A Digital Bathroom Wall for Pat Lykos
The new Harris County district attorney won election on promises of reform, and immediately afterward, snapped her staff to attention. Seven assistant DAs were promptly fired. The others, some 250 of them, were informed that Pat Lykos would be referred to as "Judge," and they would attend her swearing-in ceremony at 10 a.m. on New Year's Day — a county holiday — dressed "as if you were going to trial."
The prosecutors did as they were told. They filed obediently into the criminal justice center and into the big jury assembly room there, observing all formalities, giving every outward sign of respect. Only later, anonymously, on Murray Newman's blog, was it said that "the whole thing had the low budget feel of something right out of Branson or Dollywood"; that "her speech was weak"; that she was surrounded by "inept pandering whores"; that the affair was "an utterly ridiculous, nausea-inducing circle jerk."
All of which served to indicate that the reformation of the district attorney's office remains incomplete. Newman's blog — harriscountycriminaljustice.blogspot.com — has lately become a sort of bathroom wall for disgruntled prosecutors, the place to go to write something mean about the boss. Newman himself is an Aggie cowboy prosecutor whose life was devoted to "helping victims of crime," until Lykos fired him. The DA's office was "just a great place to work" under Chuck Rosenthal, he told me. Rosenthal gave raises, and he never micromanaged or second-guessed you. "He let prosecutors be prosecutors." Newman envisioned them all as a team, the "ones wearing the white hats." Riding into battle, he used to get pumped for trial by listening to Ace Frehley and the theme music for The Magnificent Seven.
And then Rosenthal's computer was found jammed with racist jokes and porn and hot e-mails to the secretary, and "it was horrible, absolutely horrible." The office came under a barrage of criticism, and Rosenthal finally slinked home to his wife. As the campaign to replace Rosenthal got underway, the criticism only intensified. Critics spoke not just of Rosenthal's e-mails but of what the prosecutors themselves had done, of old complaints that they had relied on corrupt evidence, had locked away innocent people — had obstructed justice in relentless pursuit of wins for themselves. These were scandals that really hadn't fazed Newman; not, he said, like the e-mails. It seemed to him that outsiders had simply "spotted weakness" in the office and were "pouncing." Newman, meanwhile, continued to believe that it was "one of the best district attorney's offices in the world," and about a year ago, started his blog just to shout back "at all the criticisms that so many good prosecutors didn't deserve."
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He was not, as it turns out, an ineffective shouter. The campaign came down to a race between C.O. Bradford, the police chief who had presided over the collapse of the Houston crime lab, and Lykos, a former police detective and state district judge who was known for her authoritarian style and who promised nothing less than to establish "integrity and justice for all." Newman, on his blog, referred to Lykos as the "Queen of Mean." He ultimately framed the race as a battle of "Evil vs. Incompetent," with Lykos cast as evil, apparently, because she seemed to oppose the white hats. When at last "Evil won," and Newman was fired, he wrote that he had expected nothing less from "The Old Goat" — but that what "absolutely sickens" him is her treatment of his mentors, his friends, his "family."
On his blog, for them, Newman was soon bludgeoning the elected district attorney for all he was worth. He was still in the office, serving out his notice, when he and his friends gleefully collaborated on their own Christmas carol: "On the 7th day of Christmas my true love gave to me 7 days of Lykos Hell every single week, 6 emails from my family wanting an explanation for why I won't be visiting as planned for New Years... and a little troll from aspider hole."
Newman was "double-fired" after that, ordered to leave the office immediately — which served only to encourage him. On New Year's Day, with nothing else to do, Newman expressed certainty that well over half of his former colleagues "wish there was somebody else being sworn in" and begged his friends to tell what he missed at the "coronation." In scores of anonymous posts, they happily obliged.
Some wrote that it wasn't so bad. "Kind of self-congratulatory," sure, but "she did praise professionalism and integrity. She didn't berate us... She ended with the mantra 'Do the right thing, the right way.' In the spirit of the New Year," that poster said, he was willing to take Lykos "at her word."
He was quickly denounced as "Lykos' reporter," just as anyone who stands up on Newman's blog to say a word for justice and integrity is prone to be shouted down as a "Kool-Aid drinker," a "brown-noser," a talentless "twit," even a "fucking retard."
For how could any tough prosecutor possibly be deceived by Lykos? She was clearly not one of them. She was a woman, it was remarked, who actually wore dresses. As Newman pointed out, she had never been a trial lawyer — and the very idea of a judge becoming district attorney, well, that was "the equivalent of an NFL referee deciding that he wanted to be quarterback."
Lykos wouldn't speak for this story, but was spotted outside the swearing-in reception, smoking a Marlboro alone. On the blog, the Kool-Aid drinkers and the rebels thrashed it out, the former having really just one question for the rebels: Why didn't these people simply quit? The defense lawyer Mark Bennett dared them not to attend the swearing-in ("part of what I do is teach people how to fight," he writes), and it was on his blog, "Defending People," that the answer came that such an act would require courage. "See, growing a pair," the writer explained, "means that we'll all be out of jobs pretty darn quick."
They were not, after all, the revolutionary type. An individual calling himself "The Punisher" complained that he really just wants to be able to "use my good work ethic and have it backed up by the people above me," as Rosenthal had done. Instead, there had been these weeks of "cutting heads." It didn't seem fair, didn't seem right. The prosecutors are scared, and their greatest fear seems to be that they'll wind up like Newman, over on "the dark side," working criminal defense, without salary and benefits.
As rumors spread of continued purges, of internal memos being distributed "Re: unprofessionalism of reading toxic antiregime blogs at work" and of investigations being conducted regarding improper use of county computers, Newman predicted that his former colleagues may soon become so paralyzed by fear that the courts will choke with backlog. That'll show Lykos, he seems to think: A prosecutor needs support. And until Lykos causes the total shutdown of the criminal justice system, or until his "last dying breath," Newman vows to be the criminal defense lawyer whose blog supports prosecutors. There's an aspect of bitterness to it as well, he admits, but "it's natural to be irritated about losing a job."
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