By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
Flood's eyes flicker behind Dolce & Gabbana eyeglasses. For an instant, he seems to smile.
At the large table in the center of misdemeanor Court 2 sits the defendant, flanked by Flood's paralegal and sidekick Andrea Podlesney. The defendant wears a dark suit and a docile demeanor just as Flood has instructed. But not everything has gone quite according to plan.
This morning the prosecution unveiled a surprise piece of evidence: an audio recording of the ride to the station. This would provide the jury's only glimpse of the defendant on the night in question, since there is no video of the tests he failed at the scene, and he refused all tests at the station.
It would also be the jury's only chance to hear the defendant speak. As with almost all of Flood's clients, he will not take the stand, though for drama's sake Flood will pretend to confer with him about doing so during trial. This keeps certain details from the impressionable jurors — the defendant was driving home from the Men's Club, for instance, and has priors. It also guards against perjury; the defendant has privately indicated that he was in fact drunk.
Podlesney took notes in the witness room as the audio of her client talking to the arresting officer played on her laptop. It was a 45-minute soliloquy of self-pity. "I hope you feel good about yourself," the defendant said to the officer. He then revealed earlier arrests "because of my wife beating on me," and for reckless driving on his motorcycle. "Oh Jesus," Podlesney remarked near the end as the defendant, who is Hispanic, said to the black cop: "At least you're not white."
While Podlesney transcribed and Flood hustled from court to court to tend to other clients, Court 2 carried on with the morning's proceedings. The coordinator moved down her long list of names in nasal monotone. The bailiff acted as fashion and etiquette police — tuck in that shirt; turn off that phone; don't slouch; don't sleep. A woman cried because her ride home went to jail.
Attorneys shuffled from their clients to the judge and around the cluttered table in baggy suits that made noise. One sported Wranglers, and another's tie hung past his crotch. Still another looked like he'd been attacked by a haberdasher and emerged as a cross between a yachtsman and a pimp. He wore a fedora and a purple tie and was wrapped in a six-button blazer.
Flood and the defendant entered in their handsome suits about 10:30 a.m., and the benches cleared for the potential jurors. The process of selecting six for trial, or voir dire, began with a crash course on reasonable doubt courtesy of the judge, followed by an election pitch. The prosecutor, another newbie, was up next.
He read from printed notes, stopped, sputtered and forced his y'alls. Flood watched the jurors from his leather chair. He eyed two women who were educators, as those tend to worry him. He caught juror No. 2 staring at his Montblanc and considered switching to a Bic, then noticed the man's gold Rolex and changed his mind. The prosecutor flipped through charts on an easel-board better suited to a schoolroom; his address was long and dull enough to later draw a scolding from the bailiff.
Attorneys like Flood make their good living on shredding the baby prosecutors who in Houston use DWI trials to cut their teeth. "It's not hard to win sometimes. You can kind of prey on them a little bit," Flood says.
Caught in the middle of the unbalanced exchange are the city's 14 task force officers, who each make around 250 drunk-driving arrests a year and are usually the only witnesses on the stand. Officer Don Egdorf has been a cop for nine years and on the task force for seven, and is considered by defense attorneys one of the tougher nuts to crack in trial. He coaches prosecutors on what to ask him beforehand, but often finds himself biting his tongue all the same.
"A lot of times we know what we want to say and how we want to say it, but we can't," he says.
Egdorf wears a red Mothers Against Drunk Driving bracelet on his right wrist. His father, a police captain, was run over on the job by a drunk driver and spent a year and a half in recovery during Egdorf's high school years.
"Most of the guys here probably had something happen to them or their families," Egdorf says. "Or they've just been out on really nasty scenes."
The task force recently mapped its last five months of work, marking each arrest with a small green dot. The result was a big green blob. More than 11,300 people have been arrested on DWI-related charges so far in 2009, already a jump of about 1,400 from last year.
Fewer than half agree to a breathalyzer. (Those who do average a blood-alcohol content of .16, double the legal limit in Texas. If officers get a warrant for a blood test — as they do during "no refusal" weekends — that jumps to .20.) Along with profanity, DWI is the only crime based on an officer's opinion. This makes his performance during an arrest especially important, as it is often the only thing for the defense to attack.
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