Saturday, February 18, 2023

Lyn McClellan

I have always said that the best thing about working in the Harris County Criminal Justice World is that it provides us the opportunity to walk amongst giants.  Harris County boasts some of the most famous names in the history of Texas Criminal Justice:  Percy Foreman, Racehorse Haynes, Dick DeGuerin, Rusty Hardin, Kelly Siegler, Johnny Holmes, and Dan Cogdell, to name a few.  As impressive as all of those names are and the large volume of famous cases associated with them all, the name and face that I always though of when I spoke of giants was retired Harris County District Attorney's Office Bureau Chief Lyn McClellan.

Lyn passed away this morning after a lengthy illness.

Lyn was a career prosecutor who had been at the Harris County District Attorney's Office for at least twenty or twenty-five years before I started there in 1999.  He retired in November 2008, shortly before I headed out the door.  I wrote this post about him back on the occasion of his retirement.

He was an understated but fierce trial lawyer who had handled some of Harris County's most famous cases.  He became the head of the Misdemeanor Division shortly after I started at the Office, which gave the baby prosecutors of my day the amazing opportunity to learn from a true legend of the game.  It was the legal equivalent of finding out Tom Brady is coaching your high school football team.

Lyn exemplified the ideal of leading from the front as he supervised fifteen county courts with three prosecutors each -- none of whom had more than two or three years of prosecutorial experience.  He raised a generation of us, and he held our love and loyalty throughout our careers.  He was sarcastic and funny without ever being anything that approached unkind.  He would offer advice, and if you asked him, off the cuff, to sit with you in trial, he would do it in a heartbeat.

He never bragged about his trial exploits, and if asked for a war story, he would usually tell a funny backstory to a case that had nothing to do with his trial skills.  He wasn't afraid of getting in trouble if it was for the right reason and he never criticized the prosecutors who made mistakes.  He turned all mistakes into teachable moments and he did so with a sense of humor.  If you were a baby prosecutor who screwed something up, he worked you through it so it didn't happen again.  He was the kind of boss that when you had something that you had reached your limit with, you felt no qualms about taking it to him.  You knew he wasn't going to make you feel dumb or bad for not being able to handle it yourself.

I remember being a Misdemeanor Chief in Court Five around 2001 when my Three brought me a criminal mischief case where a kid had thrown a rock at a car as it drove down the street.   The lady driving the car wanted charges upgraded to (I kid you not) Attempted Murder, and she was going on a verbal rampage toward anyone who would listen.  I tried reasoning with her and was getting nowhere.  When she demanded to speak with my supervisor, I was more than happy to pass it to Lyn.  Without ever losing his temper, he took the lady through what a trial would look like when she took the stand and tried to convince the jury that a rock-throwing teenager had murderous intentions.  

Lyn's catchphrase was loudly challenging someone to combat his logic by leading off with "I DEFY YOU TO SHOW ME . . . " and he used that phrase on me more times than I can count.  I loved arguing and messing with Lyn.  He took it all in stride and enjoyed the banter.  

Around this same time, a large group of my peers were selected to go to Career Prosecutor School in South Carolina if they agreed to extend their commitment at the Office.  Somehow, I didn't get an invite, so I asked Lyn why I had been excluded.  He replied: "We're trying to get all those people to stay longer by sending them.  We know we couldn't get rid of you if we tried."

Lyn saying thanks to me for letting him use the phone in my office.

Lyn was a leader who loved moving amongst his troops.  When I was a younger prosecutor, my group all participated in Steak Night every Wednesday night at Little Woodrow's on West Alabama.  We always invited Lyn to join us to which he would reply, "I'll show up when you start having it north of 1960."  He didn't drink, but would always come to lunch with us young ones just to hang out and talk.  He was our boss, but he was also so very much one of us.  We adored him and we admired him.

In 2000, as notorious serial killer Rafael Resendez-Ramirez (the Railcar Killer) went to trial, Lyn joined future District Attorney Devon Anderson and District Attorney Johnny Holmes (in his last trial as a prosecutor).  His job was to attack the insanity defense, and pretty much the entire Misdemeanor Division attended to watch and learn.  Lyn put on a clinic and taught us all how to handle those cases and handle voir dire on what can be an extremely tricky issue.  He was an outstanding trial lawyer.

Even after we graduated into the ranks of Felony Prosecutors and he left Misdemeanor to be the Felony Trial Bureau Chief, we all still sought Lyn's advice -- and he was always there to give it.  He was someone we would follow into battle and he was always someone who was there to help us through any battles that we were facing -- both personal and professional.

I'm happy to say that Lyn and I stayed in touch after he retired from the Office and I became a defense attorney.  I would run into him from time to time in the misdemeanor courts.  He did a little bit of defense work but only on low-level offenses where no one got hurt.  His heart always belonged to the victims of violent crimes, so I wasn't surprised to see him avoid defending felony cases.  He was also a deeply religious man who worked in prison ministries.  Although he was a prosecutor to his core, he believed in redemption.

He would occasionally come to lunch with us until his health began to fail him.  Whenever we could get him to come south of 1960, there were plenty of his former prosecutors who would come to see him.  We would talk about the old days and laugh until we turned red.  It was a nice reminder that even when you leave the house you grew up in, you are still family.

When I talk to today's current prosecutors about what the Office used to be like, they often express some level of disbelief that it was once a fantastic place to work.  They have a hard time comprehending what having an inspiring leader who backed you up and taught you at the same time would be like.  Sadly, most of them never heard of Lyn McClellan.

That's a shame, but it isn't surprising.  Lyn never sought the limelight or attention.  He just did his job and led from within.  In so many ways, he was the heart and soul of the Office.  He shaped a generation of Harris County prosecutors and we wouldn't be who we are today without him.

I'm proud to have worked for Lyn McClellan and proud to call him my friend.   He was a Giant amongst Giants in one of the most famous places in all of the Criminal Justice World.

And he was one of the best people I ever knew.


Anonymous said...

Lynn was very fond of his finger, and showed it frequently.

Angela Parrish said...

Awesome read and so very true. He was one of the best! I’m grateful for the years I had the privilege to work with him.

dudleysharp said...

A wonderful person.

A great read, Murray.

Unknown said...

Very well written Article about a very good man who will be truly missed when I started off as a baby prosecutor in 1993 he was pretty intimidating as Misdemeanor Bureau chief but as I matured a little and got to know Lyn better I was dressed to learn how lucky I was to be learning under the man. Goodbye Lyn. You will be missed

Anonymous said...

What a great piece. Wish I'd had the opportunity to have met Lyn. Thank you for this little splice of life about him, Murray. And the photo, with his lovely finger waving at you? It's precisely how my office desk looks. I guess those with great minds, must know exactly where they've left stuff. ;) God rest his soul. Go in peace, Lyn. Sounds like you were one of the great ones!

The Contested Primaries 2024

In addition to the extremely heated battle for Harris County District Attorney, there are only a handful of other races within the Criminal ...