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Nico LaHood Faces a New Challenger in the Primary — His Former Law Partner, Who He Threatened to “Destroy

Former business partner of Nico LaHood will run against him after LaHood threatened to shut down his law practice

Nico LaHood Faces a New Challenger in the Primary — His Former Law Partner, Who He Threatened to “Destroy

Former business partner of Nico LaHood will run against him after LaHood threatened to shut down his law practice

Nico LaHood’s campaign for reelection as district attorney of Bexar County, which included the city of San Antonio in Texas, hit a speed bump earlier this month when a lawyer LaHood once threatened, Joe Gonzales, confirmed he would run against LaHood in the 2018 Democratic primary.

The incumbent district attorney has been accused of threatening to “destroy” Gonzales and his law partner, Christian Henricksen, after the duo complainedthat the government’s star witness in a pending murder case had a previous sexual encounter with an assistant prosecutor in the office.

LaHood and Gonzales are also former business partners, and Gonzales had been a supporter of LaHood until the district attorney threatened him, theSan Antonio Express-News said.

According to court filings, LaHood threatened to shut down the law practice of Gonzales and Henricksen during a meeting in the judge’s chambers.

“Before this happened, I was one of Nico’s biggest supporters,” said Gonzales. “In fact, I had contributed to his campaign at a fundraiser he had probably a month before. I’ve been in Nico’s corner for a long time until this incident happened.”

LaHood has denied threatening Gonzales and Henricksen, while admitting he lost his temper at them because he felt they were impugning the integrity of his office. But District Judge Lori Valenzuela later testified under oath that she heard LaHood make the threat in her chambers. Senior District Judge W.C. Kirkendall ruled that LaHood engaged in an unprofessional behavior that might be subject to sanction.

Gonzales, 58, is a former assistant prosecutor and magistrate judge and is now a prominent defense attorney in San Antonio. He said LaHood’s threat against him provided the impetus to consider a run for prosecutor. But it was something he’d been thinking about doing for years.

“This is not a personal feud between Nico and I,” Gonzales said. “My decision to run is bigger than this. I’ve decided to jump into this race because I believe I can bring effective leadership to this office.”

Gonzales has his work cut out for him. LaHood appears to have the backing of the Democratic establishment in Bexar County and likely retains goodwill from Democrats who remember that the district attorney’s office was controlled by Republicans for decades before LaHood defeated Susan Reed in 2014.

The San Antonio Express-News reported that when LaHood announced his reelection campaign, Manuel Medina, chairman for the Bexar County Democratic Party, and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff were among those at the event. Former San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza is also working as LaHood’s campaign manager.

But LaHood’s tenure as district attorney has been marred by several controversies that could make him vulnerable in a Democratic primary.

Along with the threat against Gonzales, LaHood revealed himself to be someone who believes vaccines can cause autism; he shared that opinion in controversial documentary where LaHood said he believes vaccines may have made his son autistic. Numerous studies have confirmed that there is no link between vaccines and autism.

LaHood has also said the country is under threat from Sharia law and has engaged in long running feud with the San Antonio Express-News, blocking them from attending news conferences he’s held.

Gonzales is likely to tout himself as a steadier hand who will not lose his temper and engage in feuds the way LaHood has.

“I think part of being a good leader is having the appropriate temperament,” Gonzales said, “and not overreacting.”

Two other attorneys, Joseph Hoelscher and Todd McCray, are running for district attorney in the Republican primary. The winners of each primary will face each other in the 2018 general election.

Thanks to Burke Butler.

Houston Conviction and Death Sentence Goes to U.S. Supreme Court

Court watchers believe Justices will side with plaintiff

Houston Conviction and Death Sentence Goes to U.S. Supreme Court

Court watchers believe Justices will side with plaintiff

Carlos Ayestas’ defense attorney spent two minutes arguing that his client should not be executed during the penalty phase of his 1995 trial in Harris County, Texas for the murder of 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque. The defense presented no witnesses or mitigation, nor did it mention that Ayestas may have suffered from mental illness.

“It’s no surprise that the jury took 12 minutes to sentence him to death,” said capital punishment expert Brandon Garrett, a Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. “They had no reason not to sentence him.”

This past Monday, Ayestas’ case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices are being asked to decide whether Ayestas has the right to receive funding for “investigative, expert, or other services” that would allow him to challenge his conviction and death sentence. Lawyers for Ayestas hope to eventually prove that their client suffers from substance abuse and mental illness, and should not therefore be eligible for the death penalty. They maintain that his death sentence should be thrown out because of incompetent counsel. But first, they need resources to hire experts and conduct an investigation.

“Mr. Ayestas has been diagnosed as schizophrenic,” said University of Maryland law professor Lee Kovarsky, who argued Ayestas’ case before the Supreme Court. “But that diagnosis happened after his trial.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit had previously ruled that an inmate must show “substantial need” to receive funding, and determined that Ayestas hadn’t met that threshold. But court watchers who observed Monday’s oral arguments said the U.S. Supreme Court appeared primed to overturn the lower court ruling and mandate funding for Ayestas.

A majority of the justices seemed to be swayed by the argument that the 5th Circuit Court had not used the correct standard for gauging “substantial need” in cases where an individual has been sentenced to death, wrote Steve Vladeck in Scotusblog.

“Indeed, a narrow remand to the Court of Appeals to apply the correct standard may well help the Supreme Court to dodge some of the thornier issues that came up at various points during the argument,” Vladeck wrote.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision in the case in 2018.

Speaking during a conference call last week, Kovarsky argued that Ayestas was entitled to additional resources because his original lawyers failed to do their job. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who spoke during the same conference call, said it would be wrong to execute Ayestas when his right to competent counsel had been denied.

“Schizophrenia is not something that pops up overnight,” Dunham said. “Any mitigation would have turned something up.”

Garrett said the problems associated with Ayestas’ conviction are common in death penalty