John Gillespie is the Wichita County District Attorney. (Photo: TORIN HALSEY/TIMES RECORD NEWS)
Wichita County District Attorney John Gillespie said he is calling for change when it comes to bail after a 21-year-old man charged with murder reportedly shed his ankle monitor and fled house arrest Aug. 23.
Joshua Christopher Ray Cook, accused of killing a 17-year-old, was apprehended that evening. Cook had been out on bail in the wake of a Second Appeals Court decision resulting in a reduced bond for the murder charge.
“I respect the court of appeals, but I think they got that one wrong,” Gillespie said last week. “I think we see that with what happened on Sunday.”
He said the appeals court has misused a Wichita County schedule of recommended bail amounts to justify saying bonds were oppressive in Cook’s and other cases.
The DA said he would like to see the county’s three district judges revisit the bail schedule. Gillespie would like them to either come up with a range for bail amounts for serious felony charges — or do away with the recommendations altogether.
“I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years, and the law is that bail is a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Gillespie said Cook’s escape could have been a nightmare, created because the Fort Worth appeals court overruled a local judge and his decision made to protect the community and the victim’s family.
Public defender: Bail system is broken
Cook is accused of murdering Yajaira Garcia, a Wichita Falls High School senior, on Nov. 3, 2018, at the end of Hammon Ranch Road, according to court records. He has pleaded not guilty.
Cook was being held without bond Sunday in Wichita County Jail where he is expected to remain pending trial on Jan. 19, 2021.
Gillespie said changing or jettisoning the bail schedule could help avoid another situation like the one Aug. 23.
Wichita County First Assistant Public Defender David Bost has his own point of view.
“In many ways, the cash or surety bail system in Texas is broken,” Bost said. “But the ‘recommended felony bail amounts’ in Wichita County is a step in the right direction and should stay intact as much as possible.”
Wichita County First Assistant Public Defender David Bost is shown in court in this March 9, 2020, file photo. (Photo: CHRISTOPHER WALKER/TIMES RECORD NEWS)
Bost said bail is to ensure a person accused of a crime shows up to trial, and it’s not designed to punish the person, who is presumed innocent under both the U.S. and Texas constitutions.
“Our justice system requires that people, no matter who they are, be treated roughly the same as anyone else facing similar charges,” he said.
“If there are no standards or guidelines, then rich, important, or connected people may be treated differently than working class blue collar people who are accused of the same crime,” Bost said.
What are the recommended bail amounts?
Gillespie said in most cases a bond must be set that isn’t oppressive but is high enough to ensure both the defendant’s appearance in court — and the protection of the community.
The schedule of bond amounts at issue was filed July 11, 2016, in the district court minutes for Wichita County.
The three district judges serving at the time signed the felony bond schedule. Two have since retired, former 30th District Judge Bob Brotherton and former 78th District Judge Barney Fudge.
Here are the recommended felony bail amounts:
- Capital murder: $500,000
- Murder: $100,000
- First degree felony: $25,000
- Second degree felony: $10,000
- Third degree felony: $5,000
- State jail felony: $2,500
Higher amounts are suggested for those with prior convictions or accused of a crime while out on bail for a felony, according to the schedule.
Gillespie said the schedule is supposed to be a just general guide.
“I don’t think in my 20 years as a prosecutor I’ve seen a capital murder case that had less than a million-dollar bond,” Gillespie said. “We’re talking about serial killers and some of the worst offenders.”
A variety of crimes are first degree felonies, which are recommended for bails of $25,000, Gillespie said.
Wichita County Deputies arrested Joshua Christoper Ray Cook the afternoon of Aug. 23 after he allegedly fled house arrest that morning. (Photo: CHRISTOPHER WALKER/TIMES RECORD NEWS)
“I can see a situation where someone that commits a property crime may not be that great of a risk to the community, and so that might be a reasonable amount,” he said.
“But you also have continuous sexual abuse of a child, rape of a child, … raping an adult. Some of our most violent sexual offenses are first-degree felonies,” Gillespie said.
He would especially like the district judges to revisit recommended bails for capital murder, murder and other first-degree felonies.
Bost said that in his personal experience, the recommended bail amounts haven’t been strictly followed.
