Never pass up a chance to sit down or relieve yourself. -old Apache saying

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Lisa Falkenburg

Fortunately, in this right-wing infested swamp in southeast Texas, the Houston Chronicle publishes a bi-weekly column by Lisa Falkenburg. She's one of a number of rather fearless columnists who are still speaking truth.

Lisa has written a couple of times about the Planned Parenthood exoneration in Harris County. Here's the latest.

Grand jury decision in Planned Parenthood case inspires look back

"Runaway grand jury" is meant to be an insult.

But in Harris County, with a long history of political influence, rubber stamping and good-ol'-boy culture infiltrating the criminal justice system, it just might be a badge of honor. What honest citizen wouldn't want to run away from that stuff?

The term "runaway" has been hurled most recently at the panel that dared to thwart political calculations and clear Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast of wrongdoing in videos secretly recorded by anti-abortion activists. Instead, grand jurors indicted the activists.

Somebody had to put a stop to all that independent thought going on in the grand jury room. Terry Yates and Jared Woodfill were happy to oblige.

The activists' lawyers, both with deep Republican connections, argue that the charges from the "runaway grand jury" won't hold up in court. They're leaning hard on Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, a fellow "pro-life" Republican, to dismiss the indictments.

Anderson says she will respect the grand jury's decision, which resulted from an investigation based on facts and law.

Not every district attorney has been so bold.

The last time Yates cried "runaway grand jury," he got a more sympathetic response.

It was 2008 and another grand jury had just indicted Republican Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina and his wife in connection with a fire that destroyed their home in Spring. The justice himself was indicted for document tampering. They both maintained their innocence.

Within hours, Yates' friend and hunting buddy, then-District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, also a Republican, said charges would be dismissed due to "insufficient evidence."

Two grand jurors were so incensed that they began talking to the media about what they perceived as a legal process subverted by Rosenthal's political maneuvering even before the indictments.

Foreman Bob Ryan, a Republican real estate broker who had served on several grand juries, said the "overwhelmingly Republican" grand jury came to its decision fairly after hours upon hours of testimony and had no political axe to grind with Justice Medina, who had been appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.

'Run its course'

Ryan called Rosenthal's actions "ludicrous," and when I caught up with him this week, he said he hasn't served on a grand jury since.

"Forty bucks a day is not worth the grief," he said. "I got to the point where I said there's too much stress trying to do right."

Jeffrey Dorrell, a civil attorney who served as assistant foreman, said he sometimes worried for fellow grand jurors who had more to lose.

"We had octogenarian grandmothers who were in Catholic women's leagues," he told me Friday. "I think three of the members of our grand jury were actually delegates to the Republican National Convention. That's a hard seat to get."

The slightest taint, he added, can bump a delegate off of such a position.

"I so admired the courage and fortitude of those people," he said.

Yates tried to have grand jurors held in contempt for talking to the media, even though they didn't discuss evidence or deliberations. The judge didn't bite, but he did weigh in on the DA's actions.

State District Judge Jim Wallace - yes, also a Republican - criticized the district attorney for not allowing the grand jury's decision to "run its course."

"Why did they bring the case to the grand jury if they didn't want the grand jury to do its job?" Wallace asked.

Trying to go public

The next month, six members of the grand jury sued so they could legally discuss what happened in their secret proceedings, and, they said, to defend themselves against insulting allegations that they were some rogue panel that didn't follow the law. An appellate court ruled against them, claiming it had no jurisdiction. The Supreme Court declined to review the case.

In 2010, four grand jurors made the last-ditch effort of asking former Distirct Attorney Pat Lykos - yep, Republican - for protection from prosecution to go public with evidence they heard against Medina. The request went nowhere.

Francisca Medina was later re-indicted by a separate grand jury in 2008 for crimes including felony arson and felony criminal mischief. Lykos dismissed that indictment as well after Medina's defense produced credible evidence that an electrical cause of the fire couldn't be ruled out.

'A novel idea'

Fast forward to this week and the "runaway" grand jury in the Planned Parenthood case. Their names remain sealed as a routine measure by state district Judge Mary Lou Keel.

Dorrell and Ryan couldn't help but see the similarities, and the jarring dissimilarities, in the two cases.

"I think Devon Anderson actually has some scruples and remembers the law," Dorrell said.

He urged the grand jurors to be proud of their decision and to stand their ground.

"Apparently, this grand jury decided it was going to do what the facts dictated and not what someone told them to do. Gosh, what a novel idea," he said.

I couldn't reach Yates, the attorney criticizing the current grand jury and urging Anderson to dismiss their indictments, to talk about the two cases.

But anyone quick to criticize Anderson should consider an argument Yates once made.  Voters, he said back in 2008, just need to trust.

"You elected this guy district attorney," Yates said of Rosenthal. "And you've got to assume that he knows what he's doing."

Sage advice. How about that same assumption for Anderson?

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