Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Stumble During the Walk on Water

While my friends Mark Bennett, Michael, Grits, and the entire staff of the Houston Chronicle have been whole-heartedly heralding Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins as the second-coming when it comes to prosecutors, one my readers, Qeenie pointed out this story from Wednesday's edition of the Dallas Morning News. Not surprisingly (as Qeenie pointed out), the Chronicle has yet to pick up this story. Go figure.

During the love-affair that the media and others have had with Mr. Watkins, there has been quite a bit of coverage on him. From his discovery of the safe with Jack Ruby memorabilia to his strong support of a Conviction Integrity Unit to his suggestion of felony charges against prosecutors who withhold Brady material, Watkins has certainly become a Media Darling in a world where people typically don't like prosecutors.

So why does everybody love Craig Watkins so much, even though he's a prosecutor?

Well, uh, it could be argued that it doesn't seem like he's showing much interest in prosecuting -- at least not much interest in prosecuting anybody other than other prosecutors.

My big concern about Watkins has always been that, at some point, he needs to go back to prosecuting people. Although the community of victims of crimes (either violent or non-violent) may be much smaller than the media pundits who are loudly singing his praises on 60 Minutes, I've yet to see Watkins taking a strong-stance on crime. True, a heart-felt "thanks" for your strong victim's advocacy probably won't land you on national TV, but that's the job that prosecutors sign on to do.

In other words, being a Media Darling is all fine and good, but there's a hell of a lot more to the job of District Attorney than just having good PR skills. Although the District Attorney should be trusted, that doesn't necessarily mean that he has to be loved. Bad news, Mr. Watkins, but you're going to be ticking some people off during your tenure. You might as well get used to it.

This incident with accepting and (even worse) soliciting gifts from corporate sponsors and the members of the Defense Bar for gifts (and I mean nice gifts) to be handed out to the prosecutors breaks the law, and Watkins should have known that. Public servants can't accept gifts over $50 in value from anyone that they aren't personal friends with.

There has been several occasions during my career where victims of crime have given me a card with a gift certificate at the close of trial. I always keep the card and then return the gift certificate. That's just the way the law works. And really, that's the way the law should work.

In my opinion, Watkins just needs to get back to the job of being a prosecutor and stop trying so hard to be universally loved.

19 comments:

Michael said...

I hadn't heard this story yet and, for a moment, thought you were taking him to task for not trying cases. As a lifelong resident of Austin (that is, except for the portion of my life where I lived somewhere else), I of course see nothing wrong with the elected DA not trying cases (especially if he's going to fold like a tent and refuse to present any evidence when he accidentally wanders into a courtroom) as long as he hires one or two lawyers to do that sort of thing.

But back to Mr. Watkins. So far, the most concerning story I've heard from Dallas has been the AIDS- (HIV?-) infected vagrant convicted of attempted deadly conduct on a PO because he spit on him, despite the evidence that the disease is virtually impossibly (and, according to CDC, impossible period) to transmit through saliva. I've not seen anything connecting that to Mr. Watkins, but I think we should.

Having now read the link, I think Mr. Watkins is in danger of Rosethaling this up. I could swallow him saying he didn't know he was doing anything wrong (if served with a spoonful of contrition), even though that wouldn't satisfy everyone. The problem will become his failure to acknowledge he may have made, or dd make, a mistake. Life's too short for arrogance.

Oh, AHCL, if any of those gift certificates you return are from Ruth's Chris, gimme a call, okay buddy?

A Harris County Lawyer said...

Actually, Michael, the mere fact that a person spits on a public servant is a third degree felony called "Harrassment of a Public Servant" regardless of whether or not they have a communicable disease. It covers all bodily fluids and, uh, other things.

And sadly, the gift cards were returned.

jigmeister said...

