Sunday, May 25, 2008

Danalynn Recer on the Quintero verdict

Yesterday evening the missus and I had dinner with a friend from our college days, Houston attorney Danalynn Recer, founder of the Gulf Regional Advocacy Center. She's taking a break in Austin after concluding the long and grueling capital murder trial of Juan Quntero last week, an illegal immigrant copkiller who jurors gave a sentence of life without parole (LWOP), a verdict that surprised many court watchers.

The Quintero trial wasn't about guilt or innocence, but entirely about what sentence to give out: life without parole or the death penalty. Dana barely spoke to the press during the trial, much to their chagrin, so I appreciated that she agreed to a short interview about the Quintero case for Grits.

Speculation has abounded since the verdict, including on this blog, about why the jury voted they way they did, but Recer thinks that "if people want to take a lesson from this case, they should take the jurors at their word" when one of them declared, "I believe he has value ... He's loved by many of his family and friends, and that was number one." She said the jury simply lived up to their duty identified by the Supreme Court to issue a verdict based on a "reasoned moral response."

Quintero was "so remorseful and self-hating over the incident," said Recer, that he seriously considered becoming a "volunteer," i.e., simply acquiescing in a death sentence in order to punish himself and avoid life in prison. Quintero's two teenage daughters talked him into going to trial and participating in the "mitigation" defense, Recer said, which allowed his lawyers to dig deep into his personal life and medical history. They convinced him that "his life is not over, he's still a Dad."

Asked why Quintero committed this unspeakable act, Recer said the bottom line was he was afraid, and reacted in the heat of a panic attack, responding to a "threat that didn't exist." Quintero has a chronic anxiety disorder, she said, and self-medicated with alcohol. (Quintero drank daily on a scale that could only be defined as gross alcoholism - up to a case of beer a day.) To that extent, she said ironically, one psych expert believed Quintero may not have shot Officer Johnson if he wasn't sober (!).

Recer also believes that a childhood brain trauma contributed to the circumstances, though she acknowledges many people were dismissive of the claim when it was raised by the defense. The frontal lobe injury, she said, made him cling to routines and caused him panic attacks when confronted with the unexpected. Then he found himself in a most unexpected, un-routine circumstance - arrested at a traffic stop for reasons he didn't understand, sitting in the back of a police car with a gun hidden in his belt - and she thinks the brain injuries inhibited his decision making functions during those critical moments.

Finally, Recer said some of the information that might have better explained Quintero's mindset was excluded or made unavailable because prosecutors went after his employer and family members on other charges, making them unavailable or unwilling to participate in Quintero's trial. However, she said over the three months leading up to the shooting Quintero had become increasingly paranoid and irrational, as well as fearful and distrustful of police, mostly from hearing second hand accounts of abuse or alleged corruption, and from his experience with police in Mexico.

None of this justifies Quintero's actions, Recer said, which is why his lawyers did not contest the elements of the offense and only argued over the correct sentence. But she believed all these were contributing factors; they were the reasons for what happened, even if no one can point to a single good reason for shooting a police officer in the back.

Given these "bad facts," what explains the verdict? Recer believes the case shows people in Harris County "are not as bloodthirsty as we're generally led to believe." In voir dire (jury selection), lawyers vetted 126 jurors, and by a 5-1 margin jurors were excluded because they refused to consider the death penalty compared to those who said they would refuse to consider life. She thinks Harris County DA's office "misunderstands its constituency," and that the jury they got was essentially representative of their jury pool and the citizenry at large.

She did say, however, that the Batson and Miller El cases from the US Supreme Court, which limited prosecutorial jury strikes based on race, kept the prosecution from using pre-emptory strikes as aggressively as in the past. So in that sense, I asked, is it fair to say you didn't win the case at jury selection but the prosecution lost it there? "Possibly," she nodded. "There were a lot of reasons, plus a lot of luck, but jury selection was big." The jury "was a necessary but not sufficient condition," she said, for getting the LWOP verdict.

Recer said they'd tried unsuccessfully to convince the state to agree to a plea and avoid an expensive, drawn-out and unnecessary trial. She was roundly criticized for releasing that information to the media, which reinforced her inclination, she said, simply to tell the press nothing at all. Recer said the proffer had been discussed in open court as well as written pleadings, and the fact it had been made wasn't privileged.

In any event, the time came when Quintero's lawyers got a meeting with the Harris County DA's Office, where they hoped to present most of the mitigation evidence that later went to the jury. She was amazed, she said, the state's lawyers didn't just shut up and listen to their opponent's case, even if they intended to go to trial. After all, the defense presentation amounted to "free discovery." But Chuck Rosenthal, himself representing the office at the meeting, was openly dismissive that anything could mitigate the crime, shutting down discussion before she'd even laid out her evidence. If he'd let the meeting continue, she said, at least they "would have known what's coming."

Recer believes the verdict reflects changing public attitudes generally toward the death penalty, as well as changes in the law. The Legislature's decision to make LWOP the only alternative to a death sentence played a big role in the jury's verdict, she thinks. But their experience in voir dire makes her believe the pendulum may be swinging away from more punitive public attitudes in the '90s.

