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New State Office Handling Convicted Baytown Murderer's Death Sentence Habeas Appeal

by Stephen Thomas Your Houston News Posted: Thursday, July 21, 2011 4:00 am

The capital murder conviction of a Baytown man is a new case for a relatively new state office charged with habeas corpus appellate representation of death-sentenced convicts.

The Texas Office of Capital Writs, which will mark its first anniversary Sept. 1, advocates on behalf of indigent individuals sentenced to death in Texas, and Joseph Francois Jean is one of them.

A jury convicted Jean on June 17 in the Harris County 230th District Court. Criminal District Judge Belinda Hill gave him the death penalty on the same day, eight days prior to Jean's 39th birthday.

Jean was convicted for the April 11, 2010, murders of Ashley Johnson and Chelsy Lang, each 17 years old, by using, according to the indictment, "a deadly weapon, namely a blunt object." While extinguishing a residential fire, Baytown firefighters found the victims' bodies.

The court appoints the OCW, in accordance with the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. In Jean's case, Hill appointed the OCW after the court determined that the convict was indigent. OCW director Brad D. Levenson said that his office provides solely habeas representation; it does not handle direct appeals. There is a difference. Jean and anyone else in his situation would have another attorney for the direct appeal.

Jean had a statutory right to both forms of appeal.

"Every person that is convicted of a capital murder gets an appeal, which is based on the record, and a habeas, which is an outside-the-record litigation," Levenson said. "A direct appeal is based on the record at trial. So anything that happens at trial that is in the transcript would be subject to a direct appeal. You're just appealing anything that happens specifically at trial.

"A habeas will look at things necessarily that might not have happened at trial." Speaking generally and not specifically about Jean's case or about any other case, Levenson said that a habeas appeal might examine whether an investigation was incomplete or whether evidence should have been turned over, among numerous possibilities. He re-emphasized that those matters apply to habeas appeals in general and not to Jean's matter, an ongoing investigation on which the OCW does not comment.

The office is in the early phase of its investigation of Jean's case, which consists of document collection.

"This is really a new case-really new," Levenson said. "So, at this point, we're just collecting documents to review. It takes really months to get records. You collect trial counsel's file. You collect investigator files. Anyone from the defense team, you collect their files. Any experts who might have testified, you collect any files that they may have. Then you also wait for the transcript to be prepared because you need to read the transcript. And that takes three to six months to get."

There were no impediments to the OCW representing Jean.

"Now, under the statute, the judge must appoint the Office of Capital Writs for a post-conviction proceeding," Levenson explained. "We can decline the representation if we have a conflict with the case or workload issues. We don't have a workload issue at this point, and we didn't have a conflict, so we accepted it."

The OCW follows a different appellate path.

"When we file an application, it will go back to the convicting court, so it will go back to the trial court," Levenson said. "Then, once the trial court is finished with it, it will go to the Court of Criminal Appeals. The direct appeal goes directly to the Court of Criminal Appeals."

Levenson came to the OCW attuned to the office's area of representation. He served as a deputy federal public defender in the Capital Habeas Unit of the federal public defender's Los Angeles office. He was a California deputy attorney general in the Appeals, Writs, and Trials Unit beforehand.

Levenson has confidence in his staff.

"I feel great about it; we've put together a really wonderful staff," Levenson said. "It's small, and we have a lot of work. But it is a very dedicated staff, a very smart staff, and I am very pleased with it."

Updated Monday, June 26, 2023

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