July-August 2015

Tales from the plains

Staley Heatly

District Attorney in Wilbarger, Hardeman, and Foard Counties

Of all the lawyers, prosecutors have the best stories. Our business is human business—with all its attendant messiness. We see the whole gamut of drama, passion, rage, anger, and stupidity (a lot of stupidity) just by reviewing a handful of cases before lunch on a Monday. On an almost daily basis we see things that make us smack our palms against our foreheads and ask, “What were they thinking?” We see the best of people, but more often, we see the worst. Our jobs are just inherently interesting.
    Trust me, I know. I used to work in corporate finance at a big law firm. There is no better way to put a dinner guest to sleep than by telling them about your exciting day at the printer working on an initial public offering. They would much rather hear about the latest juicy whodunit that came across your desk at the prosecutor’s office. (On a side note, at the printers they usually have all-you-can-eat chocolate-covered strawberries. Not a bad perk for a boring job.)
    We prosecutors see truly-gut wrenching situations—but at the same time, we see resilience and hope. We deal with people who habitually hurt other people, and oftentimes the victims of these criminals have been abused over and over throughout their lives. But we also meet victims of unspeakable crimes who go on not just to survive, but to thrive. Through all of the ups and downs of being a prosecutor, one thing is certain: If you don’t have a sense of humor, you won’t make it very long in this profession. With that idea in mind, I wanted to lighten the mood by sharing a few stories from the plains of Texas.

First jury trial
The first case I ever tried to a jury was a robbery. The defendant was 19 years old, and he beat up a guy and stole his wallet outside of a local convenience store. Despite strong evidence, the defendant refused to entertain a plea of any kind. After a two-day trial, he was convicted of the robbery and after a punishment trial, in which I proved up his pending burglary and theft of a firearm charges, the defendant was sentenced to 10 years in prison probated for 10 years. I was a little surprised by the probated sentence because the defendant, while young, had started his adult career on a pretty good spree. It must have been the defendant’s compelling testimony at punishment that caused the jury to have compassion for him. During punishment, he got on the stand and bawled—tears running down his cheeks and snot coming out of his nose—about how sorry he was for everything. When I got him on cross, I asked if he was crying because he was sorry for what he had done or if he was afraid to go to prison. “I’m afraid to go to prison,” he said. “I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.” And he still got probation.
    Two months later, the police were called out to the defendant’s house. A “client” of the defendant’s had called police to complain about being shorted. She reported to police that she had contacted the defendant to purchase some crack. He told her to knock on the side window of the house and then to slide the money under the window. She did as she was told, but no crack appeared after she slid the money through. She knocked on the window louder and the defendant told her to go away or else she would wake up his grandmother. After repeated knocking, the defendant stuck a pellet gun out the window and shot his customer a couple of times in the arm. She was so upset about not getting her crack and about getting shot that she pulled out her cellphone and immediately called police to complain. That was a very entertaining revocation hearing.

Next witness
One of my first big felony trials involved a shooting that happened after a group of people had been drinking beer all day. (Sound familiar?) The defendant had taken offense to someone else’s comment and told people he would be back to shoot the place up (not his exact words), and he left in a cloud of dust. Within 30 minutes, the defendant reappeared halfway down the block with an SKS assault rifle. He fired more than 40 rounds from the gun, but by some miracle he managed to miss the group of people standing out in front of the house.
    At the punishment phase of the trial, we put on the defendant’s previous cellmate from prison. The cellmate, who was serving a 55-year sentence for murder, told the jury how the defendant had sexually assaulted him in prison. Things were going poorly for our defendant at that point, but they were about to get worse.
    The first defense witness was called to the stand and was asked about the defendant’s good qualities. At the end of his questioning, the defense attorney asked the witness, “Are you asking this jury to have mercy on my client and to give him a lower sentence?” Without batting an eye, the witness answered, “No.” The stunned defense attorney looked at his co-counsel who whispered loud enough for me to hear, “Are all of our witnesses going to say that?” They didn’t all say that, but it was too late for their client.

Thanks, Mom
Just a few weeks ago we had a revocation hearing on a run-of-the-mill state jail felony criminal mischief. The defendant had been on probation for a couple of years and had simply been unable to comply with the terms of his probation. He had been arrested and convicted of a couple of misdemeanors while on probation, and we had amended his probation multiple times with short jail stays and drug treatment conditions. He had been given many opportunities to change his ways, but nothing ever seemed to stick and he would always be right back in trouble.
    Because I didn’t consider him to be a menace, I offered the minimum of six months in state jail. He and his defense attorney were pleased with the offer but unsure if the judge would approve it. (My judge reserves the right to sentence defendants on deferred adjudications, so a plea of true is essentially an open plea to the court.) During the revocation hearing, the defense attorney called the defendant’s mother to the stand. He was hoping that a sympathetic mom would help the judge see his client in a positive light. Here is an excerpt from their exchange:

Defense counsel: Do you join in and ask the court to consider that minimum sentence for your son?
Mom: Y’all don’t want my opinion on that.
DC: Ma’am?
Mom: You don’t want my opinion on that because I’m in the background hollering, ‘Give him the whole two years.’ You asked me to tell the truth.
DC: Yes, ma’am. I pass the witness.
Court (to defense attorney): Do you have any more questions?
DC: I don’t think I have any more questions, Judge. I think I might need to withdraw because of ineffective assistance of counsel.
Court (to Mom): Thank you, ma’am. You may step down. Anything else?
DC: No, Judge. I’m going to rest before I get my client sent to prison for life.
    We were all laughing by the end of this exchange. The judge took mercy on the poor defense lawyer and his client and sentenced the defendant to the minimum of six months in state jail.

Serious work
We have serious jobs. We deal with grave matters, sometimes literally. (See what I did there?) But a good sense of humor is key to surviving in our line of work. So make sure that you take the time to share your stories and have a good laugh, and take advantage of the time you spend with colleagues across the state at TDCAA conferences. And most importantly, realize how lucky you are that you aren’t relying on stories about the latest merger at the office to keep your dinner guests entertained.