Sunday, February 16, 2020

The 2020 Criminal Justice Primaries

With early voting beginning this Tuesday, February 18th, it occurred to me that I might want to get off my lazy butt and write down my thoughts on this year's primaries.

It's an extremely interesting year, in my opinion, because for the first time since I've been a voter in Harris County, the Republican primary is a virtual Ghost Town compared to the Democratic primary.  Most of the District and County Courts that are on the ballot (and with one exception, held by Democratic incumbents) didn't even field candidates.  Those that did have candidates on the ballot were uncontested races, so I'm not going to even address them right now.

The decimating defeats of 2016 and 2018 have apparently led most aspiring Republican candidates to save their money rather than waste it on a campaign.  2020 marks the first year where voters will no longer have the "straight ticket" voting option in November, but I guess that hasn't inspired too many candidacies.  Personally, I do think that lack of straight-ticket voting will narrow the margin of victory in November, but not so significantly that Republican candidates will take back benches in Harris County.

The only contested Republican primary that is directly involving the Harris County Criminal Justice Center is the race for District Attorney.

Republican Primary for District Attorney
The Republican race for Harris County District Attorney is a three-person race pitting former Harris County District Court Chief Lori DeAngelo against former Montgomery County District Court Chief and Houston Police Officers' Union Attorney Mary Nan Huffman and noted moron, Lloyd Oliver.

To be clear, Lloyd Oliver, who last ran for District Attorney as a Democrat, should not be considered an actual candidate by anyone who places even the smallest amount of pride in his or her vote.  He is a vile, misogynistic, and homophobic defense attorney who runs in every election with no expectation of succeeding, regardless of party.  His candidacy is nothing more than a tired joke that we are all forced to suffer through every two years.

By stark contrast, Lori DeAngelo and Mary Nan Huffman are real candidates, albeit they are new to running for office.  I've never met Mary Nan Huffman in person, but she has an excellent reputation with many of our mutual friends.  She's a ten-year veteran of the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, where she rose to the level of felony chief.   She's been one of the Houston Police Officers Union attorneys since leaving MoCo, and she is obviously the candidate being supported by the Union.  I don't know how well she is known in the Harris County Republican circles, so it will be interesting to see how well she does.

I've known Lori DeAngelo since 1999 when I first started at the D.A.'s Office, where she was already prosecuting.  Her tenure far exceeded mine, serving as a prosecutor for over 20 years.  She worked in different divisions within the Office before returning to the Trial Bureau as a chief.  I like Lori and I consider her to be a friend.  I enjoyed dealing with her as a practical and no-nonsense prosecutor when I had cases in her court.  She was fair and she also recognized when a case had weaknesses for the State.  She wasn't scared to dismiss a case if the evidence didn't rise to the level of being provable beyond a reasonable doubt.   She left the Office under her own terms and in frustration with the way Kim Ogg was running the Office.

I think both candidates are running for similar reasons and that their platforms are relatively similar as well.   Unless some extraordinary circumstances occur between now and November, however, there is a high likelihood that this is just a battle to see who comes in second place.  That's unfortunate because I think Huffman and DeAngelo are both qualified candidates.

I'm not planning on voting in the Republican primary, but if I was, I would vote for Lori DeAngelo.

Now, that we've covered the one and only Republican CJC race, we can move on to the five District Court races that have contested Democratic primaries.  As noted above, with the exception of the 339th District Court's Judge Jesse McClure, all of the District Courts are currently held by Democratic Incumbents.  Judge McClure was appointed to the Court when Judge Maria T. Jackson stepped down to run for County Commissioner against Rodney Ellis.  Additionally, 337th District Court Judge Herb Ritchie is retiring at the end of his term.  Three incumbent judges, Nikita Harmon, Randy Roll, and George Powell drew challengers in their primaries.

It is worth noting that (with the exception of the 339th), there are no Republican challengers.  Whoever wins the primary will be the judge on January 1, 2021.

176th District Court
District Court Judge Nikita Harmon took the bench in 2016 as part of the Democratic sweep.  Prior to that, she had been an attorney and municipal court judge.  At the time, she was relatively unknown to most regulars in the CJC unless they were attorneys who also covered muni court.  During her first year on the Bench, she got some unusual attention when she got into a bizarre dispute with 263rd District Court Judge Jim Wallace over courtroom use in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

I've only appeared in Judge Harmon's Court on a handful of occasions, so I don't really have a depth of knowledge in giving a review of her performance.  Those times I've been there, she has been a little more formal than many judges.  I have not tried a case or a contested hearing to her, so I'd have to defer to someone with more knowledge on what that is like.

