The son a district court judge in San Antonio, Nicholas “Nico” LaHood set his eyes on the District Attorney’s Office not long after leaving law school. He always wanted to be the top cop in Bexar County.
In 2010, the criminal defense attorney challenged incumbent DA Susan Reed who was then known as “The Toughest Woman in Town.” Reed, a Republican and San Antonio’s first female DA, had accumulated a formidable resume of power with a hard-charging law-and-order attitude that took down some very influential people in San Antonio during her twelve years in office. Her tenure was also marked by allegations of favoritism in prosecutions and criticism she refused to appoint a special prosecutor to review claims that Ruben Cantu was wrongfully executed.
Surprisingly, LaHood, a Democrat, ran a strong, close race against Reed, a testament to the powerful enemies the DA had made in Bexar County. LaHood probably would have defeated Reed had it not been for his criminal record. He was arrested in 1994 for trying to sell $3600 worth of Ecstasy pills to an undercover police officer. At the time LaHood was working in a nightclub and was in his third year at San Antonio College.
Responsibility, Redemption and Celebrity Endorsements
LaHood secured a plea bargain that resulted in a deferred adjudication, a $1,000 fine, and 320 hours of community service. LaHood went on to successfully complete his deferred adjudication and earn a law degree from St. Mary’s Law School, a testament to his hard work and personal responsibility.
After the 2010 loss to DA Reed, LaHood with the support of local Democrats plotted his strategy for a 2014 run against Reed. This time he offset his criminal record by getting the support of two influential Antonio Spurs All Stars, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. He also had a secret weapon – a close relationship with a controversial but wealthy personal injury attorney based in Corpus Christi, Thomas J. Henry. Henry made an upfront $700,000 donation to LaHood’s campaign and would eventually contribute more than $1 million to LaHood’s $2 million war chest.
Million Dollar Campaign Contribution Raises Eye
The local media, as well as DA Reed, questioned why a single source, a personal injury attorney no less, would pump $1.2 million dollars into a DA’s race in another county. What Henry expected in return was the question most often asked during the race.
DA Reed certainly had her criticisms of LaHood, most of which focused on his youthful indiscretions. She raised this question with the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board: “Are we going to have someone who believed that they wanted to make a career out of drug dealing? We’re not talking about just using, somebody smoking a joint somewhere, or anything like that. That whole thing (LaHood’s Ecstasy sale) was set up so that he could prove that he could deliver big amounts, and he said he’d been dealing for a year as a bouncer in the bar. That’s a huge issue in my mind.”
As for Thomas J. Henry, he was defiant during LaHood’s victory party, telling the crowd that his support for the newly-elected DA had put him in the “crosshairs.” He then added: “You can’t put a target on my back and make me walk away from a winner.”
The newly DA-elected DA, who had based his campaign theme on Reed’s “abuse of power,” came out of the chute with his own questionable use of power.
In an April 17, 2017 report, the San Antonio Express-News explained:
“As DA-elect, two weeks before taking over Reed’s office, LaHood insisted on trying a criminal case in district court, defending a client accused of punching someone hard enough in the face to break bones. Before trial, he hired prosecutors on the case to work for him as DA – effectively turning his courtroom adversaries into future employees.
“’I wanted them to know, ‘Guys do you best work. You have your job,’” LaHood told me at the time. “You come at me as hard as you can. Try to beat your boss. How about that?”
“On the first day of the trial, LaHood asked one of those prosecutors to speak to Reed’s top lieutenant, Cliff Herberg about reducing the charge against his client to a Class C misdemeanor with deferred adjudication, the equivalent of a traffic ticket.
“Herbert refused. Two days later, Herberg’s future job with Bexar County disappeared. The reason, according to a country commissioner, was LaHood, who told top officials that he’d be ‘offended’ if the county rehired Herberg.”
Immediately after assuming the DA’s reins of power, LaHood increased his staff of prosecutors from 167 to 180, but stirred considerable consternation among the law enforcement when he announced that his office would not seek the death penalty against Josh Lopez who was charged with the killing of Elmendorf Police Chief Michal Pimentel in the summer of 2014.
DA Joins Anti-Vaccine Movement
Two years into the job, LaHood stirred national controversy when he joined the “anti-vaccine” movement by lending his official credibility to an anti-vaccine documentary with this pronouncement: “I’m Nico LaHood. I’m the criminal district attorney in San Antonio, Texas. I’m here to tell you that vaccines can and do cause autism.”
This theory has been debunked by every reputable scientific study that has examined the so-called link between vaccines and autism.
