The Daleiden case saw a new development yesterday, as one of the two charges against him was dismissed by a Texas judge. Though the Center for Medical Progress and some pro-life media outlets instantly spun the decision as validation of their actions and proof that the whole case has been politically motivated, the dismissal has more to do with boring procedural law (and poor lawyering by the prosecutor) than it does with the merits of the case. The judge dismissed the case “for want of jurisdiction” before consideration of any of the merits. In a criminal case, the defendant is brought before the court via a charging instrument—a document stating briefly what law the defendant is accused of violating. You can see the Daleiden charging instrument here. The charging instrument must state each “element” of the charge brought against the defendant in order to validly confer jurisdiction on the court.
In the indictment the State files in any case, it comes down to a couple of basics:
- There is a law against x.
- The defendant did x.
Of course it’s more complicated than that, but this is most basically what must be done by the prosecutor to formally commence a criminal case. It need not be extensive or thorough—most indictments are sparse. However, the state does have to allege in the indictment everything that they will have to prove at trial—the essential elements of the offense. If they do not do this, the indictment is facially void.
The court ruled here that the charging instrument related to the attempted purchase of human organs was facially void because it did not state all essential elements of the charge. Let’s go back to that statute he was originally charged under:
|Sec. 48.02. PROHIBITION OF THE PURCHASE AND SALE OF HUMAN ORGANS. (a) “Human organ” means the human kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas, eye, bone, skin, fetal tissue, or any other human organ or tissue, but does not include hair or blood, blood components (including plasma), blood derivatives, or blood reagents.
(b) A person commits an offense if he or she knowingly or intentionally offers to buy, offers to sell, acquires, receives, sells, or otherwise transfers any human organ for valuable consideration.
(c) It is an exception to the application of this section that the valuable consideration is: (1) a fee paid to a physician or to other medical personnel for services rendered in the usual course of medical practice or a fee paid for hospital or other clinical services; (2) reimbursement of legal or medical expenses incurred for the benefit of the ultimate receiver of the organ; or (3) reimbursement of expenses of travel, housing, and lost wages incurred by the donor of a human organ in connection with the donation of the organ.
(d) A violation of this section is a Class A misdemeanor.
As you can see in the court’s order dismissing the charge, section (c) is considered an “element” of the charge, but the prosecutor failed to address that section in the indictment. Thus, the indictment is void as a matter of Texas procedural law, not because of anything related to the merits of the case. Unfortunately, this was not even raised by the defense team in their motion to quash, which was spent on matters that should be resolved at a later stage of trial. They are fortunate that the Court took notice of the matter sua sponte to dismiss the case.
The Harris County DA has announced that it will not appeal the dismissal, choosing instead to focus on the remaining felony charge. Questions remain about the conduct of the prosecutor’s office in this case, and their conduct should be closely examined–but even so, what happened yesterday was a relatively mundane exercise in procedural law.
Tim Cantu is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and Notre Dame Law School and an attorney in Florida and Washington, though not simultaneously. The opinions within are not those of his employer, nor are they legal advice.