Thursday, April 28, 2011

Me and Princess Di

I have not been following or participating in the excitement over the Royal Wedding but when a detective from our city's cold case unit phoned me specifically to ask about it, well, I realized there is no escape for me. By dint of being English it seems I am a de facto expert and, according to some, sitting in my parlour awaiting my invitation.

I did get an evite from Mahmoud al Massour to collect the $10 million I'd won in the Syrian sweepstakes, but so far nothing from Will and Kate.

But I will tell you, I once had dinner with Princess Di.

Yes, the Princess Di.

To be honest, I usually stop the story there, as it gets less dramatic as it continues.

But what the heck. It was at a fancy ballroom in London in, oh, 1985. Some sort of charity function and I was on the arm of a beautiful young lady (just a friend) who couldn't find a more dashing date. I don't remember parking, but I do remember walking up the red carpet outside the place, people pressing against the barriers to get a look at those coming in, and us in our tuxedos looking self-important. It was quite a thrill.

Inside there were a dozen tables, maybe more, ten or twelve to a table. Diana made her entrance suitably late and was two tables away. Every table had a cadre of servers, but she was always served first and no one started to eat until she did. Rather embarrassingly, my group became a little rowdy (they kept refilling our wine glasses!) but I remember her looking over and smiling, like she was enjoying a few young people having fun in an otherwise stiff and formal setting.

There was dancing afterwards, but she left before that got going, though I recall jitterbugging with newsreader Moira Stewart.

I kept the invitation, a beautiful piece of art it was. In fact, I took it on a trip to America a year later, though for the life of me now I can't think why. Portable chick magnet?! Who knows. . . but on a bus ride from Washington DC to Wisconsin I got talking to an African American woman and her ten-year-old daughter and she asked me if I was royalty (the accent, you know). I laughed and said, "No, of course not," but told her about the dinner with Di. She was so amazed I dug the invitation out of my bag and gave it to her. Her face was a picture, eyes like saucers and her little girl didn't even dare touch it. It was a silly memento for me but seemed to mean a lot to them, and I sometimes wonder if it's still on a mantelpiece somewhere.

Anyway, my best wishes to William and Kate, they seem like very nice people. My tenth wedding anniversary is coming up, so if they want any tips I'm available to advise. For the future King, I'd even do it for free.

Tweet tweet

During my recent trial a lot of people unable to come to court followed it minute-by-minute thanks to twitter updates from our local ace reporter Steven Kreytak. In fact, when Steven took off for a couple of days at the end of the trial I thought several of my friends were going to storm the offices of the Statesman.

It got me thinking about my own use, or lack of it, of Twitter. My issue with it, as with blogging, is that I simply can't relay the juicy details of my ongoing cases. That's the main reason I signed up with Twitter but never used it. And I still can't decide whether people will care what I'm doing and when.

That said, I want to give it a whirl. If the point of this blog is to bring people closer to what we are doing in the criminal justice system, then maybe there's a narrow path I can follow, one that observes all the strictures I work under for the blog, but that gives more immediate glimpses into our daily machinations.

Any thoughts? Suggestions? Maybe I'll use it to make fun of defense attorneys. . . .

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Staying grounded amid the chaos

A reader posted a comment after I'd mentioned one of the humorous moments in my recent murder trial. I'm sure you read it, of course you did, but he/she asked (in part):

... the work of an ADA ... can be almost unrelentingly sad - you constantly confront the "darker side" of the community in question. Given that, how does you and your colleagues stay grounded? Are you able to "switch off" when you go home at night/for the weekend, or take a vacation? Or are your minds always on felonies no matter what?

I don't get paid enough to worry about crime in my spare time. I make a third of what my friends at law firms make so they can take their work home with them, not me.

Okay, seriously, it's a good question and one I get asked from time to time. I am almost always able to switch off at night and on weekends. I think one reason is that the cases themselves don't last all that long, and so I don't have time to get buried in them so deeply that I can't escape. Of course, my recent cold case was an exception and I spent many sleepless nights worrying about that one. But with the volume of cases we have (120-150 at any one time) there's just no time to become overly attached to any one case.

