Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book review: Of Madams and Sneaky Russians

When I began this blog, I made a point of reviewing books that I liked and had a few interviews with authors, too. I'd like to get back to what I called Thriller Thursday, and I want to start with a book I read over Christmas.

Now, it's no surprise that I like mystery and thriller novels, and I have a very soft spot for historical suspense (Eric Ambler and Alan Furst are particular favorites).

Well, in that vein I found a new author: Carol Carr, and her first novel is called INDIA BLACK. *

Her book has only just been released and is billed as "A Madam Of Espionage Mystery." You may have no idea what the means, but I suggest you buy a copy and find out.

The main character, India Black, runs a brothel in London. So right there, you have a reason to read because you know something interesting is going to happen.

The plot revolves around her being coerced by the Prime Minister and his people to help in retrieving some documents stolen from a customer of hers, while he was visiting her establishment. Bring on the adorably disgusting street urchin, the knife-wielding Cossacks, and an ice-cold and ruthless servant of the government whom India can't quite figure out. And isn't sure she wants to.

I really think this is one of the most original concepts I've come across in a long time, and Ms. Carr pulls it off (pun intended) with ease and style. Just now, I sat looking through the book for examples of her use of language, but singling one out does a disservice to the rest. You can take my word for it that the lady knows how to write, and India Black's narration is priceless: world-wary (and weary), sarcastic, and self-deprecating, but with a strong thread of moral propriety and loyalty (that she does her best to hide). Her other characters are also wonderfully alive, though don't get too attached to all of them, many are not who they appear to be. Except the very nasty ones.

Ms. Carr has also done an incredible job of weaving history (not the yawn-inducing, school-room stuff) into the book, making the names you might recognize (like Disraeli and Gladstone) come alive. Hilariously alive, actually.

So, bottom line, if you enjoy historical caper/mystery novels, I highly recommend INDIA BLACK by Carol Carr. I liked it so much I've asked her to do an interview for the blog, and I'll be posting that in the next few days.

* [Note: do NOT judge this book by its cover. I can see what they were going for, but in my opinion it is too romancy. This book is not that.]

Saturday, December 25, 2010

I crept through the night...

I did it.

I crossed to the other side.

I lurked in the dark, an eye on my watch, biding my time, waiting until it was safe. It was not quite the middle of the night, but I knew they were asleep and would never catch me. No, I've learned a lot from being a prosecutor, I know the mistakes people make.

Ain't gonna happen to me.

I went in solo first, my accomplice waiting in the shadows. I needed her to carry the stuff, but I went in first to make sure we'd get away with it.

The first victim, sucker, whatever you want to call him. I was hesitant, I'm a big guy and I wasn't sure which floorboards might creek. My usually confident tread was hesitant, I am not ashamed to say that, yes, I tip-toed. A little. But I made it in, checked it was safe and gave the signal, the all-clear. We were in and out in seconds. Perfect.

The second mark was easier, I was more confident. I strolled in, sticking to the walls, the dark spots, sure, but no tip-toeing this time. Easy. Job done.

I just about danced out of there, pirouetted next door to case the third and final "target."

That was as easy as the first two, and when it was done I felt the elation that comes with getting away with something, a kid who eats the last cookie in the jar and waltzes out to play, free and clear. But my accomplice and I, we played it cool. Conspiratorial glances, playful smiles. We knew what we'd done.

It won't last forever, though, sooner or later we'll be caught. Happens to everyone, you stay in the game long enough.

But seeing their faces this morning, it's worth every creak and jitter. I'll stay in the game as long as I can. As long as they believe I'm Santa.

One more year at least.

Or so I hope.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas all!

As you will have noticed, I'm taking this week off. I'm spending it writing, reading, and getting ready for that special day with my kids. So, until next week, my friends. In the meantime, I wish you a very . . .


(And for those of you who still believe in Santa Claus, as we do in my household, be sure to check out the Norad Santa Tracker, just so you can keep tabs on his progress on Christmas Eve.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

The interesting bits

I haven't done a news round-up in a while, but I've seen some interesting bits and pieces around the globe that I wanted to share.

First, the man who got me interested in murder, criminals, and serial killers: Charlie Manson. Serving life in California, he now has to serve second sentence when he's done with the first: 30 days. His crime? Possession of a cell phone. Yes, even Charlie Manson has one these days.

Fed up with your tax money recycling inmates in and out of prison? Well, even the lock-'em-up conservatives are rethinking their approach, wanting to move from from "Tough on Crime" to "Right on Crime." Seems like it's worth a look.

