Friday, May 31, 2013

Hell on Earth

If I were to ever write a book about any case I ever tried as a prosecutor, it would be about a murder that happened at the Roadrunner Inn around 2002 or 2003.

It wasn't a headline grabbing case by any stretch of the imagination.  It wasn't particularly shocking or gruesome, either.  It just always fascinated me because of the people and circumstances involved in the case -- the victim, the defendants, and the witnesses were all so unique and the lifestyle that went on around the Roadrunner was like watching an episode of HBO's The Wire.

The victim in the case was an unusual man named Lonnie, who went by the name of Bonsai.  He was a Jewish man from the Northeast.  His sister told me that he had worked for Motown Records back in the 1950s.  As he grew older, he disconnected from society and became virtually homeless.  He drifted from town to town and fleabag motel to fleabag motel.  He made money for rent and drugs by selling bonsai trees -- hence the nickname.  A few months before his untimely death, he took up residence at the Roadrunner.

The two killers were Gary "Boo" Edwards and Anthony "No No" Gibson, who were also an interesting dynamic.  Gary was a self-proclaimed pimp and drug dealer who could talk the paint off the walls.  He was a bullsh*t artist if I ever met one, and he always liked to talk to me, for some reason -- not about the case -- just about life at the Roadrunner.  He would even have his father come by and visit me at the D.A.'s Office.  Gibson was the opposite of his friend, Gary.  He rarely spoke but he liked to shoot people with very little provocation.

On the night of the murder, an unidentified acquaintance of Bonsai's had loaned Gibson his truck as part of a crack rental.  When Gibson was late returning the vehicle, the acquaintance cut Edwards with a box cutter and then left the premises.  When Gibson returned to the hotel, he and Gary went to Bonsai's room to interrogate him about the whereabouts of the mystery acquaintance.  The interrogation did not go well.  After roughing up Bonsai, Gibson shot him multiple times and killed him.

A few weeks later, Gibson went to the Red Carpet Inn, which was right next door to the Roadrunner.  He kicked the door in and shot a man who went by the street name of "Dillinger" multiple times as Dillinger lay sleeping in his bed.  Gibson's motivation was jealousy over a girl that Dillinger happened to be lying in bed with at the time of his death.  Gibson and Edwards more or less kidnapped that girl and kept her locked in their room at the Roadrunner for the next week until they were convinced she wasn't going to snitch on them.

HPD Homicide Sergeant Paul Motard and Clemente Abbondandolo (AKA Detective Abbey) worked up the cases and ultimately filed murder and kidnapping charges on Edwards and Gibson.  In working the case up for trial, my investigator Mike Connor and I spent quite a few afternoons walking around the Roadrunner and the neighboring Red Carpet Inn.  We interviewed prostitutes, gang leaders, and drug dealers.  My star witness was a prostitute named Rolanda who had more guts and character than probably any other witness I ever had testify.

But going to the Roadrunner and the Red Carpet was like going to hell on earth.  The Roadrunner was a courtyard-type hotel that was virtually deserted during daylight hours.  At night, the place swarmed with people who lived there permanently and they all had their own economic system of trading sex, drugs, money and violence as a means of existence.  The Red Carpet was no better.  It had interior rooms and hallways where the residents would leave the doors open as they smoked crack and had sex.  The fact that a prosecutor and investigator were walking down the halls in broad daylight didn't seem to bother them much.

I know this post already seems long, but trust me, I'm skimming on a lot of the details.

Anthony Gibson got 70 years for Bonsai's murder and Gary Edwards got 35.  Right before I went to trial, then-prosecutor-now-Judge Denise Bradley pointed out to me what a terrible place the Roadrunner Inn was.  She had been the prosecutor of Jeffery Williams, who had murdered Houston Police Officer Troy Blando at the Roadrunner back in 1999.  Motard and Abbey told me they had worked other cases where murders had happened at the Roadrunner and that homicide wasn't an unusual occurrence there at all.

Some time after the trials of Gibson and Edwards, Bonsai's sister and I went to a condemnation hearing on the property.  It was the only time I ever participated in such a thing during my tenure as a prosecutor.  We told the people of the City of Houston what a nightmare and death trap it was.  A representative of the owner said they were making improvements there.  I heard through the grapevine that the property owner was a relative of a City Council member.

For whatever reason, the Roadrunner Inn never shut down.

It did change names, though.

Several years ago, I was driving down Highway 59 and saw that it had changed its name to the Southwest Inn.

Today, four City of Houston Firefighters lost their lives battling a massive fire there.

My thoughts and prayers go out to their families, friends, and fellow firefighters.

And I hope that this Hell on Earth is finally gone for good.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tonight's Reasonable Doubt (5/30/13)

Please join me and Todd Dupont as Reasonable Doubt returns tonight for a live episode for the first time in a while.  Our guest tonight will be criminal defense attorney and HCCLA Vice-President Rand Mintzer.

As always, the show starts at 8:00 p.m. and you can catch it live streaming by clicking here.

Please call in with your comments and questions.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Remembrance of Judge A.D. Azios

Judge Mary Lou Keel and the staff of the 232nd District Court are hosting a Celebration in Remembrance of the late Honorable A.D. Azios on Friday, May 31, 2013.

