Sunday, November 29, 2009

Post-Thanksgiving Wrap Up

Since I first set foot in Harris County as a lawyer over ten years ago, I've always loved this time of year at the courthouse.

Things are starting to wind down for the year. Prosecutors and Defense Attorneys are a little less snippy with each other. There's kind of an aura of goodwill towards each other that will disappear on the first work day of the new year.

But, sadly, that also means that it is a really dull time to be a blogger.

Yep, there just isn't too much to report on around the old CJC generally this time of year. About the only thing worth noting last week was that the Pre-Commits finally got sworn in as bona fide prosecutors. In typical fashion, Lykos kept it a closed ceremony so none of the new lawyers' families could attend. That was some PR genius, Snooks.

But on the whole, things are quiet, and that's a good thing, I suppose.

I will point out that my friend, Pat McCann, wrote a great piece in the Chronicle today about the execution of his client, Robert Lee Thompson. If you didn't read it, check it out. It's a heartfelt article that kind of gives you an insight to the work that Pat does on a daily basis. It also shows why I admire Patrick so much.

Other than that, all is quiet on the Western Front.

By saying that, I have now invited all Hell to break loose tomorrow.

Until then, I hope that everybody had a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

10 Years Ago Today

Ten years ago this morning, I woke up in a small house that I was renting over in the Timbergrove Manor part of town. I was a Baby Prosecutor of three months, assigned to the Justice of the Peace Division and I was due in Judge Patronella's court Downtown that morning. I got up, showered and got dressed with Good Morning America on the television set. I wasn't paying much attention to it until I saw that it was covering the Aggie Bonfire.

I'm from Bryan, Texas and I grew up in a house about a mile and a half from the polo fields at Texas A&M. I graduated from there in 1995. So, when I saw that a national TV show was covering my hometown, my initial reaction was "oh, cool". I figured they were just doing a profile on the traditions of college football and they were covering the A&M tradition.

It took me about ten seconds to realize that what they were covering was probably the worst tragedy that ever hit the community where I grew up. I stopped everything and sat down and watched the coverage in stunned silence.

Seeing something like that happen in the small town you grew up and have great affection for was heartbreaking. It was 2 years prior to the attacks of 9/11, and at the time, it seemed like the worst thing I had ever seen in my life.

I had to go to work, though. I didn't even have a cell phone back then, so during every break during Judge Patronella's docket, I would call home and get an update on what was happening. Every time I called, the death toll would have risen and it felt like a kick in the stomach.

When I had attended A&M, I was by all accounts what the Aggies call a "Two Percenter". I guess growing up in Bryan/College Station had caused some of the novelty of the Traditions there to lose their effect on me. I didn't go Midnight Yell. I didn't even go Bonfire, usually. I liked going to the football games, but for the most part, there was very a much a disconnect between me and my college experience.

But on that day I felt a deep connection through deep sadness.

In the days that would follow, I would go home to Bryan/College Station for Thanksgiving. I saw the logs of the fallen bonfire and I went to the candlelight vigil. I remember standing there when the crowd parted and then-Governor George W. Bush and his father walked out. He shook my hand and said "It's a sad day."

I heard my voice cracking as I said "Yes sir, it is."

I remember the A&M/U.T. game the next day. I've never been to a more emotional sporting event. The Longhorn players and their Student Body exhibited so much sympathy and class to the Aggies in the wake of the tragedy that I don't think the rivalry ever really recovered. It was just too difficult to get fired up with hatred towards a group of people that had been so kind during the darkest days.

I remember the Aggies won the game that day. I remember Ja'Mar Toombs scoring a touchdown and I remember the giant fullback weeping in the end zone.

I cried too.

So much has changed in my life and in the world over the past ten years. In some ways it is incomprehensible to think about how much is different from way back then. But even now, ten years later, it seems no less heartbreaking as it did right about this time that morning.

I don't know why exactly I felt the need to write this post, other than to tell that little old town where I grew up, and that big old university that I once attended that I'm thinking about them today.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Paralegal

I received a comment on the blog this morning under my previous post on Ethics Training that I thought was worth posting in its own article.

If you recall, during the Brady hearing last month, the testimony of Denise Oncken was contradicted by longtime Child Abuse Paralegal Kim Flores. Shortly thereafter, Kim turned in her resignation and accepted a job working for Bill Stradley. In what I think is a pretty stand up move, Stradley was willing to give her a job after she made the courageous stand by testifying against her employers.

Some might even call Kim a whistleblower . . .

All was well in the wake of the Brady hearing. Lykos and company held an Ethics Training and then went about sweeping the whole incident under the rug. The media stopped paying attention to the violation and Kim turned in her two weeks notice.

It was looking like Lykos and the Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight were going to successfully dodge the issue until yesterday.

