Friday, October 16, 2020

The Idealism of the Legal Twitterverse

 Oh, dear Lord.  I've hauled off and pissed off the Twitterverse.

Not in the normal way, like when I'm fully intending on pissing off people.  I did this one on accident.

Yesterday was a frustrating day in general.  We had a family emergency that required my wife to go out of town unexpectedly and I was trying to do Zoom hearings while keeping my 6-year-old and my 14-year-old on task with their online classes.  At one point, while Zooming into a court and setting a case for trial, the judge mentioned that I seemed relaxed and comfortable.  It was then that I looked down and realized I hadn't changed into a collared shirt for my Zoom hearings (as I normally do).

Instead, I was wearing a Drive-By Truckers concert t-shirt that read "Hell No, I Ain't Happy." I changed and went outside for my next Zoom setting because I didn't want to disturb the kids' classes.  While sitting on my front porch, a lizard ran up my leg.  It was just one of those days where there was a lot going on and nothing seemed to be going right.

In the middle of all the chaos, a former client that I had represented earlier in the year called my answering service and left a message that he needed me to find his probation officer's phone number because he'd lost his phone (and thus, the number).  A little bit later, he called again wanting to know why I hadn't called with the number yet.

Feeling frustrated, I took to Twitter with the following observations:

Now, this didn't exactly seem to be all that damning of a message, in my opinion.  

The Twitterverse disagreed.  I mean they REALLY disagreed.

I got bombarded by attorneys from around the country who were just incensed -- incensed, I tell you -- that I would make mention of the fact that I found a former client's inability to find a phone number without his lawyer to be a "more frustrating element of the job."  The crowd, which as near as I can tell is comprised largely of public defenders from around the country, have gleaned from this Twitter posting that 1) I hate all of my clients and 2) that I should quit my job posthaste.  The true "most frustrating" thing should be nothing less than an ongoing war against the oppressive, lying, cheating, 4th Amendment-eroding prosecutors, who are constantly seeking to imprison the masses.

I replied to a couple of these young and idealistic folks at first but eventually realized this was a futile effort.  So, I decided that I would respond with this post as a group response to those attorneys who are so helpfully trying to help me reevaluate my career path.

So, let me be clear with this message to my newest Twitter fans:

Grow. The. Hell. Up.

The job of a criminal defense attorney is frustrating on a daily basis at times, and if you haven't experienced that then you aren't doing it right.  

It doesn't matter if you're representing Charles Manson or a Santa Claus.  Clients are human and humans tend to frustrate each other from time to time without meaning to.  

I mean, hell, look at how much I seem to be frustrating Twitter.

I can honestly say that on the whole, the vast majority of the people I've represented over the years have been great to work with. I've represented some really nice people who were charged with some really horrible things.  I've also represented some really difficult people charged with really minor things.  Pretending that every last client I've ever represented has been nothing less than an utter delight is as silly as it is disingenuous.  

If you believe that every client you have ever represented has been nothing less than an angelic, non-frustrating victim of an unjust system, then you are either: 1) very lucky;  2) very naive; or 3) very new to this job.  If your unbridled optimism about your job is because of option 2 or 3 on that list, you are going to get run over by a prosecutor, a judge, or a jury who doesn't share your opinion.

To my new fanbase on Twitter, the trick to being a defense attorney isn't never being annoyed with your clients -- it's working your ass off for them no matter how annoyed you find yourself.  

Because believe me, in this job you're going to be annoyed.  

You're going to be annoyed by that client who has ignored and failed to return every one of your phone calls for a month but calls you at 4 a.m. to ask if he's got court that morning.

You're going to be annoyed by that client who has a completely winnable case right up until the moment he just doesn't show up for court and draws a completely unwinnable bond jumping case.

You're going to be annoyed by that client who files a grievance against you because you didn't get him a probation offer on his third aggravated robbery.

You are going to be annoyed by that client who tells you that you never once told him that he couldn't smoke meth while on bond.

