Monday, January 20, 2020

A Letter from a Juror

I received an e-mail from this evening from a juror on a recent case tried down at the CJC.  It wasn't one of my cases, but he wanted to share some of his insights on his experience that I thought were pretty interesting.  I'm sharing what he wrote here, with his permission.  Hopefully, a County Commissioner or County Judge might take note of it too.

Murray,

I recently finished serving on a felony murder trial jury, and I’d like to offer some comments and ask a question that other lay folk might be wondering. (Nothing about the case, btw).  You probably know all of this, but serving on a jury for the first time it was quite an adventure.

You have written on the terrible conditions in the criminal court building. After fighting long security lines, elevators, crowded hallways, and general frustration for a week, I can testify that things are terrible. How disappointing things are in this shape 2 1/2 years after hurricane Harvey. Also, the underground jury assembly room is still closed, so jurors gather in a cramped old cafeteria room under the Admin building. Harris County is larger by population than a lot of states and we don’t have the competent leadership at any level from either party to have made repairs. People seem to be standing in line along every wall in the building. A mass of humanity. There are elevators out of service, flaky monitors and electronics in the courtroom, waiting for 4 or 5 elevator cars going down before one has room to get on, the list of frustrations goes on. 

As a juror, we got some special treatment at the security in the lobby and being escorted around every day by our assigned Sheriff. But my heart goes out to those families of both victims and defendants having to fight all these headaches in addition to the stress of the trials. It was a rainy week last week, and long lines out in front of the building with no shelter. Families and trial participants thinking they are early but facing glitchy elevators which backs people up to security and out the front door wondering if they will be late. We can do better. 

Aside from the building, I must say the people from all roles (defense, prosecutors, judges, police, staff) working in this mess on a daily basis were professional, upbeat, friendly and making the best of it.  With all the good reasons to be of short temper and grouchy, everyone I came in contact with was pleasant and very helpful. My thanks to all of you working in the legal system in less than ideal conditions.

Thanks for your blog and the occasional view behind the scenes of our legal system. I have enjoyed your writing since you began your blog in your prosecutor days.


The juror asked that his name not be mentioned, but I genuinely appreciate him for taking the time to write in and share his observations.  I replied to his e-mail and told him that it was rare to hear from a juror on a case, but it was always appreciated.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Steven "Rocket" Rosen

I was very saddened to hear of the passing of highly respected and beloved attorney Steven "Rocket" Rosen today.

Most of us in the courthouse community have known that Rocket was battling Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS) for the past couple of years and that he was the very definition of a courageous fighter against a very cruel and debilitating disease.  Over the past two years, he posted multiple videos of himself standing defiantly against the disease, offering encouraging and strong messages about those things that were truly important in life. 

To say that his messages were inspirational would be an understatement. 

But long before Rocket's battle with ALS, he was well known as a fighter in the courtroom.  He was a well-known attorney who handled many high profile cases with flamboyance, skill, and knowledge.  His reputation as an excellent attorney ranked as one of the finest that Harris County had to offer.

When I was interning at the D.A.'s Office during law school, I watched him try a very tough Injury to a Child case to a jury.  His confidence and connection with the jury was extremely strong despite the facts of the case being very much against him.  Whether the jury agreed with him or not, they liked him. 

So did the judge.

So did the prosecutors, for that matter.

He was a trial lawyer who endeared himself to his audience.

Don't get me wrong.  He could be incredibly frustrating to deal with if you were a prosecutor.  I don't say that as an insult.  I would imagine that he would find his ability to frustrate a prosecutor to be a pretty strong compliment, actually.

And he had a sense of humor -- a great sense of humor, even at his own expense.

When I was a felony two,  my friend Bill Exley had tried a hotly contested case against Rocket, where Bill had prevailed and Rocket was still fairly irate about it.  Rocket showed up in my court the following day and said we needed to approach the judge to talk about a different case.

