and other parties involved in the reported incident, Stouwie filed a "lengthy" complaint with state Sen. John Whitmire, who is the chairman for the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and with the Office of Inspector General. Stouwie said he did not go to the Board of Pardons and Parole because former chair Rissie Owens was known in the parole community to protect Freeman and that public records indicated no disciplinary action had been taken against Freeman related to numerous complaints parole attorneys had filed about her.
Owens testified Friday that despite receiving complaints about Freeman from at least three parole board members who served as Freeman's supervisors, it was her opinion that Freeman's reputation in the parole community was "good."
One of those board members, Linda Garcia, worked with Freeman in Angleton and testified Friday that she stopped complaining to Owens about Freeman because every time she did, something "negative" would happen to her or her staff.
Stouwie said he went to both the OIG and Whitmire because he felt Owens could not "sweep" the case "under the rug" if more people were aware of the situation.
"I thought there was a chance Ms. Owens could kill it," Stouwie testified.
Stouwie and Owens both testified that after the events transpired on April 30, 2014, Owens changed parole board policy to state that the board members and commissioners must have the institutional parole officer at each prison unit verify and sign documentation confirming that an inmate has "refused" to be interviewed.
The defense also claimed Freeman was the "scapegoat" and blamed former parole board member Roman Chavez for "spearheading" the investigation into Freeman to protect himself because he was supposed to interview Martinez that day and had Freeman do it instead. Hill also argued that Owens said she told Chavez to have Freeman go back and do the interviews because that could have prevented this case from becoming a criminal matter, but Owens testified it appeared Chavez never did that.
Chavez testified that he asked Freeman if she was going to reschedule the interviews and she told him only if Owens told her to do it.
Stroud said Saturday the case against Freeman was not over.
"We are grateful for people like David Paluka, Mary Samaan and Kevin Stouwie who stepped forward to tell the Pamela Freemans of the world that violations of the public trust will not be tolerated," she said. "We look forward to presenting our case to another jury in the future so that justice can be served in this case."