Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Casting a light on the underbelly of the city

For months the Harris County District Attorney's Office fought to prevent the video of Chad Holley being beaten by members of the Houston Police Department from the public.

I'm a criminal defense attorney. It's my duty to defend the Constitution - regardless of how unpopular the cause might be. Some of my colleagues are defending the officers accused of beating Mr. Holley while he was down and defenseless.

One of my colleagues, Mr. Chris Tritico, wrote an opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle yesterday in which he argued against the release of the video. He argued that the video should have been kept under wraps until the officers stood trial for their alleged misdeeds.
I was as disturbed by the images on the Holley video as anyone. That is why Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos got it right the first time. This video should have been seen for the first time in the courtroom. The court of public opinion is not the place to try these officers or anyone else.
Unfortunately Mr. Tritico aligned the interests of the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (of which I am a boardmember) with that of the Harris County District Attorney's Office. Ms. Lykos did not "get it right" when she fought tooth and nail to prevent the public from seeing that video. Ms. Lykos wasn't concerned with whether or not the officers involved received a fair trial. That's never been the concern of the DA's office.

Ms. Lykos was scared of how the public would react to seeing what those of us in the courtroom know happens more often than anyone cares to admit. She was scared to death of how the public would react to the knowledge that those who are sworn to protect us and uphold the law are a lawless force unto themselves. She was scared that juries, having seen the video, would believe defendants who testified that they were beaten by the police. She was scared that juries wouldn't give the boys in blue the benefit of the doubt when questions arose regarding the legality of a search. She was scared juries wouldn't put their blind trust in the testimony of a police officer on the witness stand.
The release of this video, its airing and the rush to judgment by those who know better is a direct assault on the Bill of Rights. Lawyers on both sides of the docket have opined after the video was made public that these defendants will have a hard time getting a fair trial now. They are absolutely right.
The airing of the video is not an assault on the Bill of Rights. The video was obtained through the discovery process in a civil proceeding. A private citizen provided local television stations with copies of the video. The video ran on the evening news. There was no state action to deprive the officers of their right to a trial by a jury of their peers. There was no illegal search. The officers' right to remain silent was not violated.

A civil judge need not be concerned with the goings-on at the criminal courthouse. A criminal judge has no more authority than a civil judge.

The assault on the Bill of Rights is a daily battle fought at 1201 Franklin. The police, prosecutors and judges are all complicit in laying siege to our constitutional rights.
Our Constitution will be rendered a nullity the day that we take away any of the rights given to the people simply because we do not like what someone has been accused of doing. This includes the right to a public trial by an impartial jury and the fact that everyone accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty by that same impartial jury.
Our Constitution will also be rendered a nullity should we decide to ignore the First Amendment because the information may not be favorable to our position. Outside a protective order in the civil case, no agency of the state had any authority to prevent the video from being shown on the local news.

And, make no mistake about it, this is news. From a young age we are told the police are here to help and protect us. Most folks still believe that. Those of us who work in the trenches know the truth. We know that officers lie under oath. We know that officers plant evidence. We know that officers bend the truth in their offense reports. We know that officers beat and kill people. It's an ugly truth. It's a truth that I fight with when my daughters ask me about the police. If no one trusts the police society begins to break down.

I can assure Mr. Tritico that there will be twelve citizens who have no clue whatsoever what happened to Mr. Holley. There are plenty of people in this city who haven't the slightest idea what's going on outside their little bubble.

Lest anyone be confused, although I serve on the board of the HCCLA, in no way do I represent that I speak for the organization. I speak for myself.

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