I'll just let "The Paralegal" tell the rest of the story:

Friday I was called by Judge [Hannah] Chow and was told that my last day would be that day effective immediately. I asked why (considering I gave a two week notice the Friday before). She responded with, "Because we can." and then turned around and walked out the door.

It didn't bother me that they were cutting me a week short and docking me a weeks pay, but what really bothered me was that I was insulted when I was told that I would be escorted to my office and out the door by an investigator.

I was treated like I had been fired.

Forget the 10 years of loyalty and the great reputation that I had earned for my dedication to my job. Luckily someone fought for me and I was not escorted out. Thank you for that.

What I can tell you is that information is out there. What the office chooses to do with it is up to them...which I know that nothing will change.

I have had a great deal of support from many about my difficult decision to leave the office and for that I thank you. However, I know that there are a couple...that I know of for sure that aren't pleased.. not my decision for leaving, but rather who I am going to work for.

For those doubters, you already know my character and have commented on you really think it's going to change? I'll tell you like I told Denise...I have morals. I didn't put up with it when my morals were challenged at the office and I will not put up with it when I work defense.

Interesting to see how Lykos reacted when a little too much "transparency" occured.

Like I said, it sure seems like Kim Flores could be considered a whistleblower to me, but what do I know?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What to Do With Susan Wright

Back in the Spring of 2004, I got the opportunity to sit second chair with Kelly Siegler on the State of Texas vs. Susan Wright -- a highly publicized murder case at the time which was made even more highly publicized during trial.

The short version of the case was that a young mother tied her husband, Jeff Wright, to their bed and stabbed him over 190 times before burying him in a flower bed right outside their bedroom door. She then reported him to the police as having beaten her and then left their home on foot. For a more detailed version of the case, here is an article I wrote for TDCAA several years ago.

The case got National attention when Kelly had us reconstruct the bed in the middle of Judge Jim Wallace's courtroom and did a re-enactment of the stabbing for the jury. (NOTE: No, I was not the dude in the bed. That was Paul Doyle.)

Ultimately, Susan Wright was convicted of the murder of her husband and was sentenced to 25 years in TDCJ. The jury had rejected a claim of "Sudden Passion" (which would have capped sentencing at 20 years) and had also rejected the State's request for 45 years.

Almost immediately, the verdict was attacked both in the Press and in the Appellate Courts by the shy and demure Brian Wice. He took on Susan Wright's case and for the past five years has fought like a mad man to get her a new trial. Brian is a good friend of mine, and although we were on opposite sides of this particular issue, I truly respect the work he did on this case.

Last year, he and Carmen Roe took the case to a hearing in front of Judge Wallace making the claim that Wright's defense counsel had been ineffective for failing to put forth an effective Battered Woman Defense. Specifically, Brian and Carmen were arguing that defense counsel had erred in not putting on witness Mistie McMichael (Jeff Wright's ex-girlfriend who alleged abuse by him) and an expert on Battered Woman's Syndrome.

Although Judge Wallace did not have the power to overturn the case, he did make findings agreeing with Brian's assertions that there was ineffective assistance, and the case was then taken to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In a ruling that I will admit absolutely stunned me, the Court ruled 9-0 that Susan Wright deserved a new punishment hearing.

With that ruling, the ball is now thrown into the District Attorney's court to see what they want to do with Wright's case on punishment. Both Kelly Siegler and I are both gone from the D.A.'s Office now, obviously, so new prosecutors will be making the decisions.

The case goes back to the 263rd District Court with Judge Wallace. Mia Magness is the Chief in that court now and she is one of the best trial prosecutors that the D.A.'s Office still has left. You might remember her from that little Clara Harris trial awhile back.

But the chances of the Wright case actually going back to trial aren't in Mia's hands at the moment. The decision of whether or not to plea bargain the case away is in the hands of Pat Lykos and Jim Leitner.

What they will decide to do with the Wright case will be a pretty big statement on their feelings for victim's advocacy and how much they will bow down to the defense bar.

Obviously, Wice and Wright would love nothing more than to get a plea offer of time served. The Office could accomplish this by letting her to plead to 5 years TDCJ. In lieu of that, the Office could also plead her to 10 years TDCJ making Wright automatically eligible for parole.

I hope they don't. And here's why:

-Susan Wright was convicted of tying her husband to a bed and stabbing him over 193 times.

-the number 193 is an under-estimated count, because as Dr. Dwayne Wolfe testified, there were so many wounds that many of them ran in together and couldn't be counted individually.

-Wright testified that she went for her husband's eyes first when the stabbing began.

-Wright also testified that in the middle of the stabbing, she was interrupted by the couple's young son, who she had to put back to bed. (Can you imagine what she looked like walking down the hall with him?)

-Wright went to great efforts to disassemble her bedroom and clean it with paint and bleach.