Rocket was talking about how the judge in the court loved him and he had coached the judge's kids in softball.

I mentioned to him, "Well, that's good and all, but I'm not the prosecutor on the case."

Rocket asked, "Who is?"

"Bill Exley is handling it," I lied.

He whipped his head around so hard that I'm surprised that he didn't get whiplash.  He was almost bug-eyed at the idea of trying another case against Bill on the heels of the case he had just lost.  He stared at me for a moment, and then composed himself.

"Well," he said, "the judge loves me."

"Oh, she loves Bill, too," I said.  "She was just telling me how she thinks that Bill is the best prosecutor she has ever seen in trial and she's so excited to have him trying a case in her court that she can't wait.  She will probably give y'all a preferential setting."

Rocket stewed over this until we approached the bench on the case.  He defiantly started monologing about his case and noted that he didn't care whether or not Exley was trying the case.

To which the judge replied: "Who?"

At that point, Rocket realized I was jacking with him.  He started laughing and we told the judge what the joke had been.  He was a good sport.

I never tried a case against Rocket.  Our dealings were mainly anecdotal and in passing.

But I knew his reputation and I knew his ability.  He definitely was one of the Giants that have roamed the halls of the criminal courthouse.  Right now, there are a great many defense attorneys who are posting their warm and admiring recollections of Rocket.  He was truly a respected and beloved member of our courthouse family.

I don't have a courtroom "war story" to share about him.  I'm probably lucky to have not faced him in trial.

I watched from afar as he fought his battle against ALS.  As cruel as it was, it never defeated him.  He gave inspirational speeches on Facebook videos.  He spoke to the Fort Bend County District Attorney's Office.  He never let it break him.

That is an enormous testament to his character and determination, especially in light of what ALS does to a person.

Rocket was a good man.  He was a family man.  He adored and was so proud of his family, and rightfully so.  He was an excellent lawyer and fighter and personality.

He will be missed in the many, many courthouses where he practiced across the State.

And he will never be forgotten for the courageous and unyielding spirit that he was throughout his life and his career.


Thursday, January 9, 2020

Kindness

I learned that a friend of mine died today.

Not a close friend, really, but a friend nonetheless.

She was someone that started around the same time as me at the D.A.'s Office, although I think she hired on just a little bit before I did.  I'm not going to write her name here because I don't want this to be something that pops up if someone looks up her name on Google.  I'm not trying to hide who I'm talking about from those of us who knew her.  If you worked within the CJC in the past 20 years, you will doubtlessly know who I am talking about.

I learned of her passing through a random text message.  She died on January 3rd.  I feel kind of like a shitty friend for only learning about it today.

When we were prosecutors together, I only knew her in passing.  She was really pretty.  I mean, she was really really pretty.  I was kind of scared to talk to her back then, all things considered.

But life dealt her a series of really bad hands.  She lost loved ones through extremely tragic circumstances.  She left the D.A.'s Office and life kind of went downhill for her.  Through no fault of her own, she seemed to keep getting the raw end of the deal on thing after thing.  I would hear about these things and my heart always hurt for her.  She was a nice person and she didn't deserve the shit hands that she kept being dealt.

Around the time of Hurricane Harvey, she called me up and asked me to help somebody that she cared about.  I was kind of surprised that she called me.  She said she called me because I had always been kind to her, and she thought I might be willing to help.  The person she was asking me to help was someone who hadn't been particularly kind to her, but she asked me to help him anyway.

And I did.  Quite frankly, I was flattered that she asked me to help.  It felt good to hear someone say that they thought that they could ask me for help because they thought I was a kind person.  In the big scheme of things, I think we all underestimate the value of a person regarding us as "kind."

A few months after helping out that person, I ran into her on a street corner.

She was a mess.

But she smiled when she saw me.  She gave me a hug.  She said she owed me a lunch.  I told her I would take her up on that.

It was the last time I ever saw her.

I'm absolutely sick to learn of her passing.  She was my age.  Like me, she had two sons.