I also think that the cases we deal with have facets other than grimness that temper the likelihood they will haunt us on weekends. In other words, not many show a truly bad side to human nature. A lot of bad things happen, of course, but they are not because some evil mastermind is trolling the land of the innocents looking to drain them of their blood and entrails. But a bar fight that results in a serious injury makes me shake my head at stupidity (and excessive drinking) rather than worry about the dark side of human nature. I think you'll find that a lot of murders are anger-based, rather than evil-based, too, so even the most extreme crimes don't keep me up at night.

I'll add right now that I don't deal with child abuse cases. Those, I am fairly sure, would give me greater pause and be harder to shake off come five o'clock.

I think, being subjected to an endless flow of felonies, we also get relief from knowing that in many cases we're trying to help the perpetrator as well as punish. We suggest treatment programs, restitution, and pretrial diversion programs. Undoing bad acts gives us less to worry about, right?

We also rely on each other. We can tell pretty easily when the stress is mounting in a colleague, and we do what we can to help. A great recent example is that cold case. I was working on it full-time and basically neglecting my other cases, even though we had a regular docket. Well, without a word, not a single complaint, my colleagues Jackie Wood, Geoffrey Puryear, and Steve Brand took up the slack and handled all of my cases in docket. They just stepped up and made my life a thousand times easier. Without them taking that load, I would have been much less prepared than I was at trial.

I probably wouldn't do the same for them, of course, but that's by the by.

So, all in all I'd answer this by saying that while our cases can be sad, bloody, painful, and disheartening, there's no evil lurking in most of them to follow us home at night or stalk us on weekends. Maybe we're more cynical than your average lawyer, perhaps we laugh at stuff we shouldn't (I wrote an anecdote in this post that I subsequently deleted because, well, I wasn't sure how it would come across), but mostly we are like other professionals -- we work hard during the day and go home to our families feeling good about our day, rather than bad.

Friday, April 22, 2011

APD Cold Case on local TV

This is a neat story about our cold case unit, and by "our" I mean Austin Police Department's. A really neat bunch of people who work incredibly hard to solve the most difficult murders. And they're damn good at it, too.

The reporter, Noelle, sat through my recent trial and got to talking to Ron Lara afterwards, I'm glad she's giving them some publicity. Ron was invaluable to that case, from start to finish, and the other two people you see on the video pretending to work, Jerry Bauzon and Angel Hernandez, also put in several shifts helping track people and evidence down. Rock stars, all of them.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A time and a place for everything

All trials are intense. Some more than others, of course--the transvestite prostitute trial is probably going to have more moments of levity than the debit card abuse case. But even the hardest trial, the most paper-intensive one, even the most emotional of cases, all will have flashes of humor, moments where the jury, the judge, the defendant, and all us stiff-necked lawyers can crack a smile.

We had a couple of those in my latest trial, a week-long affair that, of course, was deadly serious the vast majority of the time. But, as anyone who knows me will attest, if a door cracks a little giving me a chance at humor I will kick it open the rest of the way.

The defense witness, a friendly, jolly fellow, took the stand to say he'd not seen the defendant at a particular club on a particular night. He also mentioned on direct he'd been drinking that night. Here's roughly how it went:

Me: Is it possible the defendant was there and you just didn't see him?
Witness: Well, I guess it's possible.
Me: I think you mentioned earlier that you'd been drinking, is that right?
Witness: Sure, yes. Quite a lot. Well, not that much, I wasn't totally wasted. I mean, I managed to drive myself home so I couldn't have been that drunk.
A few raised eyebrows from the jurors. I wait a beat.
Me (smiling): I see. Sir, you do realize you're talking to a prosecutor?

The witness, like others, laughed. At moments like these you can feel the pressure lift just a little. And we all need that in a big trial.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

And the last word. . .

I wanted to post this link to a news story on my cold case. It was done and dusted (apart from appeals, of course) yesterday afternoon.

Long time coming.

Exhausting trial.

Wonderful to have closure for the family of the victim. It's been an honor to work with them and get to know them these past months.

And on that note, I wanted to cheer things up a little by referring you to the website of the victim's son, Johnny Goudie, a hugely talented musician. One of his bands is a '70s and '80s cover band, and before you pass judgment I urge you to look at the video clips posted on the band's website.

Totally awesome.

In fact, let me make it easy. Watch this:

Saturday, April 16, 2011

My cold case: It's about time

After a four-hour deliberation, the jury in my cold case returned a verdict of guilty yesterday afternoon.