Judge Harmon is being challenged by former HCDA prosecutor and current defense attorney, Bryan Acklin.  I've known Bryan since his days at the D.A.'s Office, and he is a friend.  I enjoyed working with him when he was a prosecutor and found him to be friendly, reasonable and prepared in his handling of cases.  As a defense attorney, I've seen him throw himself enthusiastically into his work.  He is a zealous advocate for his clients while remaining personable and friendly with his prosecutorial opponents.  He researches the law and he applies it to his clients' advantage.

My Vote:  Brian Acklin

179th District Court
District Court Judge Randy Roll is serving his second tour of duty as a District Court Judge of the 179th.  He won the Bench in 2008, lost it in 2012, and won it back again in 2016.  I always hate writing about Judge Roll, because he is truly a nice, nice man.  However, he just always seems to find himself in the middle of controversy as a judge.

I seriously want to be able to endorse Judge Roll, because he is kind.  I am very aware that I've written things on this blog that have hurt his feelings, but to his immense credit, he has never been anything but courteous and professional to me in court and he has certainly never held what I've said about him against my clients.  I really like him as a person very much.  I just wish he would quit doing such questionable things from the Bench.

Judge Roll's opponent in this race is former Assistant District Attorney and current defense attorney, Ana Martinez.  I've known Ana from her years as a prosecutor, and she is one the few candidates running that I've actually gone to trial against.  She whipped my butt in trial (although I'd like to think that was partially due to the fact that she had some pretty good evidence on her side).  I've always believed that there is no better way to learn who a prosecutor (or defense attorney) is than to try a case against them, and I learned a lot about Ana.  She was an extremely impressive, fair, and dedicated prosecutor and she has retained those traits as a defense attorney.

As a prosecutor, Ana worked in human trafficking, where she was passionate about going after those who profited from the sex trade.  As a defense attorney, she has focused her practice on helping people who have been caught up in the sex trade as workers.  She is dedicated to making a difference in their lives and she's doing a pretty remarkable job of it.  She is also a hard worker who educates herself on the law and operates from a place of compassion.  She'd make a great judge.

My Vote:  Ana Martinez

337th District Court
With the retirement of current Judge Herb Ritchie, four candidates are running for the Democratic nomination:  former prosecutor and current defense attorney Colleen Gaido, defense attorney John Clark, defense attorney Brennen Dunn, and general practicing attorney David Vuong.

I don't know David Vuong at all, although we are friends on Facebook (NOTE:  I get a lot of Facebook friend requests from candidates).  I don't recall him being a face that I see very often around the courthouse and I've never dealt with him.  He does seem very enthusiastic about his yard signs, but other than that, I don't think he has the qualifications of the other three candidates.

I don't know Brennen Dunn personally either and I see that he lists several areas of law practice on his State Bar profile.  However, I do know that he has an established reputation as a criminal defense attorney, and as a good one, at that.

I do know John Clark.  He's been a practicing criminal defense attorney for as long as I can remember, serving for a very long time as the contract attorney in the 208th District Court.

With all due respect to the other candidates, however, it is hard to imagine a better candidate for judge than Colleen Gaido.  Colleen is a former Harris County Assistant District Attorney who was probably one of the most respected and beloved prosecutors that Office has ever produced.  She literally may be the most popular person to have ever worked there.  I mean, everyone loves Colleen.  She was fair, friendly, reasonable, knowledgable, and nice.  Her co-workers loved her and so did defense attorneys.  She was no pushover, but she never relished punishing people during her ADA days.  She had a strong sense of right and wrong, but no matter how right she was, that never translated into arrogance or anything else negative.  As a defense attorney, she remains equally loved by both sides and there is a groundswell of support for her.

She is ultra-qualified to be judge.  She's probably ultra-qualified to be president, for that matter.  I would vote for her over myself in any given election.  She's a fantastic candidate, friend, and human.  I hope to see her on the Bench in January.

My Vote:  Colleen Gaido

339th District Court
When former 339th District Court Judge Maria T. Jackson stepped down to run against Commissioner Rodney Ellis, three Democratic candidates announced that they intended to run for the Bench.   The winner will face off against Republican Judge Jesse McClure (who was appointed by Governor Abbott to fulfill Jackson's unexpired term) in November.  Attorneys Dennis Powell and Candace White are running against former prosecutor and current Assistant Public Defendant Te'iva Bell for the Democratic nomination.

I didn't immediately recognize Powell's name, but I recognized his face when I looked up his website.  He is a longtime attorney who does practice criminal law.  I'm not sure whether or not he practices it exclusively, but I have certainly seen him around the criminal courthouse for years.  I only know him in passing.

I'm not familiar with Candace White at all, although her face does seem familiar when I looked at her website.  Her resume does not indicate that she has a very strong background in criminal law, other than being a municipal court judge, which handles only the lowest level of misdemeanors.