And back to California, a sad story. The Los Angeles Police department has released scores of photos seized from the man charged in ten killings in a move designed to determine if there may be more victims of the man dubbed the “Grim Sleeper”. Police hope the photo display will lead to tips from the public. No comment from me, I just look forward to the day this gentleman has his hide nailed to a wall.

Talking of high numbers, this fellow has been arrested 127 times and (unsurprisingly) is mad at APD. Not our own, fine APD, but Albuquerque Police Department. Sounds like he is being picked on, or set up: his last arrest was when the cops found meth on him. He said the meth was not his, and he doesn’t know where it came from. I hate it when that happens.

Now, I'm not known for telling people how to get away with crime. But here's an exception: if you want to be an animal abuser, get the hell out of Texas! That's right, in a study of which state has the worst/fewest laws protecting beasts, Texas is nowhere near the bottom. Read the article to find out which state is the worst, but here's a clue: the fried chicken probably agrees.

"Honesty" is, or was, a wire-mesh sculpture by John Ilg in which 316 rolled-up dollar bills were stuffed into the mesh to spell out the word "Honesty." Surprise, surprise, it got stolen.

And, finally, from my own little island back east (waaaay east) we have a jumper (from a building, not a sweater), some clever cops, and a bouncy castle.

My last day at work until Christmas, I'll let you know if anything interesting happens. This time last Friday, my murder case from a few months ago took a bit of a hammering. Hopefully today won't be like last Friday....

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cold case solved

Not by me, of course, but by our fabulous cold case unit. Here's the story.


"For 32 years, [Hazel] Ivy's death has remained a mystery and her killer believed to be at large, but DNA technology has helped single out a man as her killer, according to an arrest affidavit filed Tuesday.

Police have charged 58-year-old Lester Ray Guy with capital murder. He has been in prison since a 1979 Travis County conviction for burglary with intent to commit rape. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison, according to open records."

I hope it's not too late to bring some sense of closure to the family. Either way, well done Sgt. Ron Lara and the Austin P.D.'s Cold Case Unit.

A touch of irony, actually -- my own cold case is set in court this morning, and one of the things we may settle on is a firm trial date. I'll let you know.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Non-cooperative victims/witnesses - what's an ADA to do?

[See below for information about this poll --------------------->]

A reader wonders how we deal with non-cooperative victims and witnesses.

Victims first. This depends on the case. The problem with a non-cooperative victim is that one's case can dissolve pretty fast. This is simply because a victim is usually the key witness in the case - if they suddenly change their testimony then their credibility goes away, and reasonable doubt creeps in. It's hard to win a trial with a genuinely uncooperative victim, but then again, as we make plain: we try to do the right thing in each case, and if that means prosecuting a case despite an uncooperative victim, we'll do so.

Witnesses next. Let me tell you a story:

I had a prostitution case a couple of years ago. The defendant had been previously convicted nine or ten times of that crime, which is why it was a felony (normally, up until your fourth, it's a misdemeanor). The defendant was a very convincing transvestite (this is relevant to the story, I promise).

Now, my main witness was his "john," who I shall refer to herein as "John." According to the offense report, which included a statement from John, he'd realized just at the beginning of the encounter (in his work van) that she was in fact a he, but said to go ahead (pun intended) anyway. Then the police knocked on the van door and the gig was up.

Anyway, I needed John to testify. But when I reached him on the telephone, well, this is how the conversation went:

"John, I need you to testify in this jury trial."
"I can't."
"You can, actually. And you must."
"Will other people be there? The public?"
"Some other people. I don't know how many members of the public though."
"I can't."
"Look, I know this is embarrassing for you, but I'll make you my first witness, get you in and out of there [pun intended] as quickly as possible."
"The thing is, I'm married."
"And I have kids. Six of them."
"I see. But I still need you to testify. Be down at the courthouse at nine on Tuesday, okay?"
"What if I refuse?"
"Then I'll send an investigator to your house with a subpoena. To your house, John."
"Tell me again, what time do you want me there?"

Now, usually, I prefer the carrot over the stick. An unhappy witness doesn't get happier by being threatened or bullied, and that's not my style anyway.

Typically, I've found that the more I explain the process, the more cooperative witnesses become. The best tack, for me, is simply to say something like: "All I want you to do is come in and tell the truth, to tell the jury what happened. That way, there's nothing to worry about. You can't be caught in a lie, you can't get beaten up by defense counsel, and you don't have to worry about telling the right story. Telling the truth will make testifying brief and relatively pain free."

And it's true. In a recent trial the victim was terrified of testifying, but I told her to look at me or the jury, to just concentrate on relating what happened. Afterward, she admitted it had all been much easier than she'd feared.