Ouch. Just read the article. That conduct would be cause for dismissal under JBH. I can't even imagine soliciting money from anyone, much less airline tickets. And why would some of the corporations request official letterhead soliticitations and receipts for their files. The DA's office ain't no charity. Could it be mistake of law defenses??

Michael may be right, he is making a Rosenthal of a mess.

Anonymous said...

I believe that you will find that the Chron did post the story on Jun 3rd shortly after midnight.

"The gentleman doth protest too much methinks"...at least as it relates to the Chron.

A Harris County Lawyer said...

Anon 6:09,
You're right. I do like to bash the Chronicle.
Although I hate to admit it, I do read the print edition of the Chronicle every day, and I didn't see the story. Do you have a link by any chance?
And is this you Alan?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the link is as follows:

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/tx/5815485.html

And no, I'm afraid not!

Thomas Hobbes said...

I cannot fathom how Watkins could see nothing wrong with his actions; clearly they don't pass the smell test. However, I think a couple of things need to be clarified.

- There is no requirement that a donor be a "personal friend" of the public servant. To avoid 36.08 PC issues, it is sufficient that the gift is "conferred on account of kinship or a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of the official status of the recipient."

- There are circumstances under which a gift may exceed $50 in value.

That said, I was looking at some documents on the web site of a DFW television station. The solicitation letters and the thank-you letter on the site indicate that the "gifts" were characterized as "donations" and "in-kind contributions" to be used to reward staff for their work.

A more fruitful line of thought might consider the way in which donations to a county department must be accepted, and the purposes for which such donations may be used (see Attorney General's Opinion GA-0562 for comparison). Did Watkins' office have any authority to solicit or accept donations (that, arguably, did not further the work of his office) for pass-through to his staff as a reward?

Leviathan

KDFW

David said...

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/tx/5815485.html

Anonymous said...

Looks like your writer's block is gone, friend. Good blog post!

I've gotten gift cards, but I have received several flowers and plants, which were always promptly sent to an old folks home, where I thought they would be appreciated.

I've had folks, particularly the survivors of murder cases I have prosecuted, who have made attempts to give me gifts. One uncle of a particularly wonderful murder victim wanted to give me an very expensive and ornately decorated pistol, to protect myself, in gratitude for my work to get justice for his family.

I explained to him that it was more important to me that he was grateful, rather than for him to show his gratitude by giving me a gift.

I then gave him a cd of a old and somewhat obscure jazz musician that I knew he liked, a cd he had not previously heard of. When the jury was out in his relatives case, we had talked about the calming effect of music upon the soul of the savage beast. 'Tis better to give, than to receive, they say.

I still hear from him quite regularly. He still asks if I am ready for my pistol, which he is holding for me. He still listens to the cd I gave him when he gets down about his loss. I know he cognitively understands why I can't accept his expensive gift, and I'm glad I was able to do something for him and his family.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

First, whoever said Watkins walked on water? Yes, I've praised him on Grits, but also criticized him. And this case, while likely legal under state ethics rules, clearly doesn't pass the public scrutiny smell test. OTOH, name me a politician (besides Kelly Siegler) with whom you 100% agree with everything she ever did? Need we really bother to compare this incident's gravity to Ken Magdison's predecessor's public foibles and judge who's the greater embarrassment? ;)

As for saying Watkins has no interest in prosecuting, how do you explain, then, than his office has been more aggressively seeking execution dates than the Harris DA since the Baze moratorium ended? I've seen you make this claim about it, but what's the basis for it?

Anonymous said...

I had to return floor seats to the Rockets! And I had to pay to overnight them back so that they got back to the recipient before the game!

Michael said...

I think you could have accepted Rockets tickets. The prohibition against gifts only applies to things that are "of value". If they had been Spurs tickets, you'd have to return them.

www.truetells.blogspot.com said...

