Incumbent DAs ouster points to police union power

Arguably the biggest news in the Texas criminal justice arena from Tuesday’s primary elections was the ouster of two incumbent District Attorneys: John Bradley in Williamson County and Harris County DA Pat Lykos.
At Texas Monthly, Pam Colloff takes a detailed stab at answering the question “Why John Bradley lost,” pinning the origins of the Williamson County DA’s downfall to the Michael Morton exoneration. (Grits would have been disappointed if such an article failed to mention this blog, having been kicking John Bradley since long before he was down.) The Dallas Observer portrayed Bradley’s ouster as having statewide import:

In an interview before Tuesday’s election, Gary Udashen, president of the Innocence Project of Texas, made it clear that voters in Williamson County were casting ballots that would have statewide implications for the innocence movement.

“If John Bradley loses his election in Williamson county, then that’s a loud message to prosecutors all over the state is that there actually are consequences to engaging in prosecutorial misconduct,” Udashen said. He pointed to the fact that many innocence cases, both those that include DNA evidence (like Morton’s) and those that do not, include instances where prosecutors either deliberately or mistakenly withhold evidence in support of a person’s innocence.

Any reformer joy over Bradley’s demise, however, must be mitigated by part II of the “Great DA Purge of ’12,” in which Murray Newman’s revanchist fantasies were fulfilled by Judge Mike Anderson’s thrashing of incumbent DA Pat Lykos in the Harris County GOP primary, about which Mark Bennett offered this hard-headed assessment:

Lots of defense lawyers are concerned about a Mike Anderson DA’s Office. They foresee a return to the bad old scalp-counting days of Chuck Rosenthal. I’m not worried. The results I got for my clients under Rosenthal were no worse than those I’ve obtained in the last four years.

DIVERT [a pretrial diversion program for DWI] is going to go the way of the dodo, but Anderson will honor the agreements made by defendants with the Lykos DA’s Office. The policy against taking charges on trace drug cases will vanish; that doesn’t bother me (except as a part of the war on drugs, to which I object but of which it’s a small part). Pretrial diversions won’t be as common, but dismissals will take their place. The reality is that the criminal-justice system is strained, and the DA, whoever it is, will have to make decisions on allocating resources.

That last bit is the critical issue: Lykos as DA took responsibility for the office’s role in resource allocation throughout the whole system, not just in her office, adjusting policies that Anderson wants to reverse in order to reduce felony court caseloads and overcrowding at the county jail. I agree Anderson will inevitably be constrained by resource allocation, which drives policies much more than ideology. But my fear is that he’ll consider resource allocation at the jail (Democratic) Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s problem, changing policies to reverse the remarkable decline in inmate numbers that has dramatically relieved county budget pressure from corrections spending. (Just a couple of years ago, Harris County housed 1,000+ local inmates on contract in Louisiana.) Worst case scenario: A year or so after Anderson takes office, Harris County is shipping inmates to Louisiana again and raising taxes to pay for pretrial detention and maybe an expanded jail voters already rejected. This, apparently, is the “conservative” thing to do.

On the D-side in Houston, perennial candidate Lloyd Oliver, who runs by his own admission to get his name on the ballot as free advertising, ran no campaign but defeated the party’s reportedly much more promising challenger, Zack Fertitta. Most Dems I’ve heard from want nothing to do with Oliver’s candidacy, so unless Lykos enters the race as an Independent, Anderson will coast into office (as will Ms. Duty).

What do these elections “mean” regarding public sentiment? In both cases, IMO less about ideology than either innocence advocates (in Bradley’s case) or tuff-on-crime types (in Harris County) might contend. Indeed, what’s the common thread in the three big contested DA contests in Travis, Harris and Williamson? To me, it’s special-interest backing: When police unions and their PACs vigorously campaigned for a DA candidate, they won, even in the GOP, strangely, whose voters are otherwise generally hostile to public-employee unions. (The police union in Houston in particular in rolling in cash.) The Michael Morton case may be what convinced Jana Duty to enter the DA’s contest and demonstrated John Bradley’s vulnerability, but it was mobilization by Williamson County law-enforcement unions on her behalf that arguably put her over the top. If they’d campaigned for Bradley, IMO he would have won. Once they abandoned him, he was toast.

Grits spent 14 years working professionally in campaigns and in that time I learned that most non-campaign professionals tend to read into election results whatever they want. Murray Newman’s reaction summed it up: “My analysis of the election is mostly just a confirmation of what I’ve always thought.” That’s true of most electoral analysis, especially when you hear folks claim an election is a “mandate” for this or that particular policy. In reality, the reasons elections are won or lost are more related to money, organization, and the vicissitudes of fate, like in this case a delayed, low-turnout election. Candidates in urban counties can’t (without selling their souls) raise enough money to effectively communicate with or turn out voters, who as a result enter the voting booth virtually blind, especially on downballot courthouse races. In that context, special interest spending makes all the difference, and if there’s any lesson from Tuesday’s DA elections, to Grits it’s that that continues to be the case.

RELATED: From the Dallas News, “The Repudiation of John Bradley.” The editorial closes with this gem:

In their words:

“John Bradley represents everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system in Williamson County. … He is more concerned with protecting his reputation and his statistics than he is seeking justice and the truth.” — Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty

“I don’t think, on its face, that a DNA result … [on] a piece of evidence away from the crime scene immediately proves innocence.” — Williamson County DA John Bradley, in August 2011, about testing a bandanna that was linked to the Christine Morton murder scene and pointed to another man, and not husband Michael Morton, as the killer. Bradley had opposed the DNA tests.

AND: From the Statesman, “Bradley’s loss a signal to prosecutors.”

SEE ALSO: How do you make prosecutors cry?

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