Sometimes, amazingly, witnesses don't take my words as gospel. Can you believe that?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

To tattoo, or not to tattoo - you are the judge.

Time to get your input on something, a news article about a trial in Florida. Here are the essential details:

NYT -- A Florida judge has agreed to pay a cosmetologist $125 a day to hide a defendant’s facial tattoos because they would be “prejudicial” in his trial. John Ditullio sports a large swastika tattoo on his neck and a crude insult on the other side—among other tattoos on his face and neck. Upon the motion of his defense attorney, the judge ordered the tattoos covered with make-up in order to preserve Ditullio’s right to a fair trial. Ditullio is charged in a double stabbing that injured one and killed another. He acquired at least some of the tattoos since his arrest for the 2006 incident. [See here for full story.]

So, I have instituted a poll and would love to know what you think. If you were the judge, would you have granted the defense request for a make-up artist, or would you have denied the request? Feel free to post (respectful) comments justifying your ruling.

Some things to consider, perhaps:

1. Potential jurors would, most likely, form some negative opinion about the defendant because of the tattoos. (In my last trial a panel member asked to be excused because he said he'd made up his mind from the defendant's appearance. He was struck by agreement of both parties.)

2. In voir dire, both sets of lawyers (and the judge) would get a chance to test those negative opinions, and ask potential jurors if they could set them aside and judge the case on the evidence alone.

3. From the last line of the story, it looks like he got some tattoos while knowing he was going to trial - has he thereby waived an objection to the prejudicial nature of his tattoos?

4. $125 for some make up? Seriously? That's a crime, right there. . . !

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My kryptonite revealed!

A defense lawyer from Virginia, one I used to admire and respect, has launched a vile, personal, and utterly accurate attack on me on his blog.

Jamison Koehler writes:

"every prosecutor has a weakness, something you can turn to your advantage in court, and I think I have discovered Pryor’s: He hates it when you fail to distinguish among the British accents. I’m sure I could find a way to work into my opening statement the fact that I really see no difference between an English accent or a Scottish accent or an Australian one."

He rightly predicts that such a devilish blow would rattle me. We are all proud of our heritage, and as an Englishman I'm proud of the many lands we conquered and subjected to endless cups of tea, stamps bearing the Queen's head, spotted dick (it's a type of pudding, people), and cricket.

But I encounter this a lot in Austin, and I have some standard responses for when people tilt their heads and say, "That accent. It's from _____, right?"

Usually wrong.

And here's what I tell people when they guess I'm from...:

New Zealand: "No, England, which is similar but we have more people and fewer sheep."

South Africa: "No, England, which is similar but we have fewer sharks, shanties, and less sun."

Scotland: "No, England."

Wales: No one ever says this.

Ireland: "Would you guess Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland?"
This stumps them because (a) many don't know the two countries have very different accents, and (b) even if they do, they couldn't say which is which.
I let them off the hook by saying, "No, the country to the east."
Which is when they say, "Scotland?" (Consult map to see why this is funny.)

Australia: Here's how that conversation goes:
"That accent. It's from Australia, right?"
"Heavens no. England."
"Oh, sorry."
"Don't be sorry, just don't do it again."
"Well, how do I tell the difference?"
"You can't, you're American. Look, if you have to guess, always guess English because if you accuse an Englishman of being from Australia, it's very insulting."
"But what if I accuse an Australian of being an Englishman? Isn't that insulting?"
"Yes. Very. But who cares?"

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seriously? Already?

Every time we reset a case in court we write the new date on the front of the file. And, like I'll be doing with my check book for about three months, I keep writing 2010 when I mean 2011.

That's because I can't believe it's about to be 2011.

It helped this weekend when I put up the Xmas tree and strung lights over the big tree in my front yard. That gets me in the spirit. Today's cold front helped, too.

Now, because it's the end of the year, people will be making lists. Lists for Santa and lists of their top ten for 2010, as well as lists tallying up the things they have achieved.

And because I hate to come in last, I thought I'd start listing and tallying a few weeks before everyone else. So here are a few random bits and pieces from 2010.

  • Number of jury trials first-chaired: 3
  • Percentage won: 66.66666666666666
  • Number of jury trials second-chaired: 1
  • Percentage won: 0.0000000000000
  • Number of murder cases assigned: 4
  • Number of murder cases resolved: 1 (guilty verdict)
  • Finest moment: being asked, in front of the jury, by an unashamed crack user/prostitute: "Why aren't you wearing underwear?"
  • Number of defendants who had me wondering about my personal safety: 1*
  • Number of defendants who thanked me after their plea deal: 7
  • Number of "Thank You" cards received from victims: 1*
Number of humongously strong defendants who, while in custody awaiting trial, kicked open a locked, steel, jail door: 1 *

* Same case.

