Thursday, May 31, 2012

Incumbent DAs ouster points to police union power

Arguably the biggest news in the Texas criminal justice arena from Tuesday's primary elections was the ouster of two incumbent District Attorneys: John Bradley in Williamson County and Harris County DA Pat Lykos.
At Texas Monthly, Pam Colloff takes a detailed stab at answering the question "Why John Bradley lost," pinning the origins of the Williamson County DA's downfall to the Michael Morton exoneration. (Grits would have been disappointed if such an article failed to mention this blog, having been kicking John Bradley since long before he was down.) The Dallas Observer portrayed Bradley's ouster as having statewide import:
In an interview before Tuesday's election, Gary Udashen, president of the Innocence Project of Texas, made it clear that voters in Williamson County were casting ballots that would have statewide implications for the innocence movement.

"If John Bradley loses his election in Williamson county, then that's a loud message to prosecutors all over the state is that there actually are consequences to engaging in prosecutorial misconduct," Udashen said. He pointed to the fact that many innocence cases, both those that include DNA evidence (like Morton's) and those that do not, include instances where prosecutors either deliberately or mistakenly withhold evidence in support of a person's innocence.
Any reformer joy over Bradley's demise, however, must be mitigated by part II of the "Great DA Purge of '12," in which Murray Newman's revanchist fantasies were fulfilled by Judge Mike Anderson's thrashing of incumbent DA Pat Lykos in the Harris County GOP primary, about which Mark Bennett offered this hard-headed assessment:
Lots of defense lawyers are concerned about a Mike Anderson DA’s Office. They foresee a return to the bad old scalp-counting days of Chuck Rosenthal. I’m not worried. The results I got for my clients under Rosenthal were no worse than those I’ve obtained in the last four years.

DIVERT [a pretrial diversion program for DWI] is going to go the way of the dodo, but Anderson will honor the agreements made by defendants with the Lykos DA’s Office. The policy against taking charges on trace drug cases will vanish; that doesn’t bother me (except as a part of the war on drugs, to which I object but of which it’s a small part). Pretrial diversions won’t be as common, but dismissals will take their place. The reality is that the criminal-justice system is strained, and the DA, whoever it is, will have to make decisions on allocating resources.
That last bit is the critical issue: Lykos as DA took responsibility for the office's role in resource allocation throughout the whole system, not just in her office, adjusting policies that Anderson wants to reverse in order to reduce felony court caseloads and overcrowding at the county jail. I agree Anderson will inevitably be constrained by resource allocation, which drives policies much more than ideology. But my fear is that he'll consider resource allocation at the jail (Democratic) Sheriff Adrian Garcia's problem, changing policies to reverse the remarkable decline in inmate numbers that has dramatically relieved county budget pressure from corrections spending. (Just a couple of years ago, Harris County housed 1,000+ local inmates on contract in Louisiana.) Worst case scenario: A year or so after Anderson takes office, Harris County is shipping inmates to Louisiana again and raising taxes to pay for pretrial detention and maybe an expanded jail voters already rejected. This, apparently, is the "conservative" thing to do.

On the D-side in Houston, perennial candidate Lloyd Oliver, who runs by his own admission to get his name on the ballot as free advertising, ran no campaign but defeated the party's reportedly much more promising challenger, Zack Fertitta. Most Dems I've heard from want nothing to do with Oliver's candidacy, so unless Lykos enters the race as an Independent, Anderson will coast into office (as will Ms. Duty).

What do these elections "mean" regarding public sentiment? In both cases, IMO less about ideology than either innocence advocates (in Bradley's case) or tuff-on-crime types (in Harris County) might contend. Indeed, what's the common thread in the three big contested DA contests in Travis, Harris and Williamson? To me, it's special-interest backing: When police unions and their PACs vigorously campaigned for a DA candidate, they won, even in the GOP, strangely, whose voters are otherwise generally hostile to public-employee unions. (The police union in Houston in particular in rolling in cash.) The Michael Morton case may be what convinced Jana Duty to enter the DA's contest and demonstrated John Bradley's vulnerability, but it was mobilization by Williamson County law-enforcement unions on her behalf that arguably put her over the top. If they'd campaigned for Bradley, IMO he would have won. Once they abandoned him, he was toast.

