Texas Man Serving Short DWI Sentence Dies in Prison of COVID-19

Posted by Doug Murphy | Jul 17, 2020 | 0 Comments

In addition to strict penalties and long-term consequences even for a first offense, DWI defendants in Texas now apparently have a new and imminent threat to contend with, one that has nothing to do with the law: a potentially deadly virus.

As the Texas Tribune reports, 73-year-old James Allen Smith of Bastrop was only scheduled to serve six months in a Huntsville prison as part of a drug/alcohol rehabilitation program after he pled guilty to a DWI charge in January. By June 11, he was dead.

Smith is just one among an astonishing number of inmates to die from coronavirus in the Texas prison system. With at least 84 inmate fatalities and counting, Texas currently ranks second-highest in the nation for COVID-19 prison deaths as the disease continues to spread across the state. Some of the victims were days away from release.

Texas is not alone. COVID infections in prisons across the U.S. are skyrocketing, typically at a rate 2.5 times greater than that of the general population. For drivers convicted of DWI, this issue presents a much more imminent danger than just license suspension or jail time. Even a short time behind bars can result in potentially lethal exposure to the disease.

Why Prisons and Jails Are Susceptible

Experts across the board have said coronavirus is primarily spread person-to-person, mainly through droplets expelled from the mouth and nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes, but also sometimes through contaminated surfaces. The best ways of preventing the spread are through avoiding close, extended contact with other individuals (at least 6 feet apart, otherwise known as “social distancing”) and frequent handwashing. Due to the constant overcrowding in jails and prisons, social distancing is next to impossible for inmates. Many don't have constant access to soap and water, either.

The news gets worse. Recent evidence suggests the virus may also hang in the air for up to 3 hours. When people are gathered in close quarters for long periods indoors with poor ventilation, the virus can accumulate in the shared air, causing “superspreader” conditions. Wearing masks may reduce the risk, but even masks can be ineffective after long periods of exposure. Since inmates literally can't escape being indoors with lots of other people, it stands to reason that prisons create the perfect conditions for the virus to spread.

Add to all this the fact that many in the prison system are older and in poorer health, and you have a perfect recipe for deadly infections. The concept holds true in Texas, where the COVID fatality rate among prisoners is currently 574 percent higher per capita than the general population of the state.

What It Means for DWI Defendants in Texas

While advocacy groups are pressing the Texas government to take steps to lower these risks, the best way to avoid the fate of people like James Allen Smith during these times is to avoid incarceration. If you have been arrested and charged with DWI in Texas, never has it been more critical to have a good board certified DWI attorney in your corner to help you find a way out.  A Board Certified DWI lawyer can provide the best advice in obtaining the best possible result.

Remember: An arrest is not a conviction. We have many years of proven experience working both with defendants and the Texas court system to help mitigate the consequences of a DWI arrest. Contact our office today to see about next steps.

About the Author

Doug Murphy

Doug Murphy is one of only two Texas lawyers Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and also in DWI Defense by the National College for DUI Defense, accredited by the American Bar Association and the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.


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