You are going to be annoyed by the client who accuses you of "not working for me" or "working for the prosecutor" every time you tell them something they don't want to hear.

Every time some completely unnecessary obstacle to success comes up, you are going to be annoyed.

And guess what.

That's okay.

Because sometimes you can use those moments of annoyance to actually tell them that you're frustrated with them.  You can even build from that frustration and tell them that they need to learn to be responsible for some things that their lawyer wasn't meant to handle -- like say, being a telephone directory.  Tell them that you expect more out of them because the prosecutor, the probation officer, the judge, the jury, their family, their boss, their teachers, or the world is going to expect more of them.

It has been my experience that when I've done that, most have risen to the occasion.  Despite the angry protestations of the Twitterverse, lawyers cannot actually do clients' probation for them.

So, just for some background (not that I owe it to the Twitterverse), that client that I was annoyed with yesterday was a former client.  He's an older guy that I busted my ass to get out on a PR bond because he was at higher risk for COVID in the jail.  I also busted my ass getting him a deferred adjudication despite his priors, and a misdemeanor deferred at that.  We dealt with a lot of bond issues together before that happened and I told him that he was both grumpy and needy, and he laughed.  Despite being frustrated yesterday, I still called him back and told him to call the court to get the information he needed, because I didn't know it and I wouldn't be able to get to it that day.  He thanked me and we moved on.

Despite the Twitterverse's assumptions, I actually like him quite a bit.  He's got some piss and vinegar in him that is oddly endearing.

But yesterday, he was frustrating me.  Shit happens.

When I first meet a client, one of the first things that I tell him or her is that I will never sugarcoat anything.  I'll sometimes give them a choice of whether they want me to tell them what they want to hear or tell them what they really need to know.  I have yet to have the client who picked the former over the latter.  The same, apparently, cannot be said for Twitter.

In an odd moment of karmic coincidence, I got a message this morning on Facebook from a different former client.  He was a guy I represented a couple of years ago on a couple of different things and at the time, he did more than his fair share of frustrating me too.  We went round and round on some of his responsibilities and expectations.  But I worked my ass off on his case like I do on all my clients' cases, whether they are frustrating or not, and ultimately, it worked out pretty well for him.

His message this morning told me that he'd gotten his shit together, stayed out of trouble and that on Monday, he was getting to see his kid again for the first time in two years.

Sometimes, that frustration you feel and share actually leads to somebody living up to the expectations that they should be living up to.  There is nothing more uplifting than watching a client pull out of a tailspin.

Moments like that happen more often than you would think.

When they do, you are reminded that the most frustrating job in the world is, more often than not, the best one.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them*

*All apologies to former Senator and Saturday Night Live alum Al Franken, who wrote a great book with this title.  It just fit so perfectly for the topic of this article that I couldn't resist copying it.  I love Al Franken so if this ever gets back to him, I hope he isn't mad.

So, remember back in June when I wrote this post?

The short-ish version of what it covered was this:

A year or so ago, Kim Ogg used taxpayer money to hire Mark Goldberg as an Assistant District Attorney, a politically connected former City Councilman who Ogg had gone to law school with.  He spent a very brief stint in Misdemeanor before being "promoted" to upper management at the office as a "community outreach committee member."  What this actually means is that Ogg hired somebody with taxpayer funds to prosecute, but then reassigned him to plan events designed to get her reelected.  Not that it will matter to voters, but some of us find that to be really illegal.

As part of his job as a fake prosecutor Community Outreach Committee Member, Goldberg quickly became the Sycophant in Chief and planned great events for his candidate District Attorney.  In late June, an e-mail went out from Ogg to all of her prosecutors telling them that they were looking for "volunteers" to help her royal Oggness out at a political event that was thinly disguised as a "voter registration event." The e-mail stated that Ogg would be speaking and all attendees would be the recipients of a "food giveaway."  The e-mail strongly suggested that those prosecutors who failed to "volunteer" would have it negatively reflected in their evaluations.  Not that it will matter to voters, but some of us find that to be really illegal, too.