Instead, the recommendations have tended to encourage judges to treat people more objectively when it comes to bail and with less concern for social media or other factors that shouldn’t influence their bail decisions, he said.
Judges consider the facts of the case, the defendant’s history and other factors before setting bond, Bost said.
Cook’s bond has been something of a roller coaster ride almost since the day of his arrest southwest of Wichita Falls where sheriff’s deputies say they found him crouching over his girlfriend’s body with a gun in his hand.
His first bail on the murder charge was $100,000, set by a local magistrate the day after the killing, according to a May 31, 2019, opinion from a panel of three justices on the Fort Worth appeals court.
The next day, Nov. 5, 2018, prosecutors filed a motion to declare the bond insufficient, saying Cook was a flight risk, according to the opinion.
Joshua Cook (Photo: Courtesy/Wichita County Jail)
No hearing on the motion had been held when the same day, a justice of the peace formally charged Cook and set his bail at $750,000 for the murder charge, according to the opinion.
In short order on Nov. 19, 2018, a public defender filed an application for Cook’s bail to be reduced before 78th District Court Judge Charles Barnard, according to the opinion.
Barnard heard evidence from both sides on Dec. 13, 2018, and denied Cook’s request for a lower bond on the murder charge, according to the opinion.
The judge granted a request to lower the bail for a related home burglary charge from $100,000 to $10,000, according to the opinion.
Cook appealed to the higher court in Fort Worth to have the bond lowered on the murder charge, according to the opinion.
The appeals court found that Barnard should have reduced the bail amount for the murder charge, based on the evidence offered, according to the opinion.
The defense’s evidence included testimony from Cook’s mother and Cook, a video of a TV interview with the justice of the peace and Garcia’s family — and the bail schedule, according to the opinion. Prosecutors argued that Cook was a flight risk.
The DA’s Office has repeatedly fought against Cook’s bail being lowered on the murder charge at the appeals court level and the trial court level, according to Gillespie.
The appeals court’s opinion noted the justice of the peace set a bail over seven times the recommended amount for murder.
“It is significant in this case that the collective wisdom of the three district judges in Wichita County concluded that the ‘Recommended Felony Bail Amounts’ for murder should be $100,000 as originally set by the magistrate,” the appeals court justices wrote.
They also cited the testimony of Cook and his mother in reversing Barnard’s ruling on bail for the murder charge and ordering the case back to trial court to set a reasonable bail.
By then, a Wichita County grand jury had indicted Cook in Judge Jeff McKnight’s 30th District Court. So it fell to McKnight to reset Cook’s bond after a hearing July 12, 2019.
McKnight decided Cook’s bail would be $300,000 for the murder charge and set bond conditions. Cook was basically on house arrest at his mother’s home and had to wear an ankle monitor.
“Judge McKnight had no choice,” Gillespie said. “He had to lower the bond because he was directed by the Fort Worth court of appeals to do that.”
Subsequently, Cook’s defense attorney, Michael Payne, acted as his bondsman, allowing Cook to bail out of jail, according to court and jail records.
The morning of Aug. 23, Cook’s mother discovered he had removed his ankle monitor, submerged his two cell phones in water, taken $1,400 and fled, Gillespie said that day. Cook’s mother called Payne, who in turn notified the DA.
Gillespie said it’s absurd for the appeals court justice to think house arrest with an ankle monitor somehow guarantees public safety.
“We were notified by the defense attorney two hours before the ankle monitor company ever contacted us,” he said.
The Wichita County Sheriff’s Office started a statewide manhunt for Cook, who was discovered and apprehended Sunday evening at his current girlfriend’s apartment in Wichita Falls, law-enforcement officials said.
On Wednesday, McKnight signed an agreed order requiring Cook held without bond pending trial in response to a motion filed by Gillespie, according to court records.
Cook waived a hearing on his bond, agreeing evidence at a hearing would have supported his bail being denied, according to court records.
Gillespie said a provision of the Texas Constitution allows a defendant to be held without bail if he violates bond conditions related to the protection of the public.
Trish Choate, enterprise watchdog reporter for the Times Record News, covers education, courts, breaking news, politics and more. Contact Trish with news tips at [email protected] Her Twitter handle is @Trishapedia.
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