Hang 'Em High, Mom

Kids say the darnedest things

When deciding how to punish a person convicted of a crime, judges can study testimony, hear from both sides' lawyers and put years of legal experience to use.

Or they can ask their ten-year-old kid. And if the kid says to slam the guy, then slam the guy. That's what 208th District Judge Denise Collins did, according to one defense attorney.

Court papers filed in Austin outline a bizarre scenario.

Collins had the case of Matthew Dobrenich, who pleaded guilty to indecency with a child and faced a maximum sentence of 20 years. Since Dobrenich had no prior criminal history, says an attorney who's handled similar cases, he likely would have gotten a light sentence, perhaps even deferred adjudication with counseling (like former KPRC-AM host Jon Matthews). Instead, he got 15 years.

In a sworn affidavit, defense attorney David A. Jones says he heard rumors that Collins, in chatting with other lawyers, mentioned discussing the case with her son the day of sentencing in 2001. After the attorney notified the court he'd be filing a motion on the incident, the affidavit says, Collins called him.

"The judge said that she was driving to court with her son that morning and that the PSI [Pre-Sentence Investigation] folder was laying between them," the affidavit says. "She said her son began reading the PSI...[and] that she went on to discuss the merits of the case."

Collins told her son that she had to sentence Dobrenich; the son said the defendant "should get 35 years for what he did," the affidavit states.

An unsworn affidavit by James Stafford, one of the lawyers involved in the original chat, said Collins had been talking about how kids these days are more serious and that her son had wanted a punishment "greater than what she thought the facts deserved." But the name of the defendant was not mentioned, Stafford said, and there was nothing to indicate her son had influenced any action.

Stafford didn't sign the affidavit, though, and in a later e-mail (also an exhibit in the file) claimed Jones wanted "to embarrass [Collins] politically." Jones called that claim "outrageous" in a court document.

In her own filings, Collins wrote that she based her sentencing solely on the law and the facts of the case.

Jones is still trying to have Collins removed from the case, according to the file, but he isn't having much luck.

Maybe he should try to get the kid to represent his client.

RIP, HST

Just about every publication in America other than Model Railroad News had a piece on the suicide of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

We can't let the event pass without noting Thompson's recent loving description of our fair city, written for Rolling Stone after the first Bush-Kerry debate in 2004:

"Houston is a cruel and crazy town on a filthy river in East Texas with no zoning laws and a culture of sex, money and violence. It's a shabby sprawling metropolis ruled by brazen women, crooked cops and super-rich pan-sexual cowboys who live by the code of the West -- which can mean just about anything you need it to mean, in a pinch."

Well, yeah -- but we have light rail.

Gee, no wonder they said the good doctor was slipping in his old age.

And Goliath Is Down! Goliath Is Down!

It was a little over three years ago when pizza delivery man James Nelson, 37, acted on his dream -- he registered the name www.thewoodlands.biz on the Net.

"When I got my name, I was all excited -- 'I can run my directory! I can run my directory!' " he says, and as he does it's hard not to bring to mind the sheer heart-pounding thrill of Steve Martin discovering "The new phone books are here!" in The Jerk.

Alas, Nelson's visionary plan to launch an online business directory serving the suburb of The Woodlands soon ran afoul of the powers-that-be in that same planned community. They -- The Woodlands Land Development Company, L.P. -- sued him for trademark infringement in federal court.

Undaunted, Nelson penned a plea for help on his site: "I make $6 an hour. I don't have tens of thousands of dollars to defend my freedom," he wrote. Touched, local lawyer Dave O'Neil took his case pro bono.

Nelson refused what O'Neil called "countless" settlement offers. "I haven't tried a lawsuit yet where we didn't have a chance of losing, and [Nelson] embraced that chance of losing at every turn and just wanted to see it through to the end," O'Neil says. "They spent about $130,000 pre-trial on shooting at him."

But the Hollywood story wasn't over. On February 15, a jury sided with Nelson. He won...well, he won the right to keep using the Web site address, an address from which he hasn't made a ton of money so far: He has about 250 advertisers but hasn't charged them in case he lost the suit and had to fork over profits.

"He just duked it out to the very end, and I've just got a lot of admiration," O'Neil says.

(Nelson didn't return our calls, apparently peeved we didn't write about him after interviewing him when the suit was filed a year ago. Or maybe the victory went to his head.)

Robert C. Shaddox, attorney for the development company, downplayed the verdict. "We were just seeking an injunction, not any damages, and so there were really no consequences to The Woodlands...[J]uries surprise people sometimes."

The company may appeal, Shaddox says, and they will continue to take action when they think someone's impinging on their turf. He also called O'Neil's estimate of what was spent on the case "inaccurate," but won't go into details.

All this over a "dot-biz" domain name? Just imagine what they would have spent if it had been a Web address people actually use.

Bleeding and Leading

The success of NASCAR proves at least one thing -- people love to see car crashes. But you don't have to tell that to Monte West, owner of the Montgomery County News.

West started the independent paper about ten years ago when he became fed up with the local media being too negative. Now he drives traffic to his Web site by offering plentiful video footage of every car crash he can get to in the county. (Positive video footage of car crashes, we're assuming.)

He listens to police scanners and heads to the scene ASAP.

"The EMS gives me a little crap," he says. "They don't want you taking pictures of their patients, but they really don't have a say about it when it's on a public roadway. Anyone can go up and see what's happening."

The DPS, on the other hand, doesn't mind as much. "I have a guy that flies a little private plane. If I have something that I think is pretty major I'll call him up and he can get in the air in just a few minutes and take aerial photos," West says. "DPS appreciates that because a lot of times when they're doing their accident investigations they can use those photos."

How about the victims? "I've taken some flak because one lady's son was injured in a wreck and she kinda didn't like the fact that I was taking pictures of it," he says. "I responded that it's kind of my job." Other victims, or their families, like the fact they can see that crews did all they could to help.

Rest assured, ethical standards are involved: "I don't take body pictures," West says. Sort of. "I don't do death pictures at all. An injured person being taken out of a car, I don't take the face, but I take the body. And I don't focus in on the body. I'm more focused on the carnage of the wreck."

And there is a noble purpose: "We're gonna throw this blood and gore out on the front page and hopefully they'll read it and hopefully they'll be more cautious when they go through this intersection," he says. Nobly.

Read Before You Write

The redneck areas on the Gulf Freeway are probably not the best places to put up billboards calling for diversity and love and acceptance of all God's children. But apparently it doesn't even help if you're promoting gay-bashing. The folks at "Love Won Out" claim they're doing the Lord's work converting gays to straightness; it seems, however, the local graffiti artists only read as far as the word "homosexuality."

Anti-Dentites

The good citizens of Boulevard Oaks near Rice Village are up in arms about an invader in their midst, a business trying to open on one of their residential streets. A massage parlor? A modeling studio? No, a dental office.

"We're really just trying to maintain the integrity of our neighborhood and we just don't want any commercialization," says Margaret Young, leader of the yard-sign-studded revolt.

Plus they just hate dentists.

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