A copy of that e-mail ended up in my hands and I tweeted it, noting my thoughts on it.  It got retweeted and eventually picked up some media attention.  Since a public servant demanding that the public servants she supervises perform political tasks for her benefit is illegal and the media was paying attention, Ogg was caught in a bit of an awkward situation.  What is an unscrupulous politician to do?

Well, of course, she had to feed the Sycophant in Chief to the wolves.  

Shortly after the media caught wind of Ogg's illegal orders, dutiful Mark Goldberg sent out an e-mail claiming that the Ogg e-mail had been a mistake-riddled "draft" of an e-mail he, himself,  had written and somehow inadvertently sent from Ogg's e-mail.  Still trying to figure out who they thought would actually buy that bullshit story version of events.  Seriously, I have represented some really dimwitted folks who have come up with FAR better stories than that one to explain themselves when caught redhanded. 

Anyhoo, the Office doubled down on just how mistake-filled the Oggberg e-mail had been when office flak Dane Schiller apparently told Houston Chronicle reporter Samantha Ketterer that Ogg wasn't even scheduled to speak at the event as originally stated.  

So as usual, Kim Ogg and her upper Administration pulled some really dirty stuff, denied they did it, and then waited for the attention to pass -- which it promptly did.

It did, that is, until local defense attorney and former prosecutor Nathan Hennigan decided to hit the District Attorney's Office with a request for Public Information for the e-mails surrounding the event.  Ogg spent the past four months fighting the release of those records to Nathan.  Ultimately, he received some really interesting documents and he was kind enough to share them with me and some other folks.  They are wildly entertaining to read in relation to the Ogg e-mail, the Goldberg retraction, and the apparent message from D.A. Spokesman Schiller.

Let's take a look!

1.  Starting with Goldberg's e-mail that the e-mail was just a draft that was unapproved by Ogg.

2.  Continuing on, with Goldberg's statement that it wasn't supposed to be sent under Ogg's name.

3.  And as to whether or not Ogg was going to speak or not?  The D.A.'s Office said this back then . . . 

But the records indicate . . . 

Why do you even lie about something like that?  It makes no sense.  I guess when lying becomes so second nature to you, you stop paying attention to whether or not you are even benefitting from it any longer.

The sad fact of the matter is that literally not one thing here will matter to voters who will almost certainly re-elect Kim Ogg on November 3rd.  It's not because she's good at her job.  It's just because Harris County is firmly a Democratic county for the time being and the lightning rod that is Donald Trump is not going to help matters much for Republican candidates.

Kim Ogg is terrible at her job, actually.  And she lacks the character to hold the Office.  Mark Goldberg's lying e-mails to the entire office don't speak too highly of his character, either.  And lying to the media about such seemingly inconsequential matters as to whether or not somebody is going to speak to a crowd for five minutes?   What's the point?

For an organization tasked with fighting for truth and justice, the Harris County District Attorney's Office sure doesn't seem to know much about truth.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The 2020 Election -- Early Voting Begins

 With everything going on in the world lately, I have to admit that early voting kind of snuck up on me this year.  I remember hearing something about Governor Greg Abbott adding a week of early voting a few months ago, but then I saw that some of the Right Wing "power brokers" had tried to sue him to stop that from happening.  Apparently, the plan didn't change, and citizens of Texas can begin voting Early Voting on Tuesday, October 13th.   It ends on Friday, October 30th and Election Day is Tuesday, November 3rd.

Regardless of whether you are a Right-leaning voter or a Left-leaning voter, you should anticipate turn out to be tremendous this year.  You should definitely be making plans to vote early and give yourself some padding if your original scheduled plan to vote falls through.  My guess would be that given the new numbers of registered voters (over 200,000 new voters since the 2016 election, I believe), that even traditionally "slow" days during Early Voting could potentially bring long lines and wait times at the polls.

So, now that I've lectured you on your Civic Duty, here are my thoughts on the Election itself.  

