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By Richard Connelly
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Last week, the videotape Clutch City, highlighting the Houston Rockets' drive to the NBA throne, went on sale. Overshadowing its release, however, was the videotape of Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich's 3 a.m. drive one week earlier through West University Place, the affluent suburban municipality known for its zealous enforcement of traffic laws. Tomjanovich was arrested and charged with drunken driving, with West U's police chief initially saying the arresting officer's video camera had captured the coach's Jeep Cherokee weaving twice over the center line of Buffalo Speedway. In an amazingly swift disposition of justice, Harris County prosecutors dismissed the charge two days later, with the West U police chief saying that, in fact, a viewing of the tape did not reveal Rudy T swerving across the center line or acting drunk.
District Attorney Johnny Holmes, at a press conference to announce that the videotape was inconclusive and the misdemeanor charge against the coach had been dropped, denied that Tomjanovich -- who admitted he had been drinking but refused to submit to field sobriety and Breathalyzer tests on the night of his bust -- had been treated differently from anyone else arrested for driving while intoxicated. But some defense attorneys intimately familiar with the sometimes inscrutable workings of the criminal justice system don't buy that assertion. And neither does Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"When I first heard about Rudy's arrest, I said I thought Holmes would handle it like any other DWI arrest," recalls criminal defense attorney Wayne Heller. "Of course, the next day they dismissed it. And that's clearly bullshit."
Heller emphasizes that there is nothing unusual about the D.A.'s office dropping charges against a DWI defendant when the prosecution doesn't have a strong videotape to present as part of its' case. However, through May 31 of this year, 7,003 misdemeanor DWI charges had been filed in Harris County. In most, says Heller, the judicial process had to run its course before a case was dismissed. In precious few of those cases has Holmes become personally involved, says Heller, especially a mere two days after the incident.
"I was in court on a DWI case this morning," says Heller. "We've been to court six or seven times. And the D.A.s have not yet given me an answer whether or not they'll dismiss it. They want to talk to their officer. So, I don't think it's unusual that [Tomjanovich's] case got dismissed. What's unusual is that it got dismissed within two or three days of being filed. All the upper-level guys were brought in on this case because it was Rudy. The big guys got involved quicker. Typically, in a case like that they'll make you set it for trial. They make you run through the ringer. They want to see what kind of balls you have."
"He said it's such bullshit to pretend that there's no special treatment going on," says Heller. "Of course there's special treatment. The guy's a celebrity. They should just admit it."
David Cunningham, who also practices criminal law in Houston, agrees with Heller's assessment.
"Let's put someone in Rudy T's situation who's not coach of the world champions," suggests Cunningham. "If they refuse to blow [take the test], the D.A.'s office decides whether they are going to accept charges. Once they accept charges, that means they set a bond and put it in the system. I've never heard of a case being dismissed before the defendant goes to court for the first appearance on a DWI."
Last week, Holmes seemed to back off somewhat from the notion that there was nothing special about Tomjanovich's brush with the legal system. The D.A. acknowledges that he had indeed devoted unusual attention to the coach's case -- since, Holmes says, he was bound to be criticized regardless of what he did.
"He received special treatment in that I would not allow the prosecutors to dismiss the case without talking to the arresting officer," says Holmes. The D.A. admits he rarely gets involved in misdemeanor DWI cases unless, say, they involve big-name politicians. "If it is a celebrity, the press is going to call me. They're not going to call [an assistant D.A.] So [my assistants] come to me in every high-publicity case, because you really look stupid when somebody like you calls me and says, 'What about Tomjanovich?' And I say, 'I don't know what you're talking about.'"
Holmes adds that he could have easily put to rest any questions about the treatment accorded Tomjanovich if he had ordered his assistants to prosecute the case without substantial evidence that the head Rocket was intoxicated.
"That would have been protecting old John's butt," says Holmes.
According to Rusty Hardin, Tomjanovich's attorney and Holmes' former first assistant, the case was expedited because Rudy T had planned to plead guilty if the videotape showed him driving or behaving in a drunken fashion.
"Holmes got involved only because the prosecutor responsible for the case thought [the case] ought to be dismissed and wanted to give [Holmes] advance warning and a chance to overrule him," says Hardin. "All Holmes did was not overrule the trial prosecutor."
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