Justice for Some

Just who is a victim? After flexing its muscles to reform the justice system, the victims’ rights movement suffers growing pains over divisive issues.

"I'm sure there could be concern that he advocates stronger for Justice For All than he does for other groups," Spellman says. "We just have to make sure that Justice For All is not dominating his activities."

Spellman points out that Kahan serves on boards or committees of several victim organizations such as Parents of Murdered Children and the county's Inter-Agency Victims Council.

However, the other groups are hardly political activists -- none of them had ever campaigned the way Justice For All did in the last election season.

Clements has helped to reform the justice system as a JFA leader.
AP/Pat Sullivan
Clements has helped to reform the justice system as a JFA leader.
Cushing: A double standard exists over who's considered a victim.
Cushing: A double standard exists over who's considered a victim.

Justice For All is actually a three-armed effort that includes a political action committee of its own and the Justice For All Alliance.

The alliance is the part that works with victims. It just received a grant of $65,000 from the governor's office to have crime victims' statements filmed professionally so that they can protest paroles, even until death. Another $104,000 has been requested to continue the project.

Justice For All and its PAC can't receive such grants. The alliance has a separate accounting and a separate phone line, but it's Clements's voice on all answering machines. And it's her voice that many officeholders -- particularly judges and legislators -- fear, especially on the campaign trail.

Gary Polland found out about the wrath of JFA when he left his six-year chairmanship of the county GOP to run for the state senate. Polland says he went in for an endorsement screening session at JFA last year. Present were Clements, Hubbarth and Kim Ogg, a JFA board member who worked with Kahan at City Hall.

Polland says he agreed with virtually everything the group advocated, even knowing the strong JFA ties of his Republican primary election opponent, Kyle Janek. "I thought we had a real good session. They didn't endorse me, but in a race like that, often you go with what you know."

Months later, the candidate was stunned to see some of the most vicious campaign attack ads ever -- JFA-coordinated assaults targeting him. Among them was a radio commercial about his appellate brief filed for a sex offender:

"Veteran police and child abuse counselors are moved to tears, Gary Polland is moved to greed. He takes taxpayer money to represent this monster."

"It was horrible," says Polland. "I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'What did I do to deserve this?' " He notes that Republican judges had asked him to handle some appeals, and he'd accepted.

Polland says only about 10 percent of his legal practice is criminal defense work, yet Justice For All portrayed the conservative "as somehow being hostile to law enforcement, hostile to victims and pro-criminal because, as part of my practice, I had represented people accused of committing crimes."

Some mailouts and TV ads even featured photos of his clients who were black. "I showed this to friends around the country and they called it the Texas equivalent of the Willie Horton attack. It was racist, absolutely."

The onslaught succeeded, turning a close race into a rout. "They just annihilated me," says Polland. He believes the group is sending a message to attorneys with political aspirations: Don't ever represent controversial criminal defendants.

Polland notes that the ads had nothing to do with crime victims. "Victims' rights?" Polland laughs. "I'm a victim of Justice For All."

Some political veterans believe the JFA-inspired butchering of the GOP's former county chairman will be a sore spot in the party for years and that the backlash could cost Janek in the general election.

In Austin, at least a few legislators also tell of growing weary of what they call grandstanding by JFA's Rusty Hubbarth. "The best way to get a bill defeated is to have Justice For All support it," says one insider. "You get things done by talking to people and building coalitions."

Justice For All has tried to expand nationally, but membership seems to be stalled at around 4,000, nearly all of it local. Some veterans in the victims' rights community are critical of Kahan and Clements but do not want to be quoted on the record. Justice For All still walks tall in Houston, and leaders can carry a big stick for critics.

One complaint is that JFA goes over the line. Law professor Dow says the group's credibility is lacking. "My basic view is that organizations have an obligation to be faithful to the truth."

Skeptics wonder if the group is past its prime. "The whole concept of Justice For All was that there was this carelessly liberal law enforcement and judicial branch," JFA critic Ray Hill says. "If that situation ever existed, it certainly doesn't anymore. Go down to the Harris County Courthouse and find me a lenient prosecutor or judge. You can't."

Polland, who refers to Andy Kahan as a "sleazeball," says some JFA members told him they regretted the brutal campaign ads. "This is what happens when people get involved with these organizations who don't have the best interests of the organization at heart," Polland believes. "Justice For All started out as a group with noble goals, and it's been subverted."

Psychologist Doerfler says victim support groups serve a wonderful purpose, especially in the beginning, "but sometimes they just get stuck. When we are afraid or continue to feel pain, we have a tendency to want to control -- not only ourselves but others. I think at that point that people start verging from something that is an attempt to reorder their lives to something that's maladaptive and pathological."

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