This is going to be the first election in Texas that doesn't allow for straight-ticket voting, and in a Presidential Election year, the ballot is long.  As in 2016 and 2018, I expect that Texas will remain a Red State (although not as Red as in years past) and Harris County will be a Deeper Blue than ever.  Although there are some great candidates on both sides of the political spectrum in Harris County, I don't think that the Republicans will have much of a chance of taking back benches or positions even with the long-overdue demise of straight-ticket ballots.

So, here are my thoughts on the candidates involved in our Harris County Criminal Justice World if you would like to actually take the time to consider your independent voting choices.

Harris County District Attorney -- Kim Ogg (D)(I) vs. Mary Nun Huffman (R)

You may have heard me mention the name "Kim Ogg" here on this blog once or twice, and obviously, this is THE race that everyone in our world looks at most closely.  As most of you know, I voted for Kim in 2016.  I agreed with her platforms and her views on how the Criminal Justice System should be evolving and how it should be run.  I still agree with many, if not most, of those views, but Ogg's methods of running her office and putting her platform into place have been nothing short of disastrous.  In all honesty, looking back on the first four years of Ogg's governing, I feel the same level of frustration that Obi-Wan Kenobi had towards Anakin Skywalker when he told him "It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them!"

Star Wars analogies aside, Ogg's promises of "progressive" and "evidence-based" prosecution have been nothing short of farcical as she has spent the entirety of her time fighting for headlines rather than fighting for justice.  After wiping out a significant percentage of experienced prosecutors as her first move in office, she's waged war with HPD, judges, her own administration, and her prosecutors all in the name of her own pride.  To be honest, it has been shocking.  

She has sought politically motivated indictments on cases like Arkema when she knew that the criminal laws would never support a conviction.  She's fired or punished respected and experienced prosecutors who have disagreed with her over unstable policies (including her own 1st Assistant).  She's hired political donors to positions they were unqualified to hold and then refused to fire them when they predictably failed at their jobs or broke the law.  She's putting the landmark Michael Morton Act (which required prosecutors to share discovery evidence with defense attorneys) at risk, as she has instituted a policy of withholding evidence if the Defendant just so happens to be a police officer. 

She's been an absolute disaster.

Her opponent, Mary Nan Huffman, is a former prosecutor from Montgomery County and is currently an attorney for the Houston Police Officers' Union.  Her platform is definitely far more conservative than Ogg's.  Those things that have so grossly marred Ogg's first term are things that Huffman has been very clear that she intends to correct.  She has the strong support of the police unions and all Republican groups who are politically active.  

As a defense attorney, I have to say that I'm not in favor of some of Huffman's ideas for how the Office should be run.  That being said, the job of the elected District Attorney isn't to make the Defense Bar happy.  To paraphrase Cormac McCarthy, prosecutors have their side of the street to work, and the Defense Bar has theirs.   Additionally, if Huffman were to cultivate a D.A.'s Office filled with experienced prosecutors who actually knew what they were doing and weren't afraid to do the right thing (as opposed to being terrified of the ego-maniacal fame hound at the top), I think a Huffman office would work out just fine.

And at the end of the day, Huffman isn't a crook.  I'm not sure that I can say the same about Ogg.

My vote:  Mary Nan Huffman

Moving onto the Judicial elections, it is unsurprising to see that there are not many contested races on the ballot after the lopsided Democratic victories of 2016 and 2018.  Very few aspiring Republicans judges wanted to waste the money on a campaign that will very like prove to be futile.

339th District Court -- Jesse McClure (R) vs. Te'iva Bell (D)

Without fail, every election that I've written about since 2008 has had at least one race that gives me ulcers to write about for personal reasons.  This year, the race for the 339th has been that race.  

Judge Jesse McClure was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to replace Judge Maria T. Jackson when she stepped down to run for higher office.  I've known Judge McClure since his time as a prosecutor, and quite frankly, I think he's great.  He's done a tremendous job during his short time on the bench.  His court is friendly and pleasant to appear in.  He gives thoughtful consideration to all of the legal issues before him.  He's demonstrated time and again that his default position is one of compassion and kindness.  His rulings are fair and well-reasoned.  Being a judge is clearly his calling, and he has excelled at it.