Grits spent 14 years working professionally in campaigns and in that time I learned that most non-campaign professionals tend to read into election results whatever they want. Murray Newman's reaction summed it up: "My analysis of the election is mostly just a confirmation of what I've always thought." That's true of most electoral analysis, especially when you hear folks claim an election is a "mandate" for this or that particular policy. In reality, the reasons elections are won or lost are more related to money, organization, and the vicissitudes of fate, like in this case a delayed, low-turnout election. Candidates in urban counties can't (without selling their souls) raise enough money to effectively communicate with or turn out voters, who as a result enter the voting booth virtually blind, especially on downballot courthouse races. In that context, special interest spending makes all the difference, and if there's any lesson from Tuesday's DA elections, to Grits it's that that continues to be the case.

RELATED: From the Dallas News, "The Repudiation of John Bradley." The editorial closes with this gem:
In their words:

“John Bradley represents everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system in Williamson County. … He is more concerned with protecting his reputation and his statistics than he is seeking justice and the truth.” — Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty

“I don’t think, on its face, that a DNA result ... [on] a piece of evidence away from the crime scene immediately proves innocence.” — Williamson County DA John Bradley, in August 2011, about testing a bandanna that was linked to the Christine Morton murder scene and pointed to another man, and not husband Michael Morton, as the killer. Bradley had opposed the DNA tests.
AND: From the Statesman, "Bradley's loss a signal to prosecutors."

SEE ALSO: How do you make prosecutors cry?


Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment about special-interest money, but what do you think those LEO unions were out campaigning about? Re: DIVERT: "Lykos lets drunk drivers off." Re: trace cases: "Lykos lets drug users off so they can rob and rape to get more money."

It may have been scare tactics by a third party, but tuff-on-crime scare tactics still won that election.


Nate Wilcox said...

"most non-campaign professionals tend to read into election results whatever they want"

Campaign professionals on the other hand tend to loudly broadcast whatever they want other people to think about the election results. There's certainly very little hard-eyed analysis of election results among campaign hacks. That would be bad for bidness.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Nate, that's VERY true. E.g., I'm a few years out of the game and self-identify as an independent. If I'd said what I wrote here publicly a dozen years ago I'd have probably lost clients. Privately, though, the good operatives pay CLOSE attention to what actually does and doesn't turn out voters, which generally has scant little to do with statements issued to the media.

Rage, those tactics won, but in part becuase there was no well-funded counter to them. Any tactics look good versus absent opposition, and neither candidate raised that much given the expense of Houston's media market.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that ideologically any well-funded Republican would ever counter them. Republican advertising, especially for that particular office, is just a pecker-measuring contest to see who is the tuffest. Lykos could not have effectively countered the LEO unions because although the budget drives policy for those in positions of power with the budget, it does not drive the average Republican voter. They want more people arrested, damn the cost. They want lower taxes, but don't know what it takes to get there.

I cannot imagine an effective counter to it, and although there are more things in heaven and earth than what I can imagine, the average Republican voter is simple-minded on crime issues and non-responsive to just about anything but scare tactics.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Perhaps, Rage. OTOH, can't never could. I've worked campaigns that won in spite of police union opposition, but the candidate and staff have to be willing to slug it out directly with them, and many don't have the stomach for the kind of low-down political knife fighting the unions routinely engage in.

As for GOP ideology, which is an entirely separate issue, IMO it's more diverse than you think. At the Lege, "tuff on crime" coalitions can often be split by peeling off religious conservatives and libertarians - basically populist, small-government types who recognize the accumulation of prosecutorial power for what it is: Big Government. As an example, a religious conservative legislator once told me that, prior to serving at the Lege, his main experience with the criminal-justice system had come when police broke up pro-life demonstrations he helped organize in front of abortion clinics. He didn't exactly walk in the door with a "tuff on crime" perspective.

