Monday, October 30, 2023

Observations from Jury Duty

 I had jury duty for the first time in a couple of years today.  In the 33 years since I've been eligible to be a juror, I had only sat through three voir dires before today.  I never made the jury on any of them.  The first was a criminal case in Brazos County when I was at A&M.  The second was a criminal case in Harris County shortly after I left the D.A.'s Office where my friend and former co-worker Wendy Baker utilized a State Strike on me because she thought I was too good of friends with Defense Counsel Mark Bennett -- as I pointed out to her later, I never drove Mark to the hospital when he was in labor, but whatever, Wendy!  The third was a civil trial.

Since I had a jury summons for a Monday morning, I was pretty sure that I would at least be called to a panel today.  And I was right.

And truth be told, it was all pretty painless.

Thanks to my frequent visitor badge, I got to skip the metal detectors and got logged in on the computer and sent to my assembly room.  We watched a short video where District Clerk Marilyn Burgess spent about five minutes talking about how she had helped secure more money for jurors for their service and ways to use the gift card that we would be receiving the money.  About fifteen minutes later, Deputy Momin came and collected 65 of us for voir dire in the 180th District Court, Judge DaSean Jones presiding.

So, my first observation is a big shoutout to the 180th Court and its staff for being incredibly efficient.  We were seated and in the courtroom by 9:30 (if not earlier).  Standing around in the hallway is boring and we didn't do it for very long.  Deputy Momin got us there quickly, got us lined up, and got us in our seats efficiently.  There was a brief moment of entertainment when a female defendant (who may or may not have been on meth) in the hallway started yelling at jurors to get out of her way.  This got Deputy Momin's attention, and he chastised her for talking to his jury like that.  The bailiffs are the Court's first ambassadors that the jurors meet and the 180th has a great one.

Different judges do voir dire differently and for varying lengths of time.  Former 351st District Court Judge Mark Kent Ellis used to famously talk for four or five hours for his portion alone.  Some judges I've seen over the years didn't talk at all.  Judge Jones' voir dire was short and to the point.  He and I've known each other for about fifteen years and he called on me to answer some of the basic questions.  He covered some of the major themes that needed to be covered, but he didn't talk for long at all.

Each side was given thirty minutes to ask questions on an Assault-Family Violence Impeding Breathing case.  That's not just a ton of time to talk on a type of case that can potentially have some pretty deep issues.  The State was represented by the Felony Three assigned to the Court and his Chief sat with him.  The time allotted to him wasn't enough for him to get too fancy and he did a fine job of covering the basics.  He spent the majority of his time gauging the attitudes of the panel towards State involvement in matters of family violence.  He had a couple of scaled questions that were good ideas, but I think he spent too much of his limited time following up with their numerical answers without getting anyone struck for Cause.  He also made a point of going over "the State doesn't have to prove motive" which I've been seeing coming from several prosecutors lately.  I don't think that's really necessary.  His presence was good though, and I'm sure those lessons will be learned in time.

Defense Attorney Brennen Dunn was representing the Defendant in the case, and he was great.  I don't know him except in passing but he is well-known as an attorney who isn't afraid to go to trial, and it showed.  He was clearly ready to get through his points in a short amount of time and he did it very well.  Any defense attorney will tell you that we freely steal ideas from one another, and I'll definitely be stealing some things from Brennan -- particularly on how he covered the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof, and the 5th Amendment.  He got plenty of strikes for Cause.  I was a little surprised at some of his questions on self-defense, but all in all, he had an outstanding presence in front of the jury and did a great job.

After both sides were done, we went out in the hallway for about fifteen minutes.  When we came back in, both sides spent about five minutes wrapping up making their peremptory strikes, and they seated a jury.  I was juror number 49, so I didn't get reached.  I was out of there right around noon.  It couldn't have gone any smoother.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Feast of Fashion Returns

 After an absence of several years due to the Pandemic, Pat Kelley and Julie Jones' Feast of Fashion is returning this year.

It's been a minute since the last, but they are always a ton of fun and raise money for several great causes.  For ticket information, contact Julie at 713-248-6864.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Skip Cornelius

Legendary Defense Attorney and former Prosecutor Skip Cornelius passed away yesterday.  To say that his passing has resonated across the entirety of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center Family is an understatement.  From his fellow members of the Defense Bar to the Prosecutors who handled cases against him to pretty much all of the Judges he practiced before, Skip was the Gold Standard of what it meant to be a lawyer practicing indigent defense.   If you've been a reader of this blog over the years, you'll have seen his name brought up many times as I cited him as the best Harris County had to offer.  

It seems that the only thing that really motivates me to write something on the blog these days is when I feel the need to say goodbye to someone who I consider to be an influential force in my legal career. Lately 'm having to do that far more than I wish.  There have been other recent passings that I feel remiss for not having written about here, including Skip's brother, Terry Cornelius, who passed away earlier this year, and retired Judge Don Stricklin, who was the man in 1999 who called and offered me a job as a prosecutor.  Between lawyering and parenting, there have been things I've wanted to sit down and write about over the past months but just haven't had the opportunity.

With Skip's passing, however, I have so much I want to say that I just couldn't . . . not, I guess.  

There were so many eras of my legal career where I dealt with him, learned from him, and tried to imitate him -- starting when I was a new Felony Three who had hastily written a very low offer on a case file (back when we had paper case files) on one of his clients.  He looked at the offer and frowned slightly before handing me the file.