I've known Te'iva Bell since she was a baby prosecutor at the D.A.'s Office.  She was my friend then and I'm proud to call her my friend now.  She left the D.A.'s Office for defense work awhile ago and she's one of the original attorneys who went to work for the Public Defender's Office when it was first established.  She has dedicated her professional career to criminal justice and she is a very zealous and skilled advocate for her clients.  She's also one of the nicest people I know, and I look forward to voting for her this week.

My Vote:  Te'iva Bell

351st District Court
Incumbent 351st George Powell is running for reelection against challenger and attorney Natalia "Nata" Cornelio.  You may recall that there was some drama over Judge Powell being on that ballot after there was some confusion over filing fees.  Fortunately, Judge Powell will be on the ballot in March.

I've known Judge Powell since he was a defense attorney.  I liked him then and I like him now.  I have only had one or two cases in his court since he won the Bench in 2016, but those limited experiences have always been positive.  He is well-liked by both prosecutors and defense attorneys as a Judge who is friendly, reasonable and attentive to the cases before him.

I do not know Natalia Cornelio personally.  She certainly has some impressive items on her resume, including working as a Federal Public Defender, working for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and as the Director of Criminal Justice Reform at the Texas Civil Rights Project.  That being said, she doesn't have experience inside the Harris County Criminal Justice Center like Judge Powell does.  She seems to be the preferred candidate of some "higher ups" in the Democratic Party, who attempted to keep Judge Powell off the ballot.  Although there is nothing to suggest that Cornelio had anything at all to do with that, personally, it still bothers me.

My Vote:  George Powell

So, there you have it.

Seems like I'm forgetting something.

Oh yeah, that whole Democratic Primary for Harris County District Attorney.

I'm going to write a separate post about the race between Carvana Cloud, Todd Overstreet, Audia Jones, and incumbent Kim Ogg.  This may shock you, but I have a lot to say about that particular race.

But if you are just dying of anticipation to know who I'm voting for, SPOILER ALERT - - -

My Vote:  Carvana Cloud









Monday, January 27, 2020

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

I had a moment of confusion this morning at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, when I hopped on one of the building's infamous elevators.

The normal, dark wood paneling with the flimsy metal borders and carved graffiti interior had been replaced with shiny metal.  The dark gray flooring had been replaced with a pinkish tile.  It looked space-aged compared to the previous bucket of bolts that had been the trademark of the inefficient transport system that we have all come to know and hate at the CJC.


The little floor monitor thingy that (on days when it was working) told elevator occupants what floor we were stopping on no longer utilized the glowing red, digital numerals found on 1990's-era alarm clocks (and timers for bomb countdowns in spy movies).  It had been replaced by a cool new video monitor that showed the floor we were on, superimposed over an image of the CJC!  


It was all very exciting.  In the two years and five months since Hurricane Harvey, we are finally seeing some exciting signs of improvement!  I almost felt like I was in the elevator of someplace fancy, like a bank or some other place that cares about safety and efficiency.  I wasn't used to such luxuries at the Criminal Justice Center.

Of course, we didn't really need for the repairs on the CJC to make the elevators prettier.  I think that pretty much all of us would settle for an ugly elevator if it, you know, worked.  I've heard many people complain about the number of elevators not running on any given morning, but I've yet to hear someone say: "Sure these elevator work fantastic, but they are so aesthetically hideous that it ruined my entire criminal courthouse experience today."

Making the new elevators pretty and modern is pretty much akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the H.M.S. Titanic.  Two years later and all of the felony courts are still splitting time between the CJC and the Civil Courthouse because many of the courtrooms aren't ready for occupancy.  Absolutely nothing has been done to alleviate the backlog of defendants waiting in lines just to get in the building every morning.  In an obvious gesture of surrender to the masses, the County has constructed some sort of temporary covered walkway for the lines that form outside every morning.  

The building has become the architectural version of a mullet.  Space-age elevators on the inside.  Civil War-era shelters in the front.

I'm trying to figure out how this went down during the construction planning.
Contractor # 1:  I assume our first priority is to get the courtrooms up and running as quickly as possible?  Or maybe restructuring the entry to increase the efficiency of getting people in and out of the building?  Or getting the elevators in working order so that we don't have so many frequent breakdowns?  
Contractor # 2:  No.  First off, we've got to make the elevators look cool as shit. 
I guess I shouldn't be too surprised by the aesthetic elevator improvements.  After all, the first major step they took in the post-Harvey rebuilding efforts was to install a Fuddruckers in the basement of the Civil building.

I've heard from some insanely optimistic people reliable sources that the building is supposed to be back to "normal" by August of this year, but I'll believe it when I see it.

Maybe it would go a little faster if the powers that be realized we don't need a pretty building.

We just need one that works.

By the way, the over/under on when a disgruntled defendant smashes the glass on one of those fancy new floor displays is six business days.   I'm taking the under.

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.