Te'iva Bell is a former prosecutor who has been with the Public Defenders' Office since its inception.  She is my friend and a very dear person.  I've known Te'iva since she was a shy baby prosecutor, and I've watched her over the years as she has grown into the position of a confident, knowledgable leader in the Defense Bar.  I have all the confidence in the world that if she is elected that will be an excellent judge, as well.

What I write here will have no bearing on the election in the long run, so I will just say that I think Harris County will be well served by whichever candidate ultimately succeeds.  It is a shame that they cannot both serve.  Hopefully, someday they can.

351st District Court -- Natalia "Nata" Cornelio (D) vs. Arlene Hecht (R)

Earlier this year, after I had made my recommendations in the primary races, I received a phone call from Natalia "Nata" Cornelio.  I had stated my intention of voting for Judge George Powell in the Democratic Primary for the 351st, and she wanted to talk about it.  She wasn't upset with anything I had written about her (or Judge Powell), but she wanted to make sure that I understood her views on the Criminal Justice System and why she was running for the Bench.  It ended up being a pretty long phone call and one that I enjoyed very much.  We've had a subsequent conversation now that she is the official Democratic candidate, and I enjoyed that talk, too.

As I noted in my primary write-up, although Nata is not as familiar of a face around the Harris County CJC, she definitely has strong credentials in criminal defense -- her practice has just centered more around the Federal System.  Those who know her personally are big fans of hers, and after my conversations with her, so am I.  She is very passionate about the Criminal Justice System in Harris County, and is very eager to tackle the issues we are all facing under the pandemic.  We talked for a long time about effective and creative ideas about getting the wheels of Justice moving again.  Not only was I very impressed by her enthusiasm for the tasks ahead, but I was also appreciative of her open-mindedness in seeking input from multiple sources.

In my last conversation with Nata, she mentioned that she had an opponent in November, which was surprising news to me.  I thought the 351st Bench was uncontested after the primary.  Sure enough, I learned that Arlene Hecht was running for office.  Although the last name sounded familiar in the political world, I had never heard of Arlene Hecht.  So, I did some internet sleuthing and didn't really find out all that much more about her.

Her own website says she graduated from law school in 1991, but then states she's been practicing law for 11 years.  I'm not a mathematician, but it seems that there may be some gap years in there somewhere.  She also lists herself as a defense attorney and prosecutor.  I've been practicing in Harris County in some capacity since 1999, and I have never seen her nor heard of her prior to this time.   Being the social butterfly that I am (although I'm not as much as I used to be), I tend to at least know of most people who come through the courthouse, so I find my unfamiliarity with Ms. Hecht to be somewhat unusual.

She is apparently currently an employee of Kim Ogg's District Attorney's Office, but given Ogg's penchant for handing out positions to friends and supporters, that isn't saying much.  She is apparently a fairly recent addition to the Office and is assigned to the intake division, where she doesn't handle cases beyond their initial filings.  There seems to be a very vast difference when you look at the qualifications between the two candidates that should make this decision a no-brainer.

My vote:  Natalia "Nata" Cornelio

County Court at Law # 12 (Unexpired Term) -- Genesis Draper (D) vs. Linda Garcia (R)

When Judge Genesis Draper was appointed by the Commissioners' Court to fill the vacancy of Court # 12, I had never met her.  I knew her husband, Brandon Leonard, who is a friend and all-around fantastic human being, but I'd never met his wife.  When she took the Bench, I learned more about her credentials and experience in the Criminal Justice System, and I remain confused as to how I never met her before.

Earlier this year, I had a case that went to trial in her court and I had the opportunity to see Judge Draper in action.  To say that I became a fan of hers would be an understatement.

Judge Draper navigated a case where the State's prosecutor and I had a very big difference of opinion on the rules of evidence, discovery, and the law.  She held the State to their duties and obligations and she held me to the same standards.  But what struck me as we tried this case was that there was absolutely no uncertainty in how Judge Draper handled her courtroom or her rulings.  She knew the law and she knew it off the top of her head.  That's not always the case in all courtrooms.  She ruled against me at times and she ruled for me on others.  Whether her rulings benefited my case or not, they were all sound.  

