Harris County District Attorney’s Office Administration Begins to Define Itself
By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and paralegal Billy Sinclair
The Houston Chronicle reported recently in yet another article that a number of veteran prosecutors have departed from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Throughout DA Pat Lykos’ 2008 campaign to replace the former district attorney, Charles “Chuck” Rosenthal who was forced to resign in disgrace, rumors dogged the “reform” candidate that, as a criminal district court judge, Lykos had a reputation for being intemperate, rude, and pronged to stirring unrest in both her courtroom and chambers.
Shortly after Lykos defeated Democratic candidate Johnny Bradford last November she promised to “clean house” as the Chronicle reported. Upon taking office, she immediately fired seven “veteran prosecutors” from the Rosenthal era. Some criminal defense attorneys hailed the firings as an indication that the “convict at any costs” prosecutorial philosophy of the Rosenthal administration was coming to an end and a more professional era was on the horizon. Other criminal defense attorneys, most with a lot of experience in the courthouse gang, were not so optimistic.
We accepted Lykos’ promise of reform at face value. In fact, we wrote about the so-called “new era of reform” (“District Attorney Pat Lykos Continues New Era of Reform in Harris County,” April 5, 2009). While, we were glad to see some of the old guard gone, we were not exactly convinced that Lykos’ early prosecutor dismissals were indicators of reform as opposed to old fashion politics. We nonetheless decided to subscribe to a time-honored principle and “give credit where credit is due.”
But then disappointment happened on the road to “reform” that caused us to view Lykos’ “reform” claims with a jaundice eye. She announced with much fanfare in the local media, fulfilling a campaign promise, that the district attorney’s office would make “offense reports” available to criminal defense attorneys. During the previous administrations, a criminal defense attorney had been forced to meet with the prosecutor handling a given case, put on a smiley face of deference, and request permission to hand copy notes from the prosecutor’s file, including offense reports. It was an arduous, time-consuming process—not to mention a sophomoric one—that sustained a perpetual attitude of animosity between defense attorney and prosecutor.
The Lykos announcement to provide defense attorneys with copies of the offense reports extended an olive branch—a détente, so to speak—with local criminal defense attorneys.
Lykos then added stipulations to the release of the copies. First, the defense attorney would need to sign confidentiality agreement and agree that the copy would not be release to the client/defendant. Further, the copy of the report would be redacted, blacking out any sensitive, personal or confidential information. All this was disappointing, especially considering that District Attorneys in other counties and the U.S. Attorney’s Office provide defense counsel with copies of almost everything, with little or no problem. Providing copies is an efficient and fair position that, in many cases, allows a defendant to see the evidence in black and white, appreciate its gravity of his case and make an intelligent decision about whether to take the case to trial or enter a plea in a timely manner. The logic is simple: if you are truly searching for justice, why hide anything?
Then the attorneys started getting those “offense reports.” The reality of getting the reports proved Lykos’ promise of reform was slipping still further. The released reports had much of the pertinent information, sometimes entire paragraphs, redacted. In effect, the released offense reports under Lykos proved to be only slightly more useful than the hand-copied notes attorneys were allowed to obtain during the Rosenthal era. In the end, the new process created a lot of extra paper work and bureaucracy for not much return, the typical government inefficiency.
Because we know Lykos’ released offense report “reform” has turned out to be half hearted, we are not quite prepared to accept that the career prosecutors purged from the district attorney’s office was yet another “reform” designed to provide younger, eager prosecutors upward mobility as Lykos’ told the Chronicle. Some of these prosecutors have charged that the “work environment” in the district attorney’s office was so “toxic” and there was so little “communication” between them and Lykos that they had no choice but to leave.
We would like to believe that all those so-called “veteran” prosecutors were part of that Rosenthal “convict at any costs” regime and had no business being prosecutors in the first place. Some, in fact were. But it’s hard to embrace the “good riddance” attitude when Lykos herself has been less than candid about reform issues such as the release of offense reports to criminal defense attorneys. The newly introduced DIVERT program for people charged with a first time DWI, which at first glance seemed like a positive development, is also now coming under attack as being fundamentally flawed.
The Harris County criminal justice system has suffered through enough embarrassment over the past decade attributable to law enforcement misconduct: a corrupt crime lab convicting innocent people; a district attorney’s office suppressing exculpatory evidence and utilizing perjured testimony as a matter of course; scores of questionable shootings by local police; beating deaths of mentally ill suspects while in police custody; jail suicides and other suspicious deaths in county lockups; illicit office romances and racially-motivated emails circulated by county officials; illegal surveillance of county residents by secret police squads; and a host of other civil rights and constitutional abuses too numerous to detail here. Not to mention we carry the honor of being the epicenter of the death penalty not only in America but the entire world.
Harris County has a new sheriff, Adrian Garcia, whose administration has promised, and seems to be fulfilling, some promises of reform. The county will soon have new mayor chosen from a group of candidates all promising reform, and in 2010 there will be 64 judicial races decided from a host of candidates who are also promising reform.
Sometimes “reform” is not everything it’s cracked up to be as evidenced by Lykos’ program of releasing offense reports. Our faith in the new district attorney’s promise of “reform” has been diminished, and with so many prosecutors being either forced out or simply leaving in disgust, we don’t hold out much hope that things will improve in the district attorney’s office any time soon. But, hope remains alive.
To be optimistic, the administration is still new and, with 600 employees, the size of the office makes dramatic change difficult. Maybe, with a little more time to work the kinks out of these new programs, along with the continued revamping of her administration, DA Lycos will deliver what she promised, reform.
By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and Billy Sinclair, Paralegal