DA Threatens Defense Attorneys During Murder Trail
LaHood’s behavior as district attorney has raised eyebrows from both sides of the political aisle. But the actions the district attorney allegedly took during the prosecution of Miquel Martinez has left some observers calling for criminal prosecution and an investigation by the State Bar of Texas. The prosecutor’s actions in the Martinez case recently gained national attention in Slate through an article written by Jessica Brand.
Earlier this year Martinez was brought to trial this past February by LaHood’s office on a murder charge involving a college graduate student shot in the head during a drug deal. LaHood elected to prosecute Martinez personally with the assistance of ADA Jason Goss. The trial was presided over by Judge Lori Valenzuela, a Republican. LaHood said he chose to personally prosecute the case because of its “callousness and coldbloodness.”
Martinez was represented by attorneys Mark Stevens, Joe D. Gonzales and Christian Henricksen. On the second day of the trial LaHood disclosed to the defense that a prosecutor in his office had a previous “sexual relationship” with the district attorney’s star witness, a witness who placed Martinez at the scene of the crime. The defense attorneys immediately moved for a mistrial, arguing, and rightfully so, that the information should have been disclosed prior to trial. Defense attorneys also intimated at the trial that they would possibly move to have the murder charge dismissed against Martinez because the star witness had also been a suspect in the murder of the college student and the DA’s office had not thoroughly investigated him.
Judge Valenzuela stopped the trial and conducted an in chambers meeting with LaHood and the defense attorneys. LaHood reportedly went ballistic in the judge’s chambers at the possible “prosecutorial misconduct” charge being leveled against him by the defense attorneys. The “enraged” district attorney threatened to shut down the attorneys’ practices and vowed to make sure they would never get another appointment in a criminal case in Bexar County.
Judge Testifies that DA Threatened Defense Lawyers, Feared Violence
The attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the charge against their client raising LaHood’s threats and intimidation in support of the motion. The motion was heard by Sequin’s senior Judge W.C. Kirkendall who heard testimony from Judge Valenzuela. The trial judge stated that LaHood’s threatening behavior in her chambers was so overt that it may have warranted a misdemeanor official oppression charge. Judge Valenzuela was actually afraid that LaHood was about the physically assault the defense attorneys. Defense attorney Christian Henricksen said he “absolutely felt threatened” and told his wife they might have to move. DA LaHood denied making the threatening statements during his testimony on the motion.
Ms. Brand pointed out in the Slate article that this explosive, out-of-control behavior by LaHood had to be viewed through the lens of his previous controversial behavior that “ … since his victory in the 2014 election, the Democrat has become of an outspoken supporter of the anti-vaccination movement, has warned that citizens must protect the Constitution against Sharia law, and said that Black Lives matter movement should be dubbed ‘Black Lives Matter only when law enforcement is involved.’ Recently, he barred a newspaper from a press briefing after it provided unfavorable coverage.”
Calls for Investigation, Grievance
All these revelations have not only called into question LaHood’s temperament to be district attorney but prompted at least one local media outlet to call for an investigation of his actions in the Martinez case by the State Bar of Texas. And at least one local legal expert called on Judge Valenzuela to file a professional grievance with the State Bar against the district attorney.
Although Judge Kirkendall denied the motion to dismiss the murder charge against Martinez, he did observe that LaHood “engaged in an unprofessional and uncalled for ‘rant’” which “may be subject to sanctions in another tribunal.”
We agree with the following conclusion drawn by Ms. Brand:
“For the criminal justice system to work, defense attorneys must be allowed to provide zealous, unfettered representation. That often requires them to do things that upset prosecutors. They must interview victims, searching for inconsistencies in their accounts to use during cross-examination at trial. Sometimes, they must stand up and call a state’s witness a liar. And if a prosecutor fails to turn over exculpatory evidence, they must allege a constitutional violation and ask for sanctions, up to and including a mistrial or outright dismissal.
“When defense lawyers worry prosecutors may retaliate, they’re no longer acting with their clients’ best interests in mind … when prosecutors threaten defense lawyers for doing their jobs, they chill that representation.”
Bexar County DA’s Office Suffers
The integrity of our criminal justice system demands that the State Bar investigate LaHood’s conduct in the Martinez case. This matter is not merely about DA LaHood and what he did, or did not, say. It is about the legitimacy of the criminal justice system and its chief law enforcement officer.
The mere appearance that a district attorney has engaged in unprofessional conduct should not be left dangling in the public arena unresolved. The reputation of the Bexar County DA’s Office will suffer until this matter is put to rest.