As a resident of Dallas County for around 40 years,I have knowledge of many cases that Henry Wade and his assistant DAs have prosecuted that should never have seen the inside of a courtroom. In one case, a teen girl claimed her stepfather sexually abused her, but later admitted that it had simply been a means to coerce him into buying her a new dress. At a meeting with the ADA where she admitted that fact, the ADA later told the attorney for the stepdad that they would still prosecute him because they felt that they could get a conviction against anyone that looked that mean and ugly. They did...and the stepdad went to prison - and the family went on welfare.

I am also personally familiar with the more famous cases of the wrongful convictions of Randall Dale Adams, who was charged with killing a policeman - the case in which the movie, "The Thin Blue Line" was based. The prosecution of that case was personally handled by Douglas Mulder (who was the presumptive heir to replace Henry Wade upon his retirement). Adams was represented by an old hag who didn't know squat about the law)(she later moved to Austin).The conviction is that case was predicated on the testimony of a really beat-up old white broad who was living in the South Dallas tenements with a black man in a so-called common-law marriage. Anyway, she testified that
she could identify Randall Dale Adams sitting in that described car as she and "hubby" drove by that car.The shooting happened on a very cold night and it was brought out that the car windows were up and the glass was foggy.They drove by the car at about 40 miles per hour she, for some unexplained reason, testified that she took note of the driver - and, notwithstanding the dark and foggy windows, she could still identify Adams sitting in that car. The defense did attempt to conduct discovery with that woman, but Mulder said she was unavailable and out of town. Years later it became known that Mulder had her stashed away in a Motel. The other witness for the prosecution was the second man in that car(the actual driver), who testified that,indeed, Adams did do the killing of that officer.

Adams testified that he was a only a passenger in the car...and was there because the owner and driver of the car (both were staying at the same motel) had invited him to go out to get a burger. Adams stated that after the driver got pulled over for a traffic offense, he went to the rear of the car, and within minutes of that stop, he heard a shot and the driver jumped back into the car and sped off.

Even though Adams had no police record...but the driver did have a lengthy criminal record showing he was a bad dude, Mulder, nevertheless, went to trial and convicted Adams - where he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The sheriff in the small town where the driver was from tried on several occasions to convince Mulder he was trying the wrong guy,
but that advice went unheeded.

Later, the driver committed another murder and would later admit (since he had nothing to lose)that he had killed the cop.

Through a weird legal manurer Adams was brought back to District Court where his conviction was overturned. Several years later, the broad that testified to the miracle identification, said she did so for the reward offered in that case. A MAIN POINT HERE IS THAT HIDING EXCULPATORY EVIDENCE FROM THE DEFENSE WAS COMMON PRACTICE WITH THAT DA.

The Lennel Geter case was another example of convictions
notwithstanding evidence to the contrary. Geter was an black engineer employed by E-Systems in Greenville, Texas. He was eating his lunch in a Greenville park when he was arrested on some micky mouse charge by a small town cop with prejudices. One of the cops at the station noticed that he somewhat fit the description of a person who had robbed a fast food joint over in Dallas, Texas. The employees were shown a photo lineup...and even though Geter did not fit the initial description by those employees, the cops
convinced them that they were sure
Geter did the robbery. They, therefore, were talked into testifying that he was the robber.

This was another case where he was assigned a lawyer, who was a dud, to represent him (even though he could have afforded to hire a good one?) Anyway, the case was set for trial and the only preparation that dud lawyer made was to interview Geter for the first time about 15 minutes before trial. I believe Geter later stated he didn't hire his own lawyer because he felt it was all a big mistake, and that the case would be dismissed.

Geter told that attorney that at the time of the robbery he was working with a number of the engineers there at E-Systems -
and that all of them were prepared to testify to that fact. So, Geter and his attorney went into the court room where the attorney asked for a continuance to subpoena those witnesses. The judge, named Harry Lines(who this writer knew personally - since I used to cut his grass when I was a kid in Texarkana)(he was in Dallas as a visiting judge) told the lawyer that he had had plenty of time to have subpoened his witnesses, and denied his motion for continuance. He then ordered the attorney to proceed with his defense of the case. Guess what? Geter was convicted of that robbery. Later, on appeal, (now represented by a battery of big time lawyers) the case was overturned because he did have about 12-14 engineers who proved the was in Greeville at the time of that robbery.

