Justice on the Block

Is the D.A.'s office for sale to the highest bidder?

In a series of campaign forums, Lykos consistently delivers a strident sermon preaching old-time law and order, leavened with an appeal for better prosecution of child abusers and perpetrators of family violence. She's easily the most forceful and articulate speaker of the five candidates.

Lykos got her start with an appointment by commissioners to a county criminal court bench in 1980. During her ten-year tenure as the judge of the 180th District Court, Lykos accumulated a long line of detractors, both defense lawyers and district attorneys.

"She will be a walking disaster," predicts a former Holmes assistant. "No one who ever practiced in her courtroom will work under her. She is the only judge who could put [assistant district attorney] Ira Jones and defense attorneys on the same side. She's abusive and she's petty."

The Fab Five: Rosenthal speaks, while (from left) Lykos, Stafford, Leitner and Kelley wait their turns.
John Childs
The Fab Five: Rosenthal speaks, while (from left) Lykos, Stafford, Leitner and Kelley wait their turns.

She is a bit of a control freak. During early campaign speeches, Lykos would stop in mid-word if someone tried to take her picture, admonishing the shutterbug that she did not want to be photographed with her mouth open.

Opponents also point to figures by Holmes's office rating Lykos poorly for a high number of probations granted by her court in 1993. Then there were her consistently low rankings by attorneys in bar association polls. Those criticisms of her were first aired in Lykos's unsuccessful statewide race for the Republican nomination for Texas attorney general. Another local judge, Don Wittig, was in that race, although Lykos carried Harris and surrounding counties.

Lykos calls the accusations deceptive and dishonest. On the issue of the high probation totals, she points out that many criminal judges grant deferred adjudication, which is a form of probation that does not include a final conviction. Lykos says that in her court she refused to grant deferred adjudication for several categories of crimes, including embezzlement and fraud, in order that there be a final judgment in those cases.

"If you add my totals for both, I think I rank 18th out of 22 judges. This is pure demagoguery."

Likewise, Lykos dismisses low bar polls and the consistent charge she is abrasive and difficult to work with.

"I have never sought the approval of lawyers, and I have never associated [with] or courted them. If there's a bar poll, don't look for my name at the top, 'cause it's not going to be there."

While Lykos campaigns for tougher prosecutions of some violent crimes, she delicately steps around the subject of the high number of death penalty convictions churned out by Harris County. "As far as [the] death penalty," says the former judge, "I feel it puts a value on life: the life of the victim."

Lykos now works for Eckels as an adviser on criminal justice projects, a position that has played into the perception that she is Eckels's surrogate.

"I'm not backed by any faction," says Lykos. "I'm proud of the support of the judge, but I have not asked him to endorse me. I think it's improper for these endorsements. After all, the district attorney is the one in charge of maintaining public integrity and investigating any allegations. And you simply cannot have these entanglements."

After declaring for the D.A.'s race, Lykos says, she was indirectly offered the county civil bench left vacant by the death of Eugene Chambers. Commissioners Court would make the appointment to fill that position.

She turned down the offer.

"I thought that was very flattering that I was so popular," she says, making reference to the criticism that she is abrasive and widely disliked. Asked whether the offer was an inducement to get out of the race, she laughs.

"That's one view. The other is that I'm a good judge. A very good judge."

"If you like the way we've done law enforcement in Harris County over the last 40 years," tall, tanned and mustachioed Chuck Rosenthal told a UH law school audience two weeks ago, "you'll like me." Asked by a panelist if he would handle death penalty cases differently than Johnny Holmes, Rosenthal snapped off "no" so sharply it left the audience murmuring.

To say Rosenthal is the candidate of the status quo would be an understatement. Ever since his days at Lamar High School hanging out with Holmes's younger siblings, Rosenthal has been walking in Johnny's footsteps.

He has spent virtually his entire professional life as a Harris County prosecutor. Married to an FBI agent, Rosenthal refers to his career as a "calling" rather than a job. Early in the campaign he described his prosecutorial role as "the Lord's work." He refers to the death penalty as "a biblical proposition." And he's a devout member of the politically influential Second Baptist Church congregation.

There's no doubt Rosenthal is Holmes's anointed successor. Holmes tipped off Rosenthal about his retirement in plenty of time so that his felony division chief could position himself for the race.

Rosenthal remembers that day, September 8. He was chatting with Holmes about family matters and was getting up to leave when Johnny popped the question: "Say, what would you do if I decided not to run again?"

Rosenthal quickly decided in the affirmative. Several weeks later Holmes officially announced his retirement, and Rosenthal walked across the street to the county clerk's office and filed a campaign treasurer designation for the race.

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