March-April 2011

A morning in the life of a rural prosecutor

Mike Fouts

District Attorney in Haskell, Stonewall, Kent, and Throckmorton ­Counties

I have often wondered how my life both personally and professionally would differ if I lived and worked in an urban setting, although I am not curious enough that I would give even momentary consideration to living in said setting. I have serious doubts that city folk would find my rustic charm appealing. But perhaps some of my cosmopolitan friends have passing interest in life and work in the country? So I take this opportunity to introduce you to my typical morning.

    I reside and work in a rural district. I actually grew up in Rule, Texas, and to this day, when asked where I am from, people think I say rural Texas, not Rule, Texas. I represent a four-county district of Kent, Stonewall, Haskell, and Throckmorton Counties, along highway 380 kinda between Lubbock and Fort Worth. When I say rural, I mean rural. Haskell is the big county with a population just over 4,000. Kent County is the smallest one with a population of 702 good God-fearing citizens and six scumbags. The district is about 120 miles across from east to west, and if you get the urge for a venti decaf soy latte, you will need to allow for at least an hour’s drive to Abilene, Wichita Falls, or Lubbock, depending on your current location. But trust me, you would never get the urge or admit to getting the urge for a venti decaf soy latte in this district. No sir, we drink Folgers and we drink it black.

    I was born and raised in this district and have lived most of my life here. I can admit that my heritage alone makes the job remarkable: Some would argue that in my formative years, I was a bit of a rascal. I would describe my youth as spirited and well-rounded. I have on occasion heard a defendant or defense counsel point out the old “kids will be kids” argument and suggest that their intimate familiarity with my own youth suggests, perhaps, that when I was a kid, I was really a kid. It always helps in this instance to fall back upon the line Val Kilmer uttered as Doc Holliday in Tombstone:  “You’re right about that, but ‘it appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds.’”

    It would not come as a surprise that defense counsel might touch on a minor transgression some 30 years hence, when I am known by virtually every member of a jury panel. On one occasion a venire person, when asked how well she knew me, responded, “I have changed his diapers.” After the trial I thanked her for not saying, “I have seen him naked.” You see, that’s how rumors get started.

A typical morning

6:00 a.m. The alarm goes off, and I awake to another joyous day. Fifteen minutes later, our middle child, who has just returned from feeding his 4-H pigs, tells me his little Duroc is sick. While I am a licensed attorney, my real skill set and calling is an amateur yet practicing veterinarian. So I am off to the pig pen to inoculate the swine. I return to the house to be advised by my wonderful wife that I smell like “pig poop,” and I am making the whole house stink like that again. In complete candor she doesn’t state verbatim that I smell like “pig poop,” but I am attempting here to portray her as the genteel woman that she is not. Even though I will shower before work, perhaps the first unique aspect of a rural prosecutor is that there is a small yet not insignificant chance you will go to work smelling like the excrement of some species of livestock. Fortunately for you though, you would just smell like a local.

8:00 a.m. As I drop the kids at school, I notice my daughter is walking into the building and talking to a youngster, whom I recognize as the child of a man I sent to the pen last week. In a community this small, almost daily you come into contact with your criminal defendants, victims, and their families. I stress to my kids that they should always be courteous to all, that the vast majority of the people I prosecute are decent people who did not comply with the law, and that they have been punished for their wrong. I have always made an effort to treat people with respect and dignity while doing my job. I don’t believe there is any place for a prosecutor to be smug, condescending, or mean-spirited. While I think I have been a hard-nosed prosecutor, I am almost always given respect and decency when I have an encounter with a defendant or their loved ones in the community.

    After completing the carpool, I head over to Cecil’s Country Market. Cecil’s is a convenience store, meat market, and deli that is a gathering place for coffee drinkers and loafers. I walk in to a chorus of, “Look here! Perry Mason just showed up,” and “Are you running for re-election this year?” This is pretty much the same routine three times a week, and I point out I am always running for re-election. One of the patrons informs me that two days ago he went to his barn and someone stole four of his module tarps. I asked him, “Did you call the sheriff?” and he says no. I say, well, call the sheriff, and he responds, “Can’t you tell him? I’ve got to haul some calves to Hollis this morning.” I tell him I don’t even know where his barn is, and he says, “Yeah, you do—it is on that old place of Herbert’s that David used to farm.” Oh, OK, I know where that is, but I tell him the sheriff is going to need more information than I can give him, and he replies, “Well, you tell him and if needs anything he can call me on my pickup phone.” I agree and don’t even find it slightly unusual that the sheriff would automatically have his cell number.

8:30 a.m.–Noon. I arrive at the office, and good Lord it is cold, at least in my office. Our offices were formerly the jury room. When I was elected, the county converted the space into three offices—for me, my investigator, and my secretary. You see, that is the problem. There was only one gas outlet, which is coincidentally in my secretary’s office, so the good old Dearborn space heater resides near her. Thus, if you get her office to a Swedish-sauna, life-threateningly-hot temperature, my office is cool but comfy. However, if you maintain her office temperature for her personal safety in the 95- to 105-degree range, my office and my investigator’s office are like a home playoff game for the Packers. So I button my coat and get to work.

    I call the sheriff before I forget. “Morning, Sheriff. I was at Cecil’s this morning and Jimmy had four module tarps stolen two days ago at his barn.” The sheriff replied,  “Well, I know who did it. I saw Tommy Lloyd yesterday with a cement mixer and some tarps so I stopped him and asked him, ‘Who did you steal that stuff from?’ He said he didn’t steal it but I knew he did. I’ll see about it.”

    Perhaps some of you did not know that carrying tarps was probable cause. Well, according to my sheriff, it is. Second, you city boys can have all that stuff you see on “CSI,” but I will take the gut of my sheriff any day for solving crimes—that is, unless my sheriff’s gut has recently been coated with a couple of fried burritos from a certain chain of convenience stores common throughout West Texas and New Mexico. Trust me, and I mean trust me on this, I implore you in the name of a properly functioning gastrointestinal system, a man can’t rely on his gut for anything after tackling those burritos. How do I know this? I know this because oftentimes that is all there is to eat. If you get a jury out in Throckmorton or Stonewall County past noon and you need something to eat, that is all there is. And “that is all there is” is better than “nuthin’,” which is what there is to eat in Kent County. If you have an aversion to fried burritos or are personally repulsed by Vienna sausages, you probably don’t need to be a rural prosecutor. All the healthy food choices throughout my district are undoubtedly the foundation for my slight build.

    After calling the sheriff I head out to Throckmorton for a docket call. It’s after lunch and I’ve got a drive ahead of me, so you’ll have to wait until the next issue to hear how docket and the rest of my afternoon go. Stay tuned!