The event is at 12:15 p.m. in the Ceremonial Courtroom on the 20th floor of the Criminal Justice Center and all are invited to attend.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Stupid Is As Roger Does

Never let it be said that it is easy to keep Former Gang-Who-Couldn't-Shoot-Straight Team Leader Roger Bridgwater down.

Despite having his tenure as Bureau Chief cut short by the un-electing of Pat Lykos last year and being passed over for an appointment to a judicial bench this year, Mr. Bridgwater has still found a way to interfere with the smooth administration of justice.

Brian Rogers is reporting in this article tonight that a Capital Murder jury trial pending in the 339th District Court will have to start over from scratch due to advice given to a juror by Roger.  In his article, Brian reports that a selected juror was concerned about serving on such a serious case as a Capital Murder.  That juror decided to seek some wisdom from his friend -- former prosecutor and former judge Roger Bridgwater.

This isn't an unusual phenomenon, actually.  Our friends outside the legal world routinely give criminal law practitioners a call whenever our worlds collide.  Family members always mention it when they have jury duty.  It's kind of like when you meet somebody from out of state and you have to mention to them people that you know from their state.

Most lawyers know that other than saying "obey your jury summons," there isn't anything else that we should add to the advice we give a prospective juror.  That applies even more so if a person who has actually been elected to serve as a juror calls us.

So when Bridgwater's juror friend called him up to express his concerns about serving, what Roger should have said (to paraphrase Mike Birbiglia) . . . was nothing.

Instead, Roger apparently gave him some very detailed advice that resulted in the juror drafting a letter to the judge and then alarming his fellow jurors to the degree that they all signed the letter as well.  As a result, a mistrial had to be declared and the trial has to start over completely.

Good job, Roger.

At first glance, this would seemingly be something to just shrug off as poor decision-making on Bridgwater's part.  But let's look at it a little further.  Bridgwater is a former District Court judge.  Even though he only served briefly after being appointed by Governor Perry, he still knew the rules of evidence and the Code of Criminal Procedure.  One can only imagine what his reaction would have been if he had been the presiding judge over a Capital trial where some uninvolved lawyer tampered with one of his jurors.

Bridgwater isn't exactly known for his cool, judicial temperament and I feel pretty comfortable in guessing that there would have been hell to pay.

Furthermore, up until the end of 2012, Bridgwater was actually a party to this case as a representative of the Harris County District Attorney's Office.  His upper-administration role would have granted him knowledge of all pending Capital murder cases.  His giving instructions to a selected juror on the case should be regarded no differently than if an active prosecutor were to have given the advice.

Obviously, I don't have much respect for Roger Bridgwater, but his actions surprise even me.  Viewed under the most favorable of circumstances, he made a very stupid mistake that caused a Capital Murder case to have to be started over again from scratch.

In a less charitable view, he knowingly undermined the Criminal Justice process.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mike Anderson's Announcement

I'm sure by now that you have learned that Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson announced today that he is battling cancer.

I don't know any more than what is being reported in the newspaper or television.  No specifics have been released.

My thoughts and prayers are with Mike, Devon and their family.

We are all praying for you and wish you a speedy recovery.

Happy Birthday Mr. President

Today is HCCLA President Todd Dupont's birthday.

In the past, I have been reminded that I forgot it, so I'm actually going proactive this time by wishing him a happy birthday in advance.

He did have to remind me again this year, but at least I talked to him before mid-afternoon this time.

So, if you see Todd today around the CJC wish him a happy birthday!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Trey Apffel for State Bar President

I don't normally pay a lot of attention to the State Bar Elections.

In 2011, I asked for your support to vote for Buck Files for State Bar President because it was important to have a criminal law practitioner be the president for a change.  Mr. Files was elected and he's done a great job of making issues involving Criminal Law relevant to the State Bar.

This year, the election for State Bar President has gone to a run-off between League City attorney Trey Apffel and an attorney named Steve Fischer.

I voted for Apffel in the general election, and I just voted for him again in the run-off.  Although his credentials are certainly impressive, I don't know the man.

But I am very concerned about his opponent's ability to lead the State Bar.

Fisher is running on a promise to "shake up" the State Bar, which I'm all for.  However, when things get "shaken up" the general hope is that they are changed for the better.  Fischer's vision for the Bar concerns me when he includes things like making lawyers less accountable.  His own website promotes the idea of lessening grievances against attorneys unless they could prove bad intent, or to use his terms:

"If you have (A) No bad intent + (B) No harm done = No foul."

That's a nice idea, theoretically, but can you imagine how many loopholes that ideology would create?

Additionally, I personally find Fischer's behavior on the campaign trail to be erratic to put it mildly.

I'm all for aggressively running for office, but some of Fischer's tactics have been way over-the-top.  From bombarding mailboxes on Facebook, to over-aggressively hounding people in the hallways and doorsteps of courthouses, there is something about Fischer that troubles me if he is going to become President of the State Bar.

