Texas county stops recording inmate-attorney phone calls

Recordings warn inmates and recipients of their calls that the conversations are recorded

By Harvey Rice
Houston Chronicle

GALVESTON, Texas — The Galveston County Sheriff' s Department hastily instituted a new policy recently when it was discovered that conversations between inmates and their attorneys had been recorded for at least a decade. Defense attorneys say the practice is common statewide.

Sheriff Freddie Poor said a complaint by a district judge led the department to begin programming the names of all the defense attorneys practicing in Galveston County into the jail's computerized phone system. Once a number is in the system, recording automatically halts when it is dialed, Poor said.

"One, it's a good idea, and two, it's long overdue," said Gary Trichter, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

Recordings warn inmates and recipients of their calls that the conversations are recorded. If a client blurts out something during a phone conversation with his attorney, the attorney must rely on the word of prosecutors and jailers that it won't be used in trial, Trichter said.

"What's to prevent a sheriff's deputy from listening to a call and finding other evidence that was illegally derived and then it's given to the prosecutor?" he said. All phone calls made by inmates in county jails, other than calls to attorneys or religious counselors, may legally be recorded and used in court, Poor said.

The Harris County Jail also has been routinely recording all conversations, including those between attorneys and clients, but is trying to change the practice, sheriff's spokesman Alan Bernstein said. Bernstein said the jail has been programming defense attorney phone numbers into the system over the past few months. Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady said that when the problem came to his attention a few weeks ago he asked his prosecutors if they had ever listened to a recorded attorney-client conversation.

The only such incident that came to light involved the 2009 "Baby Grace" capital murder trial. An investigator for the prosecution was reviewing recordings of jail phone calls made by Royce Clyde Zeigler II, accused with his wife of beating to death his stepdaughter, 2-year-old Riley Ann Sawyers, and keeping her body in a plastic box for two months before tossing it off the Galveston Causeway.

Roady said the investigator stopped listening as soon as he came across a conversation between Zeigler and attorney Neal Davis III.

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