January-February 2015

All in the family

Rachel Grove

Assistant Criminal ­District ­Attorney in ­Jefferson County

A father and daughter squared off in a Jefferson County courtroom in a capital murder trial: daughter representing the State and father sitting second chair for the defense.

On the evening of September 8, 2014, I called my parents’ house—pretty normal for me, as I see them often, and we live in the same city. My dad answered.
Me: Hey Dad, what are you doing?
Dad: Rachel, why are you calling here? We shouldn’t be on the phone.
Me: Um, don’t worry—I wasn’t calling you. I was calling to talk to Mom.
Dad: Oh. Well, she’s still at work.
Me: Oh, OK. … Um, so, this is awkward. I guess I will see you in court tomorrow?
Dad: OK, sounds good. Bye.
Me: Bye.
    Despite how the above conversation sounds, my parents and I are close. Most weeks I have dinner with them on Sunday night and sometimes more often during the week. But for two weeks at the end of 2014, I was told that I couldn’t come to dinner, and when I called, I was treated like a telemarketer by my own father—which was a little upsetting, but necessary. The reason for the shift in attitude? I was about to start a (non-death) capital murder case with my dad: me as the prosecutor and he as a defense attorney.
    When I went to work for the Jefferson County Criminal District Attorney’s Office in 2008, the thought of trying a capital murder was one of the furthest things from my mind. Even further from that would be trying a capital murder case with my dad sitting as second chair for the defense. Well, that is where I found myself on September 8, 2014.
    Jefferson County has a little more than 250,000 residents, but the legal community is pretty tightknit, especially between prosecutors and the defense bar. I run into my dad most Mondays either in my court or in the halls of the courthouse. Usually when I am assigned a case where my dad has been retained or appointed, I have it reassigned to one of the two other prosecutors in my court. I am not required by law or office policy to do this, but it keeps any conflicts from arising. I usually tell people who ask that we have a great relationship—and I want to keep it that way, so I don’t try cases against my father.
    But in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t avoid going up against him this time.

Different sides of the bar
Even though my dad and I practice on different sides of the bar, like most lawyers, we end up talking shop and comparing war stories. One night I was having dinner at my parents’ house and I was telling them about a trial I had coming up. My dad asked me what trial I was talking about. I told him that the defendant was Batiste Breaux, and it was a non-death capital murder. “Rachel, I’m sitting second on that case,” he said. Oh.
    At this point I texted our first assistant, Pat Knauth, and let him know about the situation. His response: “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” The case was filed in 2008 and I was the third prosecutor to have handled it, but when it came to the trial date, I was the one who was ready. From the prosecution’s end, it was decided that so long as my dad’s client waived any conflict, I would be the one trying the case. The lead defense attorney, James Makin, spoke with the defendant and his parents and informed him that I was the daughter of David Grove, the second chair defense counsel. They understood and agreed that it was OK for me to stay on as the prosecutor. (Prior to trial we put all of this on the record to avoid any possible issues on appeal.) The situation was out of the ordinary, but it worked out for both of us. I got to try my first capital case, and Dad got to sit second and apply this trial to his ongoing work to be certified to sit first chair in a capital case.
    My dad’s reaction to finding out I would stay on as the prosecutor on Batiste Beaux was actually not a big deal. (My first thought was, “Well, this is awkward.”) Also, he was sitting second chair with an attorney against whom I have tried many cases over the years, James Makin, and who would handle most of the critical parts of the trial. And while most adults would probably be surprised, annoyed, and/or nervous if their parents showed up to observe their child at work, I realized early on that was something I had to get over. It is not uncommon for me to leave the podium after questioning a witness and spot my dad sitting in the audience. It used to make me nervous. But the more trials I have had, the more I have learned to tune out what is going on in the audience, or at least not pay as much attention to it. Even if I am used to him popping in during trial, I still want him to think I am doing a good job and be proud of me. He’s a defense attorney, certainly, but first he is my dad.

My dad moved to Beaumont to take a job at the Jefferson County DA’s Office in 1978 as an assistant DA, where he served until 1984 when he left the office to work at a civil law firm. He practiced primarily civil law, including asbestos and silicosis litigation, until 2000 when he left his firm to go out on his own. Since then he has practiced mainly family law and criminal defense law at the state and federal level. Interesting fact: When he was an assistant DA way back when, he tried a capital murder case and the defendant was convicted and received the death penalty.
    I started attending Baylor School of Law in 2005. At some point in my first year I found myself trying to figure out what I wanted to do after law school. So many of my classmates knew—or thought they knew—what they wanted to do: be a “trial lawyer” or do complex civil litigation, contract law, etc. I kind of freaked out. So I did what I would do when facing what I thought in my 1L mind was a major dilemma: I called my dad. He told me I’d figure it out and in the meantime, “Calm down, Rachel.” In spite of probably not listening to him at the time, I did figure it out. I fell in love with criminal law and graduated with a concentration in criminal law. I got hired with Jefferson County the day after I passed the bar exam.