The reason for all this writing? It is because the DA's office in the past was way too zealous toward prosecuting cases - with no attempt to screen out crap cases. That office relied on the mind-set of Dallas jurors who have a belief that prosecutors are infallible - and, besides, a defendant would't be standing trial if he wasn't guilty.

So, the point is, I am happy to see that we finally have a District Attorney that believes what Justice Leaned Hand once wrote: "The job of a prosecutor is not to get convic-
tions, but to see that justice is done".(by the way, I am not a demo-
crat>)

www.truetells.blogspot.com said...

As a resident of Dallas County for around 40 years,I have knowledge of too many cases that Henry Wade and his assistant DAs have prosecuted that should never have seen the inside of a courtroom. In one case, a teen girl claimed her stepfather sexually abused her, but later admitted that it had simply been a means to coerce him into buying her a new dress. At a meeting with the ADA where she admitted that fact, the ADA later told the attorney for the stepdad that they would still prosecute him because they felt that they could get a conviction against anyone that looked that ugly and mean. They did...and the stepdad went to prison - and the family went on welfare.

I am also personally familiar with the more famous cases of the wrongful conviction of Randall Dale Adams, who was charged with killing a policeman - the case in which the movie, "The Thin Blue Line" was based. The prosecution of that case was personally handled by Douglas
Mulder (who was the presumptive heir to replace Henry Wade upon his retirement). Adams was represented by an old hag who didn't know squat about the law)(she later moved to Austin).The conviction is that case was predicated on the testimony of a really beat-up old white broad who was living in the South Dallas tenements with a black man in a so-called common-law marriage.Anyway, she testified that
she could identify Randall Dale Adams sitting in that described car as she and "hubby" drove by that car.The shooting happened on a very cold night and it was brought out that the car windows were up and the glass was foggy.Also,even they drove by the car at about 40 miles per hour she, for some unexplained reason, testified that she took note of the driver - and, notwithstanding the dark and foggy windows, she could still identify Adams sitting in that car. The defense did attempt to conduct discovery with that woman, but Mulder said she was unavailable and out of town. Years later it became known that Mulder had her stashed away in a Motel. The other witness for the prosecution was the second man in that car(the driver), who testified that,indeed, Adams did do the killing of that officer.

Adams testified that he was a only a passenger in the car...and was there because the owner and driver of the car (both were staying at the same motel) had invited him to go out to get a burger. Adams stated that after the driver got pulled over for a traffic offense, he went to the rear of the car, and within minutes of that stop, he heard a shot and the driver jumped back into the car and sped off.

Even though Adams had no police record...but the driver did have a lengthy criminal record showing he was a bad dude, Mulder, nevertheless, went to trial and convicted Adams - where he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The sheriff in the small town where the driver was from tried on several occasions to convince Mulder he was trying the wrong guy,
but that advice went unheeded.

Later, the driver committed another murder and would later admit (since he had nothing to lose)that he killed the cop.

Through a weird legal manurer Adams was brought back to District Court where his conviction was overturned. Several years later, the broad that testified to the miracle identification, said she did so for the reward offered in that case. A MAIN POINT HERE IS THAT HIDING EXCULPATORY EVIDENCE FROM THE DEFENSE WAS COMMON PRACTICE WITH THIS DA.

The Lennel Geter case was another example of convictions
notwithstanding evidence to the contrary. Geter was an black engineer employed by E-Systems in Greenville, Texas. He was eating his lunch in a Greenville park when he was arrested on some micky mouse charge by a small town cop with prejudices. One of the cops at the station noticed that he somewhat fit the description of a person who had robbed a fast food joint over in Dallas, Texas. The employees were shown a photo lineup...and even though Geter did not fit the initial description by those employees, the cops
convinced them that they were sure
Geter did the robbery. They, therefore, were talked into testifying that he was the robber.