Without rehashing the details of the case, which was dismissed shortly after a jury was seated, she made very clear to the State that she expected more from them than what they were putting forth in cases set for trial.  She emphasized to them the need to better evaluate their cases prior to setting them for trial.  She also expertly addressed the issue of a Batson challenge being made against the State.  Without embarrassing anyone involved, she emphasized the importance of a very key component of our Criminal Justice System that is often overlooked.  I can't do her words justice as I try to remember them off the top of my head, but I recall thinking that they belonged in a legal opinion or a textbook on criminal procedure.  

My experience trying a case in front of Judge Draper left me of the opinion that I hope to see her going on to higher and higher benches in the years to come.

Judge Draper's opponent in this is Linda Garcia, who is also someone that I highly respect and consider a friend.  She had a previous tenure on the bench in County Court at Law # 16, which she lost in the Democratic sweep of 2016.  She is a very experienced lawyer who enjoys an outstanding reputation among her peers.  She was respected in her roles as Assistant District Attorney and on the Board of Pardons and Parole, as well.  I honestly don't know of anyone who has anything negative to say about Linda.  I certainly don't.  She's a great person and a great lawyer.

But, in my opinion, Judge Draper is a rock star at her job and is probably destined for an even bigger stage.

My vote:  Genesis Draper

County Court at Law # 16 -- Darrell Jordan (D)(I) vs. Bill Harmon (R)

Those of you who have followed this blog for a decent amount of time are probably aware by now that Judge Darrell Jordan and I are not exactly the best of friends.  I've written about those reasons in the past and he has let me know that he did not appreciate that.  I understand that.  I'm not going to go back over those reasons.  

I did want to bring up those personal issues because I want to give Judge Jordan credit for never once having let them affect how he has treated me or my clients who have appeared before him in his court.   I sincerely appreciate that, because I'm sure that is not always an easy thing to do. 

I would also be remiss if I didn't point out some of the things that I've seen Judge Jordan do that I think are both progressive and helpful from the Bench.  If I'm not mistaken, he was the first judge from the county courts to support the bail reform lawsuit that ultimately led to much-needed changes in stopping people from pleading out on cases simply to get released from custody.  It was a controversial decision but a good one.  He was also one of the first judges to come up with the radical idea of not making Defendants show up for unnecessary court appearances unless there was a substantive matter that needed to be addressed on a case.

These decisions haven't always gone without controversy, but Judge Jordan has not shied away from them.  In his court, the State does not have a "home-field advantage," and as a Judge who took the Bench prior to the 2016 Democratic Sweep, he was often alone in making some of those tough decisions.

There probably could not be a starker contrast to Judge Jordan than former County Court at Law and District Court Judge Bill Harmon.  In his days on the bench, Judge Harmon never failed to be a wildly entertaining storyteller and generally fun person to hang around.  However, he was one of the most pro-State judges to take the bench.  He relished his awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and put them on display even when asked to take them down by defense attorneys during a trial.

The Criminal Justice System has evolved in the 21 years since I've been apart of it.  The days of the State being treated preferentially treated over the Defense have given way to a stronger emphasis on the presumption of innocence.  Judge Harmon is a throwback to how things used to be while Judge Jordan is an example of how things have evolved as they should.

My vote:  Darrell Jordan

Harris County Sheriff -- Ed Gonzalez (D)(I) vs. Joe Danna (R)

Although the actions of the Harris County Sheriff don't really directly affect the Criminal Justice Center, I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment to point out the pretty damn phenomenal job that Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has done during his first term as Sheriff.  

The past four years have been filled with more turbulence than I can think of since I've lived in Houston,  Sheriff Gonzalez started out his term having to deal with Hurricane Harvey and he's been dealing with the COVID crisis all year.  In addition to his normal day to day operations, he's been handed one major problem to deal with after another.  He's done so while avoiding any major scandals or drop in morale in his department.  That's no small accomplishment in an office his size and Sheriff Gonzalez deserves to be commended for it.