  • Visits to my blog since January 1, 2010: 29,359
  • Number of visitors from Iran: 1
  • Number of visitors from Mongolia: 3
  • Number of visitors from the Philippines: 26
  • Number of visitors from Israel: 89
  • Number of visitors from USA: 27,995
  • Number of posts my boss has told me to pull or chastised me for: 0
  • Prosecutor who appears most in keyword searches: Chris Baugh
  • Prosecutor who's most surprised it's not him: Me

Anything you'd like to know about along these lines?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Can I kiss your baby?

Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm the shy, retiring sort. Not one for making speeches or blowing my own trumpet. Never been known for tooting my own horn. No, not me.

But I wouldn't be offended if a couple of you popped over to the ABA Journal's website and threw a vote my way.

See, I've been selected as one of the Journal's top 100 blogs (they call them "blawgs" because they are law-related, but for some reason that word looks stupid and annoys me). Here's the badge to prove it:

Just click on the badge. Go on, I dare you. You may have to log in, but it's very easy and I'd be ever so grateful. (Not because I want to win, but because I'm running last as of this post. That's just embarrassing!)

Thank you.

P.S. If I come anywhere but last, I promise to post a video of my judge having his back scratched. You'll have to vote to find out whether I'm talking literally or figuratively. . .

Monday, November 29, 2010

Jury trials this week

After the busy few weeks, just two jury trials in the district courts this week:


Defendant: Cedric Smith
Offense: Possession of a controlled substance
Prosecutors: Chris Baugh and Allison Wetzel
Defense attorney : Mark Sampson


Defendant: Adrian Perez
Offense: Aggravated sexual assault of a child
Prosecutors: Yvonne Patten and Joe Frederick
Defense attorney: Kent Anschutz

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Prosecuting in domestic violence cases

A reader asked the following question (and I paraphrase a little):

In a domestic violence case why can't the victim be charged if she was really the assailant?

Well, the quick answer is "she can be."

It's kind of the long answer, too.

The issue is at the investigation level, so this may be a better question for the cops. Essentially, in a domestic violence (DV) scenario they will do their best to figure out who the assailant is and charge the right person. I think you might be thinking either that the man always gets charged, or whoever calls the cops first gets the other person charged. Those two things are usually what we see, but only because that's what (in my experience) happens.

Sometimes, though, investigation shows that the person who called 911 is the assailant and, one hopes, the investigators can figure that out pretty quickly (by looking at injuries, talking to witnesses, etc.).

Perhaps not a very satisfying answer so let me know if I can elaborate further.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bond . . . (but not James)

Interesting article by Steven Kreytak of the Statesman on the issue of those accused of crimes bonding out of jail.

A companion article here.

Be sure to read the comments, plenty of opinions shared.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Done . . . for now.

Just to close off the circle, for those interested:


Defendant: Tony Brewer
Offense: Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (two counts)
Prosecutors: Mark Pryor and Kelsey McKay
Defense attorney: Bill Browning
Verdict: Jury found defendant guilty and the judge assessed punishment at 35 years in prison.

The victim was very pleased that this is now all over for her. As are the State's attorneys, to be honest. :)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Trial result today

The jury in my trial returned a verdict of guilty this afternoon, on both counts. The essentials:


Defendant: Tony Brewer
Offense: Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (two counts)
Prosecutors: Mark Pryor and Kelsey McKay
Defense attorney: Bill Browning

I wanted to say congrats to my co-counsel, Kelsey, for her fine mix of diligence (super prepared, as ever) and flair. Also to defense counsel Bill Browning, who was professional and did a great job, especially considering the facts of the case. (The jury was also very complimentary of Bill's work.)

And finally, our thanks to the jury. Talking to them afterwards was fascinating, as it always is. I was very impressed with the close attention they'd paid to the evidence, to making sure they held us to the very high standard of proof. You might be surprised to hear me say this, but as a prosecutor it's actually quite reassuring. I was grateful, too, for the pointers on how we could make things better in future cases and I'm glad it was a positive experience for them all.

So, a tiring week and a just little more to go: tomorrow morning we have the punishment phase, the hearing starts at 9 A.M. and will be over well before lunch.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Trial this week

Well, we the chimney got cleaned today, so hopefully no more incidents like we had over the weekend.