This was another case where he was assigned a lawyer, who was a dud, to represent him (even though he could have afforded to hire a good one?) Anyway, the case was set for trial and the only preparation that dud lawyer made was to interview Geter for the first time about 15 minutes before trial. I believe Geter later stated he didn't hire his own lawyer because he felt it was all a big mistake, and that the case would be dismissed.

Geter told that attorney that at the time of the robbery he was working with a number of the engineers there at E-Systems -
and that all of them were prepared to testify to that fact. So, Geter and his attorney went into the court room where the attorney asked for a continuance to subpoena those witnesses. The judge, named Harry Lines(who this writer knew personally - since I used to cut his grass when I was a kid in Texarkana)(he was in Dallas as a visiting judge) told the lawyer that he had had plenty of time to have subpoened his witnesses, and denied his motion for continuance. He then ordered the attorney to proceed with his defense of the case. Guess what? Geter was convicted of that robbery. Later, on appeal, (now represented by a battery of big time lawyers) the case was overturned because he did have about 12-14 engineers who proved the was in Greeville at the time of that robbery.

The reason for all this writing? It is because the DA's office in the past was way too zealous toward prosecuting cases - with no attempt to screen out crap cases. That office relied on the mind-set of Dallas jurors who have a belief that prosecutors are infallible - and, besides, a defendant would't be standing trial if he wasn't guilty.

So, the point is, I am happy to see that we finally have a District Attorney that believes what Justice Leaned Hand once wrote: "The job of a prosecutor is not to get convic-
tions, but to see that justice is done".(by the way, I am not a demo-
crat>)

Michael said...

The Geter case was on Sixty Minutes, I believe.

Sounds like truetells believes that when you taint one prosecution with corruption in the DAs office, you taint the entire criminal justice system.

So do I.

Anonymous said...

If I had a dime for every beer I bought a Harris County ADA, every Rockets or Astros ticket I've handed out, and every drug-addled cousin I represented pro bono I'd be living in much grander style than I do. ADA's have been drinking and eating on the defense bar in Houston for decades, so what's a few door prizes for those uptight snobs in Big D? C'mon.

A Harris County Lawyer said...

Sure any case of prosecutorial misconduct taints the system, but can't that be said of any walk of life really?

A doctor drinks before surgery and causes a death. Does it taint the system? Absolutely. Does it mean that we should get rid of experienced doctors and replace them with ones that don't know what they are doing?

Come on, folks. Richard Nixon was a knowledgeable President. He was also a criminal. He was impeached. But is the answer really to replace them with someone who doesn't know what they are doing?

I applaud holding prosecutors to higher standards. As a matter of fact, I may do a post on it momentarily, if I can stay awake that long. But at some point, the elected D.A. has to be able to lead an office that prosecutes criminals. And that is a LARGE part of his job.

And, by the way, Anon 2:58, as a prosecutor (which I may or may not still be :-).) Many defense attorneys have bought me a beer on occasion. And I've bought many defense attorneys a beer on occasion. I consider them friends, and it was never Dom Perignon.

Real friends don't keep count.

Mark Bennett said...

Actually, I haven't wholeheartedly heralded Watkins.

And Nixon wasn't impeached.

But why let the facts get in the way?

Anonymous said...

ACHL - You said, "Public servants can't accept gifts over $50 in value from anyone that they aren't personal friends with." Isn't it that they can't accept gifts from anyone who falls under their jurisdiction?

Just a question here, but what about when Bradford was the police chief and under felony indictment for perjury...and he actively solicited funds from the public for his "defense fund?" He was not an elected official, but a public servant. Was that a criminal act or just poor judgement? It certainly gave the appearance of impropriety...