If you actually want smaller government, lower taxes, etc., as a practical matter you don't necessarily want what Mike Anderson and John Bradley want. That's even more true when, empirically (as with the crack-trace cases) the small-government approach corresponded to a sustained decline in other crimes. I think that's the message to the GOP base: If it's not needed to make us safer, why raise taxes (which more jail space would necessitate) to spend money on it?

Anonymous said...

Well, one thing is for certain: the outcomes of the DA's races in Harris and Williamson counties pretty much lay to rest that notion that there's no effective mechanism for holding Texas prosecutors "accountable." I know it may sound idealistic and quaint, but this is still America and elected officials who conduct themselves in such a way that is not representative of the beliefs, concerns and wishes of their constituents can still be dealt with at the ballot box.

Incidentally, looks good healthy majority of the folks in Travis County still believe Rosemary is doing a good job. That's kind of refreshing.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"pretty much lay to rest that notion that there's no effective mechanism for holding Texas prosecutors 'accountable.'"

BS! How about this case, and this one, and this one, and this one? ... I could go on. Where is the mechanism to hold those prosecutors accountable? Tell us, please, if the issue has been "put to rest."

It's really no wonder you spout that tripe anonymously, I wouldn't put my name on it either.

Anonymous said...

can't never could.

I agree and admitted this, above.

and many don't have the stomach for the kind of low-down political knife fighting the unions routinely engage in.

Lykos does. She may not have had anyone telling her how, but she has the stomach for some pretty low-down dirty tricks.

As an example,

Anecdotally, individuals of any group can think outside the box from time to time. But en masse, Republicans vote a single way. My example would be my father, who when decrying same-sex marriage and how marriage was a sacrament given by God and that he would not vote for anyone who said otherwise, cannot respond to questions about his five marriages, and his Republican congressman's multiple affairs. So they can defy God, but don't let two men do it.

A friend of mine went nuts one year before a Perry election and talked about how much he hated the guy, so I asked him if he was going to vote for Chris Bell. "Oh Hell no, I'm voting for Perry." They are both smart people, but they vote Republican because of the wedge issues. My friend is terrified that Hispanics are re-taking Texas. That's how he votes. Not along the lines of results (Obama has increased deportations and prosecutions of businesses hiring illegals...) but along the lines of the rhetoric (like Perry trying to hand Obama a letter saying that he should secure our borders).

If you actually want smaller government, lower taxes, etc., as a practical matter you don't necessarily want what Mike Anderson and John Bradley want.

That's my point. But they'll vote for Anderson anyway because Lykos was perceived as soft. Her policies (legal or not...) were sound and have not driven crime rates in Houston up.

I think that's the message to the GOP base: If it's not needed to make us safer, why raise taxes (which more jail space would necessitate) to spend money on it?

To keep us safe from people with brown skin and to keep two men from marrying. That's why. It does not make sense, but that's it. They'll cut social services (i.e. diversion programs that you have long lamented being cut) and pay for more jail space, despite reduced crime rates, lower recidivism rates, and lower taxes if they cut jail space and increased some social programs. But welfare is bad, FDR was a commie, and therefore all social programs are bad. Bad people go to jail for doing bad things, and keeping more of them there for longer is all that matters.

It does not make sense to the average person, and not even to the average Republican. But that's how they vote. Because the alternative is that we all have gay sex and turn communist.

It can all be summed up thusly:

Officer Edwards: ...People are Smart...
Agent K: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.

You may have faith in the average Republican, but I've lost it.


Anonymous said...


Did Michael Morton get to vote while he was in prison?

How about all the other wrongfully convicted in prison?

"idealistic and quaint" are overstatements.

Anonymous said...

"Well, one thing is for certain: the outcomes of the DA's races in Harris and Williamson counties pretty much lay to rest that notion that there's no effective mechanism for holding Texas prosecutors 'accountable.'"