And I'll be looking forward to feet up by the fire tonight because I'm back in trial this week:


Defendant: Tony Brewer
Offense: Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (two counts)
Prosecutors: Mark Pryor and Kelsey McKay
Defense attorney: Bill Browning

Also up and running in the courthouse:


Defendant: Frank Rodriguez
Offense: Failure to stop and render aid
Prosecutors: Craig Moore and Jim Young
Defense attorney: Nick Duncan


Defendant: Samuel Shaw
Offense: Aggravated sexual assault of a child / Indecency with child
Prosecutors: Yvonne Patten and Leslie Booker
Defense attorney: Craig Sandling


Defendant: Tom Delay
Offense: Criminal conspiracy / Money laundering
Prosecutors: Gary Cobb, Beverly Matthews, Holly Taylor, and Steve Brand
Defense attorney: Dick Deguerin


Defendant: Martha Hernandez
Offense: Murder
Prosecutors: Amy Meredith and John Hunt
Defense attorney: Alex Calhoun

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Clean your chimney!

That is, if you're planning to use it this winter. We had a half-cord of firewood delivered yesterday and with the first cold threads of winter drifting over Austin we decided to celebrate with a nice fire.

Ten minutes later, a stranger knocked on the door. "Your chimney is on fire." Flames were coming out the top, he said, and it looked like a jet engine up there.



"We'll take the fire option, please."

Can't have been five minutes and three engines arrived in the cul-de-sac, lights and sirens, men in masks and heavy-duty gear.
"You ordered strippers?" I asked my wife. "They're here."

They were calm, these boys, checked the house inside and out, got on the roof and took the top off the chimney to make sure it wasn't a bird's nest on fire. It wasn't, just a build up of creosote because my wife had been too lazy to order in a chimney sweep. Shocking, I know.

On the plus side, the firemen found Santa's left boot. He'll be glad to get that back.

But seriously, thanks to those guys for being so fast, so thorough, and so friendly. Also for the reminder to check our smoke alarms (which I did. They all worked.).

And the kids, as you can imagine, loved all the action.

So, if you have a chimney, and plan to use it, I strongly suggest you avoid the jet-engine effect by calling your local chimney sweep. It'll help the economy and Santa will thank you.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Discovery before trial

I've mentioned this issue before, in passing, that as prosecutors we have a duty to share a lot of information with defense counsel before trial (a process called "discovery"). That mention was here, when I was checking off my pre-trial tasks.

But a defense lawyer in Virginia just posted about the same issue, saying how state's-oriented the system is there. And reading his blog entry I was very surprised because here we do things very differently.

Check his post out here and then read on.

We have what we call an open-file policy, which isn't 100 percent true but almost is. I'll list out the major pieces of information and show how (or if) we provide these to the defense. Also, bear in mind that unlike Jamison's jurisdiction, we provide this info well before trial: weeks usually, and in some cases months before:

Police report -- defense counsel fills out a form and we provide a complete copy of the offense report (we do redact out sensitive information). Usually the first thing they ask for and get.

Defendant's statement -- any written or recorded statement is usually the second thing defense counsel asks for, and gets.

Videos -- this would be in-car videos, or store surveillance tapes. I have my investigator make a copy and provide it to defense counsel. Some ADAs don't like to give out copies, instead making the tapes available for viewing at our offices.

Criminal histories -- my investigator will run the CH of the defendant and I'll provide a copy to the defense. Same goes for copies of CHs for witnesses (though not until we are sure they are actually going to testify).

Photos -- if there are not many, I will provide copies. If I have a lot, like in a murder case, I'll invite defense counsel to my office to look through them, and I'll try to let them know which ones I intend to offer at trial.

Forensic reports -- I usually provide copies of these when asked to. I always make them available for inspection.

Notices -- we provide a list of potential witnesses, as well as a list of experts we intend to call at trial. We also send out a notice listing all the offenses and "bad acts" we believe the defendant has committed that we'll seek to have admitted at trial, either during the guilt phase or the punishment phase.

Exculpatory/mitigating information -- under the Constitution we are required to share with the defense any information that (put simply) could help the defense.

And what do we get in return?


Diddly squat.

Yep, that's right, in Austin we do not have "reciprocal discovery," which is to say the defense doesn't have to share with us any witnesses, any evidence they might come across, or anything else.

In fact, I've tried several cases where the defense calls a witness and I'll look at my co-counsel and say, "Who?" On the one hand it's frustrating because no one likes to have to ask questions completely unprepared, but on the other hand it does make life interesting. And interesting is good.

Oh, and just to be clear: the State has the burden of proof. We're trying to convict someone of a felony, so it's right and proper that any inequities in the discovery process tilt in his/her favor and against us. I think a system where the defense has last-minute or restricted discovery isn't particularly fair and I'd feel very uncomfortable limiting a defense lawyer's access to basic information.