-while Jeff Wright's body was being desecrated by the family dog in the back yard, Susan had the audacity to go file a police report that he had assaulted her.

I expect supporters of Susan Wright to claim she was a battered woman, but her claims weren't even close to credible. During trial, she testified to only three specific incidents of abuse (while saying that Jeff beat her continuously, she could only remember these three).

The three incidents were as follows:

1. An incident where Susan had a small bruise under her eye. She told neighbors that her son had accidentally popped her in the face with an action figure. The neighbor saw the action figure and saw it was consistent with the size of the bruise.

2. An incident where Jeff (who was a very large and strong man, especially when compared to Susan's small frame) had repeatedly slammed her hand in a heavy door. She admitted under Kelly's cross-examination that her hand was not broken and she never sought medical treatment for it. Her description was rejected by the jury.

3. An assault the night of the murder which had led to bruising on her arms and legs. All the bruising on the arms and legs were consistent with somebody banging themselves up while moving a body and disassembling a bed.

And let's not forget that Jeff Wright's body was found with ties around both wrists and both ankles, with corresponding ties found tied to the bed frame. There was also candle wax dripped on his genitalia.

The crime scene was much more indicative of kinky sex than an assault, folks.

So, Pat and Jim, you've got a decision to make.

Susan Wright tortured her husband and the father of her children and killed him about as brutally as one can imagine. Jeff Wright was far from the perfect husband, but he didn't do the things Susan claimed. Her claims of domestic abuse are an affront to all the real victims of domestic violence out there.

Quite frankly, 25 years TDCJ was a gift from the jury.

If you guys are interested in doing the job you were elected to do, it's time to make a statement.

One of your best prosecutors could retry this case in a heartbeat and leave Susan Wright wishing for that 25 years.

Or you can just surrender and plead her out to back time.

If I were you, I'd take this case back to trial.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

On a Lighter Note . . .

Congratulations to all the Pre-Commits who passed the Texas Bar Exam today!

There is nothing quite as miserable as those three to four months waiting for the results, and today should be one of the happiest days of your life.

Although as you progress in the Office you will eventually get to know all of your fellow prosecutors, there will always be a higher level of camaraderie and friendship with the ones who are in your "starting class" with you. They will be the ones that you will celebrate your victories with, drink after your losses with, and grow up in the Office with. The longer you stay at the Office, the more they will become a second family to you.

You've got some great times ahead of you.

Enjoy them.

And congratulations, again, for getting that damn test in the rear-view mirror.

Ethics Training

In response to the tremendous Brady blunder committed the week before last by the Harris County District Attorney's Office, fearless leader and speed-spender Pat Lykos decided to jump into action. Rather than take any sort of definitive action such as publicly calling any prosecutors names or issuing any type of apology on behalf of the Office, Lykos decided just to throw some money at the problem.

She hired TDCAA representative Clay Abbott to come to Houston and give a lecture on Brady material.

Now, I like Clay Abbott and he is a very good speaker. He speaks every term at Baby Prosecutor's School in Austin about Ethics. In addition to being an incredible resource on DWI cases, he is also a great teacher. I've got no gripes about him.

That being said, the early reports that I've gotten about the training seem to indicate that the message was put forth that an open file policy was adequate to comply with Brady. I wasn't there, so if anybody wants to chime in on that, please do so.

I am kind of curious as to what old Roger Bridgwater is doing to earn his keep around 1201, though. Last I heard, he was the head of this fabled "Ethics Bureau" that Lykos promised during her campaign. I wonder why exactly he wasn't the one spearheading this project. You would think with as cash-strapped as they are, the D.A.'s Office wouldn't be doing so much out-sourcing.

Then again, I have heard that since the Donna Goode incident, Roger doesn't exactly have the street cred with his underlings like he once hoped.

The biggest question to me is whether or not the Lykos Administration thinks that this little training session will serve as the only type of answer to the Brady disaster. If so, I don't think any of us should be expecting this story to be ending any time soon.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Your Friendly Neighborhood Office Lobbyist

While Pat Lykos and her Gang seem to have been incapable of approaching the County Commissioner's Court to try and drum up a little money to pay their pre-commits, she seems to have had no problem in approaching the Court for money for an Office Lobbyist.

Historically, the District Attorney's Office has sent a legislative liaison of some sort to Austin when Congress was in session to work with the Representatives and Senators on upcoming criminal law bills. This has generally drawn a disgusted eye roll from members of the Defense Bar, who assume that this was an example of a Police State trying to come up with more laws to imprison the poor citizen. However, the liaisons in the past have often worked along with TDCAA in trying to help the legislators keep from putting laws into effect just because they seemed politically popular. (EXAMPLE: Harris County actually tried to talk Legislators out of expanding the death penalty to non-Capital murder situations like sexual assault a few years back).