I don't know Joe Danna and have nothing negative to say about him, but Sheriff Gonzalez has been a rock star in his own right.  He has navigated the Harris County Sheriff's Office through some very choppy waters with purpose and grace.  I wish him another four years and many more at a job that he is so clearly good at.

My vote:  Ed Gonzalez

So, those are my recommendations for the races directly related to the Harris County Criminal Justice System.  As always, there are some other races that have ties to what we do at 1201 Franklin.  

HCDA-alumni and attorney Akilah Bacy (D) would be a great choice for Texas House District 138.

HCDA-alumni and defense attorney Ann Johnson (D) would be a great choice for State Rep for District 134.

HCDA-alumni David Newell (R) has been doing a great job on the Court of Criminal Appeals and deserves your vote.

My friend Veronica Rivas-Molloy (D) isn't from the Criminal Justice World, but she's been working hard to get input on the issues that affect us all.  I've known Veronica for 20 years and she would make an outstanding Justice for 1st Court of Appeals.

And finally, our old friend and former-Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel (R) (man, I miss him as D.C.) is running for tax assessor.  He's a good man who does a good job with his responsibilities.  I'm glad to see him on the ballot again.

Whether you like all, some, or none of my recommendations, I hope that you will take the time to vote.  As always, I have a lot to say about candidates, but anyone who puts themselves out there to run for office has my respect for the time and effort put into the endeavor.  

The least the rest of us can do is turn out to vote.   

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Mike Hinton

 The world is a little darker tonight due to the passing of legendary defense attorney, former prosecutor, and friend Mike Hinton.

I've looked through all of my photos hoping to find one of me and the first man who gave me a job in the legal profession, and sadly I couldn't find one.  For those of you who knew Mike, it is understandable that I don't have a picture with him because he never sat still long enough for me to take one.

The phrase "to know him was to love him" is often said on the occasion of a person's passing, but I can't think of anyone more worthy of the phrase than Mike Hinton.  Everyone who met him simply loved him.  He didn't really give you much of an option to do otherwise.  He was a short, roly-poly man with an exuberance for simply existing.  He was perpetually happy and happy to see you.  Hugs, cheek kisses, over-the-top greetings followed by sincere conversations punctuated with his staccato exclamations and his deep laughs were Hinton trademarks.

If Mike had been a Star Wars character, he would have been Baby Yoda because literally everyone loved Mike.

But his over-the-top, buoyant personality cleverly hid an extremely formidable trial lawyer who was a very major character in the Harris County Criminal Justice world.  He was Mike "Machine Gun" Hinton to those who knew him in the 70s and 80s when he was the Special Crimes prosecutor under District Attorneys Carol Vance and Johnny Holmes.  The cases he tried were legendary.  The stories of him were legendary as well.

His most famous case from those days was the prosecution of Ronald Clark O'Bryan, the infamous murderer who ruined Halloween by putting cyanide in his own son's Pixy Sticks to collect insurance money.  Years ago, when Todd Dupont and I hosted HCCLA's Reasonable Doubt, Mike agreed to come on the show to talk about the case for our Halloween episode.  As always, he was fascinating and his memory of the case kept us all entranced as he took us back through the horrible case.

When he left the Office, he formed a partnership with the late Johnny Pizzitola and the late Bob Sussman.  That firm would evolve over the years but the reputation it held in all of its forms was always golden.   Through State and Federal Courts across Texas, the names of Mike Hinton and the attorneys he partnered with meant something.  What it usually meant to prosecutors was that they were about to get their butts kicked.

In the summer of 1997, I was between my first and second years of law school when I was introduced to Mike Hinton by a family friend.  Mike immediately gave me a clerkship for that summer, which was a good thing seeing as how I was clueless that a clerkship was something that most law students were supposed to do between their first and second years of schooling.  Mike told me that he'd pay me $15 an hour, which was far and away the most money my happy ass had ever made in my lifetime.  I remember calling my dad to tell him how much I was making and he noted, "Damn, son, I was paying you $8 an hour here at the printing company, and I didn't even think you were worth that!"

