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  It had been replaced by a cool new video monitor that showed the floor we were on, superimposed over an image of the CJC!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.