"I appreciate the offer.  I do," he said.  "But it would probably get you fired."  He pointed out that I had neglected to pay attention to his client's criminal history which made his punishment range 25 years to Life -- far higher than the 2-year offer I had extended.  But I had extended the offer, and after explaining my mistake to my chief, we honored it.

So, one of the first things that Skip taught me was in an adversarial system, there was still very much a calling for honor and chivalry in how we deal with each other.  He very easily could have called in the doctrine of No Take Backs and gotten me in trouble for my mistake to the benefit of his client.  In some defense attorney circles, one might argue that he made the wrong call.  I disagree with that argument wholeheartedly.  Skip's demonstration of honor put the onus on me to respond in kind.  It also made me want to follow his example in my future dealings with him and all opposing counsel in the future.

Skip's chivalry didn't always translate into patience with a young prosecutor, however, and I'm sure that I was just one of a multitude of young prosecutors who could annoy him.  I saw him mad on occasion, but more often it was his annoyance that tended to resonate with me.  I always felt if I was annoying Skip, I was definitely doing something wrong.  We once had a case together where a charge had been filed against his client but several other charges hadn't.  As we were getting closer to trial, I had gone ahead and filed those additional charges in anticipation of trial.  

We approached the bench for a pre-trial conference and Skip was clearly exasperated with me for reasons I didn't completely grasp initially.  The judge asked us what the status of the case was.

"Well," Skip said.  "We probably could have worked it out today if the State hadn't filed the C.S. Charges."

"What are C.S. charges?" I asked, very confused.

"Chickenshit charges," he replied, shaking his head.  We ultimately worked his case out on the original charge and dismissed all of those extraneous C.S. charges.

Skip was a highly respected and skilled trial lawyer who handled a multitude of serious cases, including many Death Penalty Capitals.  Because of his experience in trial, he was highly sought-after to be a speaker at Continuing Legal Education classes on Capital Murder cases.  I loved attending lectures where Skip was talking, because he always got straight to the point in a way that so many other lecturers failed to do.

While other lecturers at a Capital Murder seminar have an annoying tendency to wax overly poetic as they pontificate -- 

As we realize that we hold a precious life in our hands in these dastardly cases and everything is riding on us, we must first take a moment to step outside of our limited world view and embrace the situations that our clients have existed in that led them to this horrible and tragic circumstance for so many.

 -- Skip would take to the stage and say things like "The first thing you need to do is make sure there are no damn engineers on your jury."  With no offense towards the many esteemed lecturers on Capital Murder that I've listened to over the years, Skip was king of giving me information that I could put into practice.

My favorite Skip story came from the one trial I ever had against him.  It was an Aggravated Robbery case where a trio of Defendants had robbed a young lady in her apartment complex parking lot.  They had stolen her purse with credit cards and her cell phone and then immediately headed to a local tattoo parlor for some extravagant skin artwork on the young lady's dime.  Cameras on cell phones were still a relative novelty in those days, and the trio used her phone to take pictures of their tatts.   We had recovered the pictures from the phone, but in the one with what appeared to be Skip's client (based on clothing worn at the time of his arrest a short time later), his face wasn't clearly visible.  The case was a whale for me and Skip was fighting an extremely uphill battle.

But it is a truism that in any trial, there will be something that a prosecutor has forgotten to do, and in this case, I had forgotten to get a court order to have Skip's client's tattoos photographed before trial.  Realizing this mistake mid-trial, I approached Skip on a break during testimony.  He was working on the case in the break, taking notes while staring at something intently at the offense report.

"Hey," I said, "I need a favor."

"Oh yeah?" he asked, without looking up or stopping writing his notes.

"So, I should have gotten an order to have your guy's arm tatts photographed before trial and I didn't."

He paused writing but continued reading with a smirk starting to show up on his face.

"So you want to know if the tattoo is there?" he asked.

"Well, yeah," I said, starting to feel my face turned red.  "I was going to have the Court order him to show his arm to the jury.  I mean, if it isn't there you can obviously point it out and get some mileage out of that."

Skip set down his pen and scooted back from the table, folding his arms and looking at me like he was playing with his food.  He didn't say a word. 

So I continued

"I mean, all it would do is just make me look like a big dumb ass in front of the jury if it isn't there.  If it's not there, you can obviously show that to them without making me look like an idiot."

He smiled.

"Do you think it's there?" he asked.

I paused and thought about it for a second.

"Um, yes?"

He shook his head and rolled his eyes.

"Of course it's fucking there," he said and went back to taking his notes.

To be clear, he wasn't giving up anything that would have benefited his client.  He just saved a young-ish prosecutor from a potentially humiliating experience in front of the jury that would have haunted me for life.

Skip once told me that he didn't take retained cases because he had no desire to deal with the "bullshit" that came along with keeping the customer happy.  He preferred appointed work because he knew he was doing an outstanding job for all of his clients.  He didn't feel the need to explain himself unnecessarily to those who were high-maintenance.  There is no telling how many miracles Skip pulled off for clients who never had a clue as to how lucky they were to have him as their lawyer.

He was so good at everything he did and he was so good in trial.  As news of his passing spread, former prosecutors shared stories of their whale cases against Skip where he somehow kept the juries out for hours and hours.  His name rarely made the news but he was most definitely the lawyer that all of the other lawyers knew and respected.  He was a subtle, but commanding presence in the courtroom.  He was serious but also had an outstanding dry sense of humor.  He was confident and steady in all of his cases and there wasn't a prosecutor born that rattled him.  

He was a respected, dignified, and talented attorney who will be greatly missed.

He was what all of us should aspire to be in this profession.

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 ...