One last thing I should mention: A recurring theme throughout our talk was Recer's displeasure with reporters covering the case. She said MSM journalism focuses solely on generating conflict to sell newspapers, so they wanted to portray every story as filled with conflict as possible. In fact, she said, Quintero's defense granted most of the facts alleged by the state, and there was little real disagreement. She considers the sentencing phase of the trial a function of "nonviolent conflict resolution" that becomes distorted by the media formula of conflicting "balanced" quotes on "opposing" sides. Everyone in the courtroom was really on the same side, she said. They all knew what Quintero did was wrong and were all seeking justice.

Photo via the Houston Chronicle/Billy Smith.


kbp said...

Sounds like you had a VERY interesting dinner discussion!

One has to wonder if "trust" of those in authority has eroded greatly, maybe a factor showing that every "DA's office "misunderstands its constituency"" when they seek the death penalty.

A decade or two ago, a high school kid that may have punched another got sent to the principal's office, scolded, maybe swatted and possibly expelled a few days so his parents had a reason to paddle his azz that night, often ending with the two kids involved being friends later.

Today, many kids pass through metal detectors to get into schools, where they find officers roaming the hall. When a fight comes about between two kids, the officers hand cuff them, haul them off to the station to interview them, a long process starts in the courts and the families of both kids hate each other before it's over.

I doubt there is much "trust" of the system developed in this process today.

Throw in all the convicts set free in the past few years and you have all sorts of reasons not to trust that system to take someone's life into their hands.

Anonymous said...

The Jury got this one wrong.And they say he has a family,the officer has a family also.

Anonymous said...

And a death sentence helps the victim's family how?

Michael said...

The fact that the officer had a family is irrelevant to the proper punishment for Quintero. Sorry. I also apologize to Grits for the multiple hate responses I get for this post. Raising the family is an indication that the proponent is confusing justice with vengeance. Ideally, the court system should be about justice, not vengeance. The proper sentence for Quintero should have taken into account premeditation, remorse, previous criminal conduct, mitigating factors of the crime itself, and the brain injury alluded to by the defense. I think the sentence actually did reflect all those factors.

But it rarely is. In Austin, Colton Pitonyak's trial for the homicide of Jennifer Cave had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the jury's feeling that he was a horrible person because he'd committed a horrible crime.

But I rarely have luck changing anyone's mind about a verdict in a murder case.

Anonymous said...

As the Baby Boomers age, they are benefiting from their life experiences.

Their experiences with the system of justice have indeed erroded their confidence in not only the death penaly but in the ability of the system to benefit society.

Generation X and Y also recognize the systems failures.

SB said...

From what I have seen......The DA gets a case and the State becomes the outraged victim and asks for the harshest punishment available. The original victims either support it or sit back and shut up.
Vengeance is encouraged and it has leaders. Suppose a mediator had been involved. This victim's family may have expressed that LWOP was the proper punishment. The defendant would have agreed and both sides would come away winners.

Anonymous said...

is it true that she - dana lynn recer - is the wife of houston chronicle editor jeff cohen.
if so, that is an interesting perspective on the news media.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:55 - No, her partner is an appellate attorney who also mostly works on capital cases.

Anonymous said...

I think that the argument about Quintero having a family is ludicrous......Everyone has a family!!! The fact that he was a raging alcoholic is not a defense. I know of several persons that have been alcoholics and have not committed any violent crimes. As for the panic attacks, BIG DEAL, I know of several more persons that have them and are not driven to violent crime. This Officer gave his life to protect and serve the public. Yes, even the people that do not like or care for Police agencies. I think it is sad when people slap a label on different symptoms a person may or may not have and say "Look here!!" " Here is the reason he did what he did". "Let's all feel sorry about his status in life". Grits' you should be ashamed of yourself. The Officer had a family that will never again see him again, you don't seem too concerned about this. The family of Quintero will still get to see him...although they will have to do it in the prison visitation room. As for Justice.....well you should know that there is no justice in this world.....but there is in the next one.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"The Officer had a family that will never again see him again, you don't seem too concerned about this."

That's just a false, cheap shot. I gave the family's views voice in this post, in which I wrote that "By all accounts the late Rodney Johnson was one of Houston's finest police officers," and that "with luck and God's grace, his family, friends and the community can begin to heal and move on."

More importantly, the family was interviewed widely in the MSM and their story told widely, while Recer remained mostly mum.

It does not disrespect Officer Johnson's family to give voice to her views after such a much-discussed trial. Neither the verdict nor her opinions in my view are insulting to Johnson or his family. The Constitution requires Johnson's killer to have a lawyer, and Dana was it. She's part of the same justice system he was sworn to support and died defending; Danalynn played her role honorably and respectfully, from all I can tell.

SB said...

Grits, you handled this with utmost respect for the victim's family. I also hope the family will begin to heal and maybe even see this verdict as a blessing. It saves the Johnson family from many years of agony and they have been through enough.

Anonymous said...

sad story for all involved but far more sad for the officer and family.... with that said seems to me those people (family) around Quintero should bear some responsibility knowing about all these issues.... I'm sure they say they tried...