Read all about it: KVUE news and The Austin Statesman.

It's been the most exhausting and stressful trial I've ever handled, but after 25 years we managed to bring justice to the victim's family. And that makes me happy.

If they happen to come by here, my thanks to the jurors for their hard work and diligence (and verdict!) but also to my friends on the defense team who worked as hard as I did to represent their client in a thorough, professional, and diligent manner.

You know, a couple of weeks ago, when I was neck deep in this, I told my investigator Mike (who was invaluable in this case) that if he heard me talking about taking on another cold case, he should shoot me in the foot. I meant it.

Yesterday I went to lunch with the cold case detectives, and guess what?
"Hey, Mark, we have some other cases coming through."
"Oh no, I really don't think. . . "
"But you're awesome. Please?"
"I guess you could just tell me about a couple of them."
"Well, there's this one where . . . "

You know the rest.

But now, just for a day or two, I'm going to excuse myself to stare at the sky and empty my brain.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

This is why I've been quiet...

Sorry for the lack of posts, but this week and next I'm neck deep getting ready for the trial of this case. I'm guessing the paper will cover it so if you have time, follow along.

And I'll be back to posting after the trial.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Some changes are coming. . .

Our office recently implemented a program of "deferred prosecution," where first-time offenders can fulfill a set of conditions (treatment, restitution etc.) and have their felony cases dismissed. The story is here.

We've been working on some other programs, too, hopefully rolling them out in the coming months:

Jury Trials

The first program deals with jury trials. On trial weeks we spend a whole afternoon picking a jury, time that could be spent trying the case itself. It's also a massive inconvenience for the sixty people (in each court!) who have to sit there so we can whittle them down to just twelve. Every week, then, more than 200 people have to give up their Mondays to come in here and not get chosen.

What we'll be doing is selecting a group of just sixty individuals from the community and using them, on sort of a rotational basis, to sit as jurors. They will be people of intelligence and some will have legal training. Each jury will have one former prosecutor on it, to help explain the law. (The defense bar also wanted a defense lawyer, but you don't need two people to explain the law, and everyone knows defense lawyers are all about getting acquittals, while prosecutors are interested only in doing justice).

There are some minor constitutional issues to work through, but we're confident it will speed up justice.

Reimbursing Defense Lawyers

We have no public defender system in Travis County so right now, defense lawyers are appointed to cases by a judge. And they get paid a flat amount dependent on the work they do, not the result. So a lawyer gets $1,000 a day whether he sleeps through a trial or works his tail off.

The county is looking to switch to a new system, paying them according to results. The details are still being hammered out, but it'll work like this: if the State offers to plead the case for five years and you go to trial and win, you get five thousand dollars. If you go to trial and your client gets ten years, you either owe the county ten grand, or you work it off by not getting paid for your next cases.

A bit of a gamble for defense lawyers, but the pay off can be huge.

Clothing in Court

I have posted before about some of the crazy things people wear to court. Well, a new study shows that what you wear in court can increase, or decrease, your sentence. Seems kinda commonsensical to me, but after seeing that study, our higher-ups clicked that:

bad clothing = longer sentence = increased costs

As a result, they've hired one individual to roam the courthouse on docket days (when most plea deals are made and sentences handed down) to advise defendants on what (not!) to wear. He will also have a bag with some collared shirts, demure dresses, and nice trousers that he'll loan to those not dressed properly. Seems extravagant, I know, but apparently the boffins have crunched the numbers and this guy's $75,000 salary will be a saving in the long run.

They ran this program in Williamson County three years ago, but had to cancel it when those borrowing the clothes for court stole them, and the style guru was found upside down with his head in a public commode. But that's Wilco for you, we're a little more civilized down here.

And talking of Wilco, . . .

No More Probation Department!

This isn't a program we're running, but one they're not running any more in the esteemed county to our north. Apparently they have been paying salaries and for office space to Williamson County's probation office, but not giving them any business. Because defendants are either sent to prison for life (the easy cases to win) or have their cases pled down to time-served (the hard cases to win), probation has been left out in the cold.

The few people that do get probation up there have it revoked the minute they leave the courthouse ("A condition of probation was to always park facing north, you're facing north-east, at best") and so the Wilco probation dept. is being shut down. Fortunately, most of those laid off will be able to find jobs at the over-stretched probation office here in Travis County.