For ages, lawyers have had a to fight a bad reputation of being overly aggressive and not responsible for their own actions.  In my opinion, Fischer seems so hell-bent on winning the election that he doesn't realize that he's reconfirming a lot of stereotypes about our profession.

I've never heard any of the same concerns about Apffel.

Voting in the run-off is very easy.  All you have to do is click here to vote.

It shouldn't take you more than about 45 seconds.

Please vote for Trey Apffel.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Black Robe Disease

I normally don't write about local cases that didn't happen in Harris County, but I think that this story is an exception.

If you are a local reader, I'm sure you've read by now about Margaret Young, the venire member held in contempt by Judge Kelly Case for failing to attend jury duty.   She opted to attend a celebration of a student being diagnosed as cancer-free, rather responding to a jury duty summons.

Here's the irony behind the story -- every day, a large number of people completely disregard their jury summons.  They just toss it in the garbage.

In the vast majority of those cases, absolutely nothing happens to the person who failed to attend jury duty.  I mean, seriously, nothing.

In the case of Ms. Young, it is my understanding that she called in and attempted to reschedule.  Due to the fact that she actually felt enough civic responsibility to call in, the Court was made aware of the fact that she did not plan on coming.  Since she had made her name available to the Court, Judge Case had the luxury of having an actual named person to single out for skipping jury duty.

Thus, the contempt charge.

The fact of the matter is that if Ms. Young had just tossed her summons in the trash can, she never would have ended up spending six hours in jail for missing jury duty.

So, yeah, Judge Case just taught us all a fantastic civics lesson -- you are better off ignoring the judiciary than trying to negotiate with them.

I'm tremendously disappointed in Case.  I don't know the man well.  I watched him in a DWI trial once and was very impressed by his trial ability and knowledge as a defense attorney.  I thought he would be a judge that took into account the fact that there are always two sides to every story.

I am, however, glad to see Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon's response.

I've known Brett for a long time now, and I've always been a fan.  His words in the article are very telling.  As quoted in The Courier of Montgomery County:
"The six hours she spent in custody is already 'immeasurably more onerous than the lawful remedy of a fine at your disposal,' Ligon said."
Mr. Ligon is entirely too diplomatic to state, "What the hell were you thinking?" but that gets pretty close.

This case is pretty infuriating.

Jury service is never convenient for anyone, but those people who actually bother to try to reschedule should always be accommodated.  Otherwise, you send out the screaming message to just toss the summons altogether.

The fact that Ms. Young had such a fantastic reason to miss jury duty only magnifies the judicial arrogance behind Judge Case's incredibly misguided use of his power.

There is a phrase attributed to judges who believe that their power supersedes the interests of all others and makes them, somehow, superior to all others -- Black Robe Disease.

There isn't a lawyer who has ever handled a case that hasn't seen it -- in one form or the other, in varying degrees.

I am just genuinely shocked to have seen it so early and so significantly with Judge Case.

Tara George Departs

Tonight was my friend Tara George's going-away party from the Harris County District Attorney's Office.  I would have posted about it earlier, but I didn't hear about the party until today.

Before anybody starts spouting conspiracy theories about anything, Tara and her family are moving out of town.  She told me the town and she insists that it is in Texas, but I have my doubts.

To put it mildly, Tara's departure from the D.A.'s Office is a tremendous loss.

Tara was, without question, one of the Office's elite prosecutors.  She has a brilliant mind and a tenacious spirit that no defense attorney would ever want to be on the wrong side of.

She was also very practical.  She would evaluate a case based on its legal merits and she had the guts to acknowledge that a case couldn't be proven, even if the facts were upsetting.  She trained the people that she worked with to operate under the ethic that they should do everything they could to prove the toughest of cases, but to never lose their credibility by bluffing on a case they couldn't prove.

I never met a prosecutor nor a defense attorney that didn't have an immense amount of respect for Tara and the way she prosecuted.  In all honesty, she was one of those rare prosecutors who probably should have been made a Felony District Court Chief about two weeks into her tenure at the Office.

She knew the difference between defendants who had screwed up big time versus those who were true dangers to society.  She was never one who sought bigger punishments on cases that were easier to prove.  All of her recommendations and decisions were based on a very well-grounded sense of what was the truly just decision.

If every Assistant District Attorney had the same level-headedness about them that Tara did, there wouldn't be many complaints about prosecutors.

Yeah, I know I'm gushing at this point, but damn, Tara George was a great prosecutor.

I wish her the best in her future endeavors, and I hope that she finds herself back in the public sector.  She was definitely a credit to it.

I do want to point out that probably no one will miss Tara more than her "Ether Twin," Inger Hampton.  (NOTE:  I take credit for coining that term because when they worked together in the 180th District Court, they were on the same page about every last detail an attorney could possibly bring up to them.)

There has been a lot of press lately about prosecutors behaving badly, but for now, I'd just like to bid goodbye and good luck to one of the ones that we all hold in the highest esteem.

Episode Seven: The Voters Awaken - A One Act -Sci-Fi Play

SCENE:  The Death Star orbits over Downtown Houston. [INTERIOR] The Imperial Council Chambers. EMPRESS OGG sits at the head of a long table ...