However, prior to the Lykos Administration, the liason was a prosecutor who worked in a regular assignment until the Session was on the horizon. They then would spend the Session in Austin, meeting with the Legislators. Different prosecutors were often called to Austin to testify in support (or opposition) to a Bill on different topics, but only one person was there full time. In the past, that position has gone to senior prosecutors like Troy Cotton, Chuck Noll, and most recently, Kevin Petroff.

That all changed when the Free Spending Pat Lykos came to town and began treating her D.A. budget with all the restraint of Paris Hilton on Rodeo Drive with a new platinum card.

In her view, the Office Legislative Liason would certainly need some professional help -- especially, if they were going to get laws passed of such public criminal justice importance as the Press Shield Law!

So, Lykos decided to seek the help of professional lobbyist Hank Mitchell, who was already doing a little lobbying for a group called the Retired Senior and Visiting Judges (a group that Lykos served for three terms as president of, I might add). On February 24, 2009, Lykos and the Gang asked the Commissioners Court for approval of $17,500 for Mr. Mitchell to serve as a liaison from February 24 through June 1, 2009.

The move got some attention in Dallas (but not Houston).

Okay, so fine. Lykos doesn't think that her own inside people can do an effective job of lobbying in Austin during the Session. I guess she can sort of justify getting a professional lobbyist. (NOTE: Not really.)

But let's now jump forward to the June 9, 2009 Commissioner's Court Agenda to see what the Gang has on their wish list . . .

Well, goodness gracious, there's old Hank Mitchell's name again. It looks like Hank did such a good job for them when Congress was in Session that they thought they would bring him on for a longer period of time.

This time, Lykos requested $58,000 to employ Hank from June 9, 2009 through January 10, 2011. Yep, $58,000 for a time period where there is no legislative session going on.

This, folks, is bureaucracy at its finest.

We can get $58,000 for one guy to sit around during the off-season like a red shirted golfer, but we can't drum up the money to pay 12 pre-commits for the month of November?

Now, I'm sure that Lykos will defend herself by saying these funds were out of the discretionary account, which are not legally allowed to be used to pay prosecutorial salaries. To my understanding, that's true.

However, what that argument does not defend is why in the hell wasn't she spending as much time in front of the Commissioner's Court trying to get money authorized for her Pre-Commits as she was for Hank Mitchell?

The Pre-Commits Get Screwed Over

The budget woes of the Harris County District Attorney's Office continued to deepen reportedly today. This time the folks losing out because of Pat Lykos' spending habits were the Pre-Commits.

As I've mentioned before, the term "Pre-Commit" refers to recently (or soon-to-be) graduated law students who have been hired as interns for the District Attorney's Office. They are promised employment conditioned only upon them passing the Bar Exam. Prior to the Bar results arriving, they are employed by the Office as interns. My understanding is that they are paid about $12 an hour during their internship.

Upon passing the Bar Exam, the Pre-Commits are then upgraded to a starting "real" salary, and they get sworn in by a judge in a nice ceremony that family can attend. At present time there are somewhere between 10 to 15 Pre-Commit Interns who are awaiting their Bar results.

This week was supposed to be a big one for the Pre-Commits, because the Bar results are due to be released on Thursday or Friday. It's time to upgrade from working for beer money to a real salary, right?

Apparently, wrong.

Pre-commits were told this morning that due to a "budgetary shortfall," the Office can't afford to actually pay them "real attorney" salaries. The Office is hopeful that they will be able to start paying them a real salary in December, but for now, the Pre-Commits are just sh*t out-of-luck.

These poor rookie prosecutors have made a commitment to the Office and the Office has made a commitment to them for employment. These attorneys bypassed employment with other people to work for the D.A.'s Office and now they are getting absolutely screwed over financially. This is beyond ridiculous.

As my NYC editor pointed out, you can get paid more for babysitting.

Most of the prosecutors and support staff around the Office have already come to terms with the fact that they won't be getting raises this year, but not paying the Pre-Commits jeopardizes these kids' ability to afford to live. It's insulting and dishonest. Lykos and the Gang are breaking a promise to the Pre-Commits that is beyond shameful.

But, hey, on the plus side, I hear that the hardwood floors in Lykos' office look fantastic! Oh, and the driver she hired to drive her around hasn't had a fender bender in months!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Open Range

Okay Boys and Girls,

I'm on vacation this week, so I don't feel like blogging on a topic right now. So you all can talk about whatever you want in the comments section (in an idea I totally am borrowing from Lone Star Times).

Have fun and keep it semi-clean.

The Blog Czar (inside joke)

CJC Closure for Tuesday, July 9th

 I'm dusting off the cobwebs from the old blog to do a public service announcement that all courts will be closed tomorrow, Tuesday, Jul...