Pain for the Prosecution

Assistant district attorney Kristen Pain sent criminals to jail -- and then went to jail herself.

Maybe, she concedes, she was never cut out to be a prosecutor. Langham, now her husband, agrees.

"She was living in constant negativity," he says. He reaches over to push her bare feet off the glass-brick coffee table. Their living room, with its bleached oak floor and a view of a creek, has a West Coast feel that meshes with Langham's vocabulary. "The negativity was wearing on her psyche, and Kristen is usually a very upbeat kind of person."

She had a very upbeat kind of childhood, growing up in Spring Branch. Her mother and father, an attorney, still live in the house where they raised Kristen and her two older brothers. (One of them is now an agent for the Secret Service.) But at Texas A&M, Kristen discovered drugs and her wild side.

She also first met Scott Langham at A&M. Their relationship was platonic: They had an accounting class together, and saw each other in the gym. After Pain graduated in '88, their friendship lapsed.

A psychology major, she decided to go to law school -- chiefly, she says, because school was easy for her and she didn't want to get a job. During her third year at the University of Houston Law Center, Pain worked as an intern in the D.A.'s office. She enjoyed the fraternal atmosphere and developed a taste for what she and others in the office sometimes call "the Lord's work" -- putting criminals in jail.

"It seemed like a fun thing to do," she says.
Like most other "baby D.A.s," Pain began by prosecuting straightforward DWI cases that do not involve an accident or a breath test. Her very first day on the job, Pain found herself before a jury, and came away with a conviction.

From DWI court, she followed the usual prosecutor's career path. In felony court, she tried low-level drug and assault cases. She says she still used cocaine occasionally, maybe three times a year, and admits that made her a hypocrite of the first order. "But when people say I violated a public trust, I have a problem with that," she says. "I did my job and I did it well."

After her stint in felony court, she spent a short time in a justice of the peace court, where she dealt mainly with traffic offenses. After that, she returned to felony trial court, this time to deal with murderers, child molesters and, of course, drug dealers -- all but the most serious felony cases.

For the most part, she did a respectable job. Although she wasn't one of the office's stars, her supervisors viewed her work as solid, and a few of her trials made headlines. In July 1994, she successfully prosecuted Harris County Deputy Sheriff Ronald Wayne Ackerman for raping a woman. She also won a conviction in the case of Carlos Benitez, who was sentenced to 99 years for soliciting an attempt on his wife's life.

Pain's private life, though, seemed far less solid. "Every time I saw her socially, she was plastered," says one professional acquaintance. "She would just go sit in a corner and drink to the point where she could hardly hold her head up."

Office gossip also touched on her taste in men. She was known as someone who liked guys who were "on the edge," and who was greatly influenced by whoever she dated. (Pain says that the influence worked both ways: "Sometimes my boyfriends were influenced by me and began drinking heavily.")

In the fall of '95, she ran into Langham at a mall. He was newly divorced, and the two began seeing each other off and on. By the summer of '96, they were dating steadily.

Around the same time, felony court began to lose its luster for Pain. Despite her successes, what had once seemed "fun" quickly lost its appeal. "It got to where I would read the files and see the pictures about children and murders," she remembers, "and I felt like I was getting cynical and hard. I started questioning if that was what I wanted to deal with every day."

She considered resigning at the end of the year to pursue a career as a personal trainer. In the meantime, she asked to transfer to the office's consumer fraud division -- the Siberia of the D.A.'s office, but also a less stressful division. Russel Turberville, the head of that office, considered himself fortunate that an experienced prosecutor had volunteered to transfer, and was also impressed by Pain herself.

"Her reputation was that she would take any case to court," he says. "She'd try a case that had problems and not shy away. She'd tee up and get after it."

On Pain's first day in consumer fraud, a police officer came to the division seeking a search warrant. Usually, Turberville had to train new people to prepare warrants, but Pain simply sat down and banged one out. "I thought, 'God, this is great,'" he says. "I was real pleased to have her over here."

He stayed pleased for a couple of months. Then, he says, Pain began to seem distracted and distant. Her productivity declined. She avoided him by coming in through a back entrance and spending the day with her office door closed. When he asked what was going on, she mentioned personal problems having to do with her mother's health. Turberville cut her some slack.

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