She was a sweet, sweet person.

I don't know the circumstances of her passing, although I have my suspicions.

I can't help but think about the fact that she was willing to pick up the phone and ask for help when someone she cared about needed help, but she didn't do so when she needed help herself.

She was a far kinder person than I could ever hope to be.

But in retrospect, her telling me that I was kind may have been one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me.

Especially coming from someone like her.

And I'll pass that message along.

In our daily lives, there is so much we cannot control.  But we can always choose whether or not we handle any given situation with the best level of kindness that we can muster.

I'm extremely aware of the fact that on most days, I don't do that.

I need to do better.  I'll try to do better.

You should too.

Life is short.

Be kind.

In retrospect, knowing that someone thought that of you will mean more than you could ever know.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Supporting Other Candidates in a Kim Ogg World

Around 9 a.m. on December 24, 2008, Acting Harris County District Attorney Ken Magidson called me into his office and told me (for the second time in a month) that I was fired.

"I'm firing you for what you wrote on your blog.  It's too much."

He actually uttered those words.

Under the circumstances, I was caught off guard.  I was already planning on that day being my last at the Office and taking comp time for the remainder of 2008.  My contract wasn't going to be renewed so I was done effectively at midnight on December 31st, anyway.

But getting fired cost me some money.  There was no taking comp time if you didn't work there anymore.  I think all in all, Magidson's decision to pull the trigger as an early Christmas present cost me around $4,000.  Given the fact that I was going through a divorce and had child support looming, that was kind of a kick in the financial crotch.

Over the past eleven years since that fateful day, I've revisited the idea of whether or not I should have filed a lawsuit on many occasions.  I thought about it.  In the end I decided it really wasn't worth the effort.  My life was going through a reboot at the time, and adding the pet project of a lawsuit wasn't really all that appealing.

There is still a part of me that wishes I had, because when Magidson uttered those words, he was telling me that he was terminating my employment because of words I had written -- outside of work -- while expressing my opinion.   Sometimes I wish I had made a different decision at the time, just for the principle of defending my 1st Amendment rights. On occasion, I get really angry at 2008 Me for not doing that.

I bring this up now for a couple of reasons.

Campaign season is upon us, and as I have mentioned before, there are already six candidates lined up to challenge incumbent District Attorney Kim Ogg for her job.  Several of those candidates are immensely more popular with prosecutors at the Office than Ogg is.  Given their druthers, most prosecutors that I know (and I know a whole lot of prosecutors) would love nothing more than to support the candidate of their choice.

But unfortunately, they work for Kim Ogg.  And as Ogg demonstrated last month by firing Andrew Smith, she is not afraid to fire an employee for blatantly unethical (and quite possibly illegal) reasons.  Although the job of a prosecutor is to seek justice, in Ogg's paranoid world, the primary job is to be loyal to her.  As she demonstrated with Andrew, she ain't afraid to shank somebody for crossing her.

As a result of Kim's erratic and ruthless behavior, don't expect to see too many current prosecutors exercising their 1st Amendment right to support a candidate other than her Royal Oggness.  Ogg's level of paranoia and retaliatory nature make Pat Lykos seem like Mahatma Gandi.  And keep in mind that Lykos had some of her loyalists staking out fundraising events for Mike Anderson, and she also seriously jacked with Carvana Cloud to retaliate against Carvana's support of Clarence Bradford for D.A.

I would imagine that Kim Ogg will be far more retaliatory towards any employee that she finds supporting any other candidate.  I say this in advance because I hope that nobody thinks that a lack of current prosecutors showing up at fundraisers for other candidates means that they don't support those other candidates.  They just don't want to get fired for that support.

From the outside, looking in, it is easy for critics to say, "Well, if they hate working for Kim Ogg so much, why don't they just quit?"  I heard that line a lot in 2012 when Mike Anderson was running against Lykos.  I'm sure we'll hear it again over the next few months.  It was a stupid criticism then and it would be equally stupid now.  Losing a job is a devastating event -- especially when you have a family to support and need things such as money and insurance.