Not quite, 12:13. That's only wishful thinking on your part. As Grits noted, there are many examples that disprove your statement. Just one example is Jack Skeen of Smith County. Skeen was the district attorney for, I think close to three decades. Usually ran unopposed. This despite the fact that his misconduct was well known - see the Kerry Max Cook case and Houston Chronicle series "Win at All Costs." Yet, in spite of Skeen's well known lack of integrity, he was appointed to a vacant district judge seat by Rick Perry and has been reelected since (I think only once with an opponent).

I think Grits has something about police unions. I've noticed in Smith County it is usually the candidate that the law enforcement community backs that wins. If you look at the number of voters in these off year elections- I suspect that if you added up the number of law enforcement officers and their families, you'd find that they comprise most of the voters. Therefore, you have your judges and DAs being selected by the police. Law enforcement loves Jack Skeen because, as a judge, he always makes sure the prosecution wins.

Unfortunately, 12:13, your delusion that prosecutorial misconduct is a rare and not very serious problems does not become a reality just because John Bradley was defeated.

Anonymous said...

I think Lykos lost more because of the drama with the BAT van than anything else. When her office had a grand jury kick her prosecutors out to keep the investigation impartial it looks bad. Not to mention another prosecutor pleading the 5th, which its her right, in the same investigation looks bad.

Anonymous said...

For those claiming to be factually innocent but wrongfully convicted by ex-DA Bradley (or his cronies), now would be the time to file your motions.

To Jana Duty - start a post-conviction integrity unit for Wilco!!

Anonymous said...

Wait just a second, Grits. Before you get your panties all in a wad, wasn't this the quote that YOU included in your original post on this topic?

"If John Bradley loses his election in Williamson county, then that's a loud message to prosecutors all over the state is that there actually are consequences to engaging in prosecutorial misconduct," Udashen said.

Just reiterating your point. Jeez...

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, if you get a chance to interview Anderson please consider asking him *if he plans to increase the size and duties of the post-conviction integrity unit to include claims from the awful 80s? Lykos was all talk and sure as hell didn't.

*If he has any plans for the DAs INTAKE, regarding; any possible upgrades to how Detectives simply phone in that a Photo Array and Show-Up produced a Positive Identification without anyone verifying the Police Incident Report (crime victim's descriptions) and comparing it to the suspect's actual description?

*If he has any plans to end the decades old game of indicting each & every person arrested that's on probation just to be able to chalk up an In Chambers Conviction via Plea bargain games in 120 days or less?

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, over at (DP) Defending People Blawg, Mr. B. assigns cartoonish faces to each commenter. He's pretty cool and probably won't have any problem explaining it.

Maybe this is the answer to allowing unknowns with good and / or bad thoughts to continue commenting BUT be forever tied to them via an assigned logo. Those inflicted with the vanity virus, could pay a small annual fee to upload their own personal identifier. Or we could have a contest to see if readers can identify an Anon. from a Line Up of his / her comments? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about the other county, but the Harris County DA got ousted because she's a psyco-beotch-from-hell.

Anonymous said...

I live in Harris County and received numerous mailers from the Lykos campaign. All of them were harsh to the point of greatly misrepresenting the facts. I received almost nothing from the Anderson campaign and it was pretty bland.

What killed Lykos' shot at the race was her own actions and the actions of her minions. A DA pleading the 5th on a work related issue? Two ro three grand jury investigations into the actions of the office? Lykos flip-flopping about investigating grand jurors? Do you really need more?

Look, I've seen Newman's blog before and much of what goes on their sounds like sour grapes until you take a closer look at the specifics. The closer I look at virtually any of the complaints regarding Lykos of her hand selected staff, the worse a job it appears she has done.

And on a side note regarding credibility, Lykos stated to the media that she did not campaign, yet she was at scores of functions campaigning. Anyone attending these meetings all across the county can attest that she was pressing the flesh well before the race started and right up until she blew it. Her semi-private answers regarding people like Palmer was so bad that even supporters of hers would not put her sign in their yard this time.

Anonymous said...

Bradley's loss had more to do with all the people he had mad made over his years in office than anything else. When it came down to it, voters liked her and not him. She is pretty and personable and he is not. She has a Democrat opponent and possibly others in the fall, so this story may not be over.