Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Central Texas races hinge on public perception of prosecutorial influence

According to recent campaign disclsures, challenger Jana Duty has "lapped" incumbent William County District Attorney John Bradley in fundraising. She had $115,000 on hand as of the most recent reporting  period compared to $35,000 for the incumbent, reported the Austin Statesman.

That's a substantial lead, but it's probably not TV money and not enough to make the race a slam dunk. If you want John Bradley ousted as District Attorney, you might consider helping Ms. Duty add to that lead. Or, obviously, if you'd prefer to see Williamson County voters return Mr. Bradley to power, donate to his campaign (though honestly I couldn't tell you how even after closely examining his website). This is the homestretch and this final month of campaigning - more than all that's gone on before - will determine the outcome of this extraordinary race.

I've never before wished to live in Williamson County, but it'd almost be worth it just to get to vote in this primary. (I'll leave readers to guess Grits' preference.)

Meanwhile, in Travis County the incumbent, Rosemary Lehmberg has a more typical fundraising edge over challenger Judge Charlie Baird, but the former District and Court of Criminal Appeals judge has been campaigning harder than the incumbent DA, judging both from outward appearances and campaign expenditures. In a weird, belated, low-turnout primary two weeks after city elections, theirs will be the most prominent race on Travis County Democratic ballots. If Baird can raise sufficient funds in the homestretch to be competitive on television, my take is that he's got a real shot at an upset.

Though Grits likes and respects both candidates, I've said before I prefer Charlie over Rose in this race for one simple reason: Inertia. Lehmberg joined the Travis DA's office in the '70s, was the first assistant for long-time DA Ronnie Earle's final 12 years, and was elected over a group of much less experienced candidates than Baird as Earle's heir apparent. Throughout most of her time there, Travis County was considered the most progressive DA's office in the state, though today that mantle has been usurped further up I-35 in Dallas. That much departmental history makes her understandably but regrettably resistant to change. Sometimes it seems as if her institutional investment in how they've always done things gets in the way of improving the system she works in or learning from obvious mistakes.

I'm thinking, for example, of the questionable confessions contradicted by DNA evidence in the Yogurt Shop murders. (The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' Criminal Justice Integrity Unit heard a presentation on the case at an event they sponsored to educate themselves and the public on the subject of false confessions.) How a DA reacts to exonerating DNA evidence tells you a lot about their mindset. They can admit a mistake, apologize, and continue the search for the real killer(s), perhaps even revisiting other confessions obtained by the same detective (in Austin's case Hector Polanco, who  notoriously, tragically extracted a false confession from Christopher Ochoa as well as the Yogurt Shop defendants) or they can spin out new theorems about some unindicted co-ejaculator, a hypothetical fifth mystery suspect supposedly present with the accused but accounted for neither in the questionable confessions nor the prosecution's theory at trial. Grits was disappointed the incumbent at first chose the latter path before finally, grudgingly recommending charges be dismissed. Also, I've been  dissatisfied that local jail diversion strategies haven't been more successful or always available to defendants with appointed counsel. I don't know that I'll agree with Judge Baird in every instance, but he has the experience and mettle for the job, and I'm confident he'd be more open to change than the incumbent.

Speaking of the Yogurt Shop murders, the prosecutor in that case, Efrain De La Fuente, is running to replace retiring Travis County District Judge Mike Lynch presiding over felony cases. De La Fuente is opposed by a long-time Austin defense attorney David Wahlberg, who told the Austin Statesman:
that most of the felony District Court judges had worked as prosecutors before taking the bench. He said it is dangerous to have prosecutors and judges who are too alike.

"I don't mean to say they are bad people," Wahlberg said, "but ... if you have spent your career as a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I feel like we need a different perspective."
That's certainly my view, and  the main reason Grits supports Wahlberrg in the race. Indeed, whether primary voters agree with that sentiment - that an aggressive prosecutorial mindset exerts too much influence over a bloated and inefficient justice system - may determine the outcome of both this and the other two races described in this post, and arguably the Harris County DAs race as well.


Anonymous said...

Grits, I'm thinking the real reason you're supporting Charlie Baird for DA is that he's way out there to the left of even you on most criminal justice issues! Getting Baird elected to that office would be akin to us righties electing Ted Nugent DA!

Anonymous said...

Rosemary Lehmberg gives preferential treatment to dirty cops. there was a violent incident involving off duty cops that happened in a downtown bar in June 2011 that she has out right refused to investigate or prosecute. It's way past time for her to go. As long as she had been in the DA's office, she shouldn't have been elected in the first place.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:46, I've never been shy about giving my "real reason" for anything, including this. And Charlie Baird has scarce little in common with Ted Nugent.

I've actually sat in Charlie's courtroom a few times and I think if you had you would not portray what he did on the Travis County bench as "left" or even ideological. Some of his CCA rulings, it's true, were more to the left, but in District Court it was all tailored often quite expertly to the individual case, in my observation less cookie cutter and more thoughtful than many other judges, and exhibiting a vast knowledge of both the system and human nature.

Lehmberg's big pitch is that she prosecuted Tom DeLay, so I'm not sure why "righties" would prefer her over Charlie.

Anonymous said...

Docile Jim Brady
Columbus OH USA
▼ Love/Hate email to ▼ docile_jim_brady@safe-mail.net
2012.05.02.Tu.T0726 EDT

Ignoring “dirty cops” is not always best practice.

About four decades ago a police officer was ambushed with a shotgun.

The “why” is unknown , since the one who pulled the trigger was never apprehended and to this date is unknown to the police or general public.

What happens if a person impatient with the alleged inertia of Ms. Lehmberg decides to help out and remove the offending officers with an ultra vires protocol ?

It worked on R. Heydrich, albeit the consequences thereafter were harsh.
Anonymous said...

Rosemary Lehmberg gives preferential treatment to dirty cops. there was a violent incident involving off duty cops that happened in a downtown bar in June 2011 that she has out right refused to investigate or prosecute. It's way past time for her to go. As long as she had been in the DA's office, she shouldn't have been elected in the first place.
5/01/2012 18:43:00

TedByrd said...

The career path for way too many Judges is as follows: Law school, time in local DA office, run for bench- this is, in my opinion, a major problem-here in Bexar-the home of Susan "pit bull with a bone" Reed-this is the path most of the judges - both civil and criminal- have taken. Then there's the real fact of having to practice in the court of the judge against whom you are running-its a miracle anyone but a former ADA gets elected

Lee said...


At an end his rule is, and not short enough it was.