The defendant
Batiste Joseph Breaux was charged with gunning down two brothers at a birthday party in Beaumont. One of the victims died on his 21st birthday. The father of the victims saw Breaux at a convenience store in the north end of Beaumont around 10 p.m. The father, his three sons, and a friend of the boys had gone into the store to buy beer. Breaux remained in his car, and his female passenger got out of the car and went into the convenience store. Video of the encounter was shown to the jury:  There was no fight or shows of aggression in the video.
    Breaux then followed the victims to their home, where he pulled up to the house, drew a handgun, and fired at least eight shots at a group that had gathered for a birthday party. Two brothers were killed, and a third victim was shot and severely injured but survived. The female passenger in Breaux’s vehicle identified him as the shooter to Beaumont police. Breaux gave a statement to police implicating himself in the shooting. No motive was ever established.

The week of trial went smoothly even though at one point my mom came to watch us and sat in the middle so as to not show favor. We picked a jury on Monday and began testimony on Tuesday morning. Prior to voir dire, I asked our judge if I should bring up the fact that the two Grove attorneys are related. Judge Scott brought it up in voir dire. It elicited a few gasps along with some “aww, isn’t that adorable” looks from the jurors, but did not affect jury selection. As expected, James Makin, the lead defense attorney, conducted voir dire, gave the opening and closing statements, and questioned most of the witnesses. The victims’ father testified as an eyewitness to the events prior to and during the shooting, but my key witness was the passenger in the defendant’s car when he shot the victims. She did a decent job on direct but didn’t hold up as well on cross-examination. That’s probably because my dad handled her cross. At one point I found myself getting annoyed with him because he was being tough on her and getting her to change details of the story. I wondered if it was because I was being tough on my dad or easily offended, but then it dawned on me: This was the same feeling I had had dozens of times before in trial when I can feel myself getting mad or annoyed at the defense attorney. I was annoyed because he was not only doing his job, but he was also being effective. And like I have found in many trials, I was learning something by watching opposing counsel.
    After almost four days of trial, the case was turned over to the jury. After trial I shook James’s and my dad’s hands and we went to our separate places to wait on the jury. After three hours the jury came back with a guilty verdict. Obviously, I was very pleased with their decision, while the defense considered it a victory that we had waived the death penalty (one main consideration in the waiver was the defendant’s low IQ). After trial my dad patted me on the back and told me, “Good job,” but it didn’t feel right for some reason. After the verdict, the news interviewed the defense attorneys and myself, press releases came out, and conversations were had with both families involved. I didn’t talk to my dad much that day. In fact, things didn’t seem normal until lunch on Sunday after church. I know it wasn’t because either of us was mad or upset with the other, but I think it was more trying to walk the fine line between being adversaries in court and also being family.
    By the following week, life was back to normal. I had my usual huge Monday docket, and in fact started an indecency with a child trial that Tuesday. Also, I was invited back to dinner at my parents’ house. The local paper ran a story about us, the father and daughter going head-to-head in court, so that was neat. It was also rather amusing talking to people about how I “beat” my dad in trial. I think my aunts gave him the hardest time about it.
    I learned a lot from the experience, especially reflecting on it from a personal perspective, not a professional one. I have a great relationship with both of my parents. I am an only child, and I was a daddy’s girl growing up. Now I’m 31 years old and practicing law on a different side of the bar (but in the same legal community) as my father. This brings a whole different dynamic to our relationship, but at the end of the day, we are very close as father and daughter. I respect my father as a lawyer but even more so as a person.
    As a prosecutor I took an oath to see that justice is done. As a defense attorney, my dad is required to zealously represent his client. These obligations seem contrary, but in the end, we both are seeking justice whether for the community, a client, or a victim. I present the evidence to a jury, argue and defend my theory of the case, and once the case has been turned over to the jury, the community decides what happens.  
    After the trial was over and after a few days of awkwardness, my dad and I were able to talk about the case. We never got in to too many details, but I think both learned from the experience and have a new respect for each other both on a personal and professional level. One thing I took away from the whole experience is that it does not matter who is sitting at the defense table. Justice will be served whether trying a case against a close friend, your least favorite defense attorney, or even your father—as long as you believe in the facts of the case, you sufficiently prepare, and you effectively present the evidence.