By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
Name That Liar
As 180th District Judge Debbie Mantooth Stricklin listened intently from the bench, former grand juror Katherine Corcorran broke her silence Tuesday and denied having called Chronicle reporter Jennifer Lenhart to volunteer that a fellow grand juror with political connections had exercised undue influence to thwart the indictment of a Bellaire police officer in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Travis Allen. In fact, Corcorran testified that a victims' rights advocate, Mike McMahan, telephoned her and then brought Lenhart onto the line to question her, a direct contradiction of Lenhart's reporting that her grand jury sources called the paper. Corcorran claimed it was the reporter who first raised the issue of political influence possibly tainting the grand jury deliberations, "and I tried to correct her."
Although Corcorran said she told Stricklin that "inappropriate comments" were made during the grand jury's deliberations, she denied that any of her colleagues on the panel tried to sway the decision by boasting of their political connections. Corcorran also testified that she was assured by Lenhart that she had the right as a grand juror to express her points of view and verify information for reporters. "Did you believe her?" asked Judge Stricklin. "Yes," answered Corcorran. "I don't believe her now."
After hearing Corcorran's testimony, the judge sentenced her to ten days in jail for violating the grand juror's oath of confidentiality, but allowed her to serve the sentence by performing an equal number of hours of community service. Corcorran will also pay a $500 fine. District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who had earlier tried to force Lenhart to reveal her grand jury sources, watched the proceedings with obvious satisfaction.
Contacted at the Chronicle, Lenhart refused to discuss the specifics of her reports, but said she "completely stands by the way the stories were reported." And one of Lenhart's superiors at the Chronicle suggested that Corcorran changed her story to stay out of jail. "There's absolutely no doubt that Corcorran called the city desk not once but several times," he said.
Corcorran's story served to obscure where the real political influence was exerted in the process:when Stricklin, a former prosecutor under Holmes, initially impaneled the grand jury in her court last fall. As it turned out, the only member of that grand jury with any real political connections was well-known operative Sue Walden, a paid campaign consultant of Stricklin's. Walden had been nominated for the panel by another paid consultant of the Republican judge, Denis Calabrese, one of the three grand jury commissioners who submitted names to Stricklin. After Lenhart's story appeared, Stricklin wrote to Holmes asking him to sleuth out the two unnamed members of the 180th grand jury that Lenhart had quoted. The article did not mention the supposedly influential juror by name, but indicated she had strenuously argued against indicting officer Michael Leal in the shooting of Allen. A majority of the grand jury had voted for indicting Leal, but the vote fell short of the nine needed to return a charge.
After Stricklin found Corcorran in contempt last week, Rebecca Allen, the mother of the slain youth, expressed her disapproval of the punishing of a grand juror for trying to bring to light problems in the system. Allen pointed out that the district attorney's staff is known to leak information about grand jury investigations without penalty. "I'm just concerned about the double standard here," she said.
Holmes, who had backed off a losing effort to force Lenhart to reveal her grand jury sources, pronounced himself satisfied that the outcome would discourage future grand jurors from leaking to reporters. Although Lenhart's story quoted an unnamed male grand juror as well as Corcorran, Holmes says he will not pursue the second grand juror, in part because the D.A. is not convinced that Lenhart talked to more than one grand juror.
Lenhart, however, testified at the contempt hearing that she had indeed talked to an anonymous man who claimed to be a grand juror, as well as a female juror who supplied her name. Since all grand jurors who participated in the Leal deliberations other than Corcorran signed sworn affidavits that they had not talked to the Chronicle, someone -- juror, reporter or fake juror -- obviously lied.
During the contempt hearing, Leonardo Soria, a man Corcorran met at a rally for then-governor Ann Richards several years before, testified Corcorran called him and announced her intention to contact the Chronicle to complain about the actions of the grand jury. Later, after Holmes took Lenhart to court, Soria called the D.A.'s office and eventually agreed to cooperate. That testimony provided Stricklin with the evidence to find Corcorran in contempt. But at the sentencing Tuesday, Corcorran denied telling Soria she planned to talk to the media.
Despite the controversy over the grand jury's refusal to indict Leal, it may actually work to the advantage of the slain teenager's family in their pursuit of the truth. The Allens are seeking damages against the Bellaire Police Department in a federal lawsuit, and without pending criminal charges, Leal will be unable to avoid testifying by pleading the Fifth Amendment.
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