Justice Free-for-all

It is not the best of times to be a criminal-defense lawyer in Harris County courtrooms. Judgeships are held by more or less conservative Republicans, many of them former prosecutors who are sensitive to the views and political pressure generated by victims' rights advocacy groups.

For the heavily Democratic defense lawyer corps, sometimes the elements of the system seem to be working hand in hand to convict clients at the expense of their constitutional rights.

At least that's the way Danny Easterling, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, sees it.

Weighing in on the victims' rights debate.
Joe Forkan
Weighing in on the victims' rights debate.

"The victims' rights groups have their lobbying efforts Š directed toward the Republican judiciary, which is more sympathetic to their views," says Easterling. "We do have a concern that the level playing field that is supposed to exist is tilted because of the political pressure of the groups."

Defense attorney E. Gail Huff puts it more pungently. "The way things are going, why the hell don't they just give the victims' families baseball bats and let them beat the guys to death?"

The belief that the judicial deck is increasingly stacked may partially explain the complaints that flowed into the defense lawyers' association last month, after the county's announcement of a mandatory recertification training session on August 27. Some criminal lawyers didn't cotton to the idea that in order to be eligible for court appointments to represent indigent defendants, they would have to sit through a program that included a speech from Diane Clements. She's the president of Justice for All, a group which lobbies for legislation strengthening victims' rights. Clements's 13-year-old son, Zachary Ryan Clements, was shot to death by a neighbor's child in 1991, and she has been an outspoken victims' advocate ever since.

Clements was included in the program at the behest of two judges, County Criminal Court Judge Jean Spradling Hughes, who is the administrative judge for misdemeanor courts, and criminal District Judge Debbie Mantooth Stricklin.

Stricklin is the wife of District Attorney Johnny Holmes's first assistant Don Stricklin, and she is a former prosecutor once dubbed by admiring conservatives as "The Iron Maiden." Stricklin says she thought the defense lawyers would benefit from Justice for All's perspective on victims' rights. Other speakers at the session included criminal lawyer Kent Schaffer, and Marshall Shelsy, staff counsel for the county criminal courts.

Reacting to complaints from his members, HCCLA president Easterling says he got assurances from Clements that her presentation would stick to discussing current laws and would treat defense lawyers with respect. Likewise, Easterling sent a letter to his membership asking them to be respectful and listen to her message.

"I didn't want there to be a controversy; I wanted the program to go smoothly, and I thought it was going to," says the attorney.

Easterling says Clements broke her promise by talking about how influential her group was in passing laws and by offering her own views about needed reforms.

The session's decorum quickly dissolved into a tumult. Some attorneys registered their disapproval silently with their feet by walking out of the session at the downtown jury assembly room.

"She made the mistake of putting too much personal opinion into her speech," says Easterling. "When she started talking about those subjects and drifting off of the law and getting into personal stuff, that's what I think upset a lot of the participants there."

Near the end of her 20-minute talk, Clements told the lawyers that Justice for All had one unfinished bit of legislative business. After noting that the role of the victim at trial is "never enough," Clements seemed to deliberately antagonize the defense attorneys:

"One bill we want passed that we haven't found a sponsor for yet -- and y'all probably will try and make sure that we don't -- is that victims will be allowed to sit at the prosecution table."

At that, boos, hisses and moans erupted from the audience. Several more lawyers walked out.

"Okay, I know, that's pretty much how the legislators received it too," Clements continued. "But I can tell you it's done in the state of Georgia."

That provoked a fresh round of catcalls from lawyers seemingly unimpressed with the invocation of the Deep South as a judicial role model. Undeterred, Clements plowed ahead: "Yeah, it has been an effective tool if you talk with prosecutors." That drew more hoots. Apparently reacting to the crowd's disdain for D.A.'s, the Justice for All president concluded by saying, "Certainly prosecutors are the victims, but who knows where victims' rights will move to in the next millennium?"

"That's not what we came to hear," says Easterling. "That's not about the law; it was about proposed legislation for victims' rights, and really had no place on the program. The purpose of the program was not to have the organization's personal agenda given to usŠ.I'm disappointed that she provoked that reaction, and she should have known she was going to."

Robert Fickman, an attorney in the crowd, stood and shouted, "Question, question," as Clements was ushered away.

Fickman later explains that he wanted to ask Clements whether she would support "a fund established for those victims of police brutality or those people that were incarcerated for lengthy periods of time and then later found to be innocent."

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