I don't think I really had an inkling of what a career in criminal law would be like before that summer.  I was young and just trying to manage law school, which was proving to be enough a challenge as it was. Suddenly, I had this high dollar job courtesy of a man who was legendary in the field.  The firm then was Hinton, Sussman, [Joe] Bailey & [Charley] Davidson, and I spent the majority of the time working with Bob and Joe on a death penalty capital (where I would first be introduced to Kelly Siegler and Vic Wisner).

Although I spent most of the time working for Bob and Joe, the atmosphere at HSB&D was wildly entertaining.  At the center of it was the whirlwind of Mike Hinton.  He buzzed in and out of the office talking ninety miles per hour and it drew everyone out of their offices just to be entertained with whatever stories he had experienced that day.   I could write a book about the short months that I spent there and the funny things that happened -- my favorite remains when Mike bailed out of his new car on Memorial Drive because he didn't know that such new-fangled things as seat heaters existed and he was sure his car was on fire.

But on a more serious note, the lessons I learned from Mike (and every other member of the firm) those short months were ones that I carried with me every day since that summer.  The first and foremost thing that they taught me was that everyone in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center world that we come in and out of every day is family.  From the Judge to the Prosecutor to the Coordinator to the Clerk to the CLO to the peon law clerk just there for the summer  -- all were treated like dear friends.  They stopped and talked to everyone.  Mike knew everyone's name and pretty much all of their families' names.  He walked through there like a man on a mission to converse with as many people as possible as he could.

He was humble and self-effacing.  Nobody thought Mike's zany stories (that often ended at something embarrassing to him) were funnier than Mike, himself.  He was one of those guys who quite frequently couldn't get through a story without laughing because he already knew how it would end.  I've never seen anyone pull off hyperactivity so endearingly.  

Mike had a fierce pride for the time he spent as an Assistant District Attorney for Harris County.  As far as he was concerned, the Office was hallowed ground that produced the finest trial lawyers in the State, Country, and World.  That was a sentiment shared by Bob, Joe, and Charley, as well, and it was instilled in those of us who wanted to someday be prosecutors.  While some former prosecutors who became defense lawyers were quick to condemn the Office once they left or talk of their time there as a necessary evil on the way to becoming true-believing members of the Defense Bar,  that was never the sentiment at Hinton, Sussman, Bailey and Davidson.  Although their time there had passed, they all spoke of it with pride and fondness.

That's something that I carried with me during my time at the Office and the time since I left, and I learned it from Mike Hinton.  He introduced me to the Harris County Criminal Justice System and the people I've come to know and love in the 23 years (and counting) since that summer.

But by far, the most endearing trait of Mike Hinton's was the pride he took in all of those who passed through that office.  From the clerk who became a lawyer to the lawyer who became a judge, he viewed us all as part of his legacy and he never failed to show how happy that made him.  From the regular HSB&D Clerk Reunions at Vincent's and Nino's to him just seeing us in court and grinning from ear to ear as he came to talk to us about a case he had with us.  I remember being a baby prosecutor and him seeing me in court and running up, hugging me, and saying: "Murray, I'm just so g*ddamn proud of you."

There were so many clerks that came through that office under his tutelage.  The vast majority of them had far longer stays at the office than me, but we all share that common bond of having found our starts at Hinton, Sussman, Bailey and Davidson.  The pride that Mike had in us was nothing compared to the pride we had in having started out under his wing.  

Although my time there was short, I will always carry with me the lessons learned from this sweet, dear, crazy crazy man. To be a descendant of Michael John Hinton's courthouse legacy is something that I always have and always will be very proud of.

P.S.  If you have a favorite story (that is printable) about Uncle Mike, please share it in the comments.  There are so many outstanding tales that need to live on.

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 ...