Not to mention being a prosecutor is a fantastic job.  One can be loyal to the job without being loyal to the paranoid despot who is the current District Attorney.

If you are a current employee of the Harris County District Attorney's Office and you don't want to risk your job by supporting another candidate, there are still many things that you can do to give support. 

First and foremost, tell your family, friends, and neighbors your thoughts in private conversations.  Let them know what you think of your current boss and tell them why you think somebody else would make a better choice.  Encourage those same family, friends, and neighbors to learn more about those candidates and attend those fundraisers and "meet and greets" that you can't safely attend.  Let them know why you can't speak out in public, but find a way to educate them.  Encourage THEM to make a donation since you can't.

Although I don't know if this is still the current law, back in 2012, a candidate only had to list a donor who gave $50.00 or more to a campaign.  There were a lot of folks who donated $49.99 to Mike Anderson's campaign back then.  You don't have to go out in a blaze of glory by starting a blog that bashes Ogg or anything stupid like that, but you can still help other candidates if you so choose.

Sometimes, those little gestures of support are far more sincere and powerful than any donation or attendance at a fundraiser.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Episode Four: A Glimmer of Hope - a One Act Sci-Fi Play

SCENE:  The Star Destroyer Jefferson hovers over Downtown Houston.  It has been two years since the Death Star was destroyed by Harvey and workers are now occasionally working to make it fully operational again.  [INTERIOR] The Observation Bridge leading into the Imperial Throne Room.  Two Imperial Officers are standing outside the entryway to the Throne Room, speaking in hushed whispers.

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  Corporal Leitner, do you have news?

CORPORAL LEITNER:  Yes, Vice Admiral, and I'm afraid it is all bad.

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  How bad?

CORPORAL LEITNER:  Bad enough that I'm afraid to tell her.  She's been in such a terrible mood since firing Denholm the Hutt.

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  Yes, I know.  I had hoped that firing Andrew Wan-Kenobi would have cheered her up some, but it hasn't.  As it turns out, most of the Jawas were big fans of his and when she struck him down, he became more powerful than she could have possibly imagined.

CORPORAL LEITNER:  What can we do?

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  I do not know.  We hired Jar Jar Rogers as a full-time stormtrooper so that she could give around-the-clock press conferences.  Those do make her so very happy.  He and Cad Dane are in with her now.

As if on cue, the doors open and Jar Jar Rogers and Cad Dane exit the Imperial Throne Room.

JAR JAR ROGERS:  Mooey mooey Boss Ogg!  Deesa be the bestest pressa conference ever!  Even da Cad Dane Schiller say so!

CAD DANE:  Yes, Empress.  You are truly beloved by the masses.  Only a truly biased person would find error in any of your ways.

JAR JAR ROGERS:  Deesa deferred adjudification plan off your is the besta ever, Boss Ogg!  Yousa the smartest prosecutor ever for inventing it!

EMPRESS OGG:  You two are wonderful.  You know I love giving press conferences.   Have a press release out immediately about my deferred adjudication program.

JAR JAR and CAD DANE leave.

EMPRESS OGG:  Mitcham and Leitner, you may enter.

MITCHAM and LEITNER enter the Throne Room.

EMPRESS OGG:  This had better be good news.

MITCHAM and LEITNER look at each other uncomfortably.

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  Did I hear correctly that you are starting a new deferred adjudication program?

EMPRESS OGG (smiling):  Why, yes.  It is very exciting and innovative.  I'm glad I invented it.

CORPORAL LEITNER:  What is it?

EMPRESS OGG:  A new program where a Defendant enters a plea of guilty, but the judge withholds a finding of guilt and places the Defendant on community supervision.

CORPORAL LEITNER:  But . . .

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM (to LEITNER):  Just let it go.

EMPRESS OGG:  So, I hope you bring me good news.  The year has been terrible.  First there was the Temple Disaster.

CORPORAL LEITNER:  The Jedi Temple?

EMPRESS OGG:  No.  David Temple.  I was really hoping that Admiral Schneider could pull that one off.  Darth DeGuerin is livid.  He won't return any of my phone calls.

CORPORAL LEITNER:  You did all you could, Empress.

EMPRESS OGG:  Yes.  I know.  And then we had that whole scandal with Amir promising cantina owners on Mos Eisley that he would legalize their gambling clubs. 

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  Speaking of Mos Eisley . . .

EMPRESS OGG: What about it?

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  There have been protests from the locals and the Stormtrooper Union president.

EMPRESS OGG:  Over what?  We investigated and Greedo shot first.

CORPORAL LEITNER:  Accounts vary.

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  There is still a lot of backlash over Denholm the Hutt asking about Greedo's legal status.

EMPRESS OGG:  And after careful consideration over 8 parsecs, I jettisoned Denholn into hyperspace.

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  Some feel that you should have dispatched him as quickly as you dispatched Andrew Wan-Kenobi.

EMPRESS OGG:  Don't be ridiculous.  Kenobi made me angry.  Denholm?  Not so much.  Andrew should have learned the lessons of former Vice Admiral Berg that you should only disagree with me if you wish to spend the rest of your days frozen in carbonite.

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  Speaking of all the people you've been terminating, Your Worship, we have still not received approval from the Galactic Senate for the budget for more Jawas.

EMPRESS OGG:  This is an outrage.

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  The situation is critical, Empress.  You may need to slow down on firing people . . .

CORPORAL LEITNER:  Speaking of which, Your Highness, I can't help but notice that everyone but me got a promotion.  I've been a corporal since you took over.  You know, under Emperor Patricia, I was a Vice Admiral.

EMPRESS OGG:  Meh.  We all kind of talked about it and decided you were good where you are.

CORPORAL LEITNER: Yes, Empress.

EMPRESS OGG:  What news do we have for the upcoming battle of 2020?

CORPORAL LEITNER:  The news is bad.  There are many who are lined up to take your place.

EMPRESS OGG:  I know of Audia and this Skystreeter person.

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  Overstreet.

EMPRESS OGG:  Whatever.  Who else?

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  Lloyd Oliver, Lori Deangelo, Mary Nan Huffman, and there are rumors that Carl from maintenance is eyeing a run.

CORPORAL LEITNER:  And I'm afraid that I have bad news about an additional candidate.

EMPRESS OGG:  Who?

CORPORAL LEITNER:  Carvana Skywalker.

EMPRESS OGG:  Why does that name sound familiar?

CORPORAL LEITNER:  She worked here until last Friday.

EMPRESS OGG:  Hmm.  I can't be bothered to know everyone who works here.

CORPORAL LEITNER:  You handpicked her as part of your staff when you took over.  Made her Bureau Chief recently.  Houston native.  Lifelong Democrat.  Highly respected amongst her peers.  A really really strong candidate.

EMPRESS OGG:  Not ringing a bell.

CORPORAL LEITNER:  You have a picture with her on your desk.

EMPRESS OGG:  No I don't.

CORPORAL LEITNER:  Yes, it's right there.

EMPRESS OGG:  Boba Clappart, please escort Corporal Leitner to the carbon freezing chamber.

BOBA CLAPPART, head of security drags CORPORAL LEITNER kicking and screaming out of the Throne Room.

VICE ADMIRAL MITCHAM:  Well, it isn't like he didn't know what happens when someone disagrees with you . . .

EMPRESS OGG:  I mean, seriously.  Right?! And he wonders why he never got promoted above Corporal.



SEE PREVIOUSLY

Episode One:  The Phantom Kimness

Episode Two:  Attack of the Clowns

Episode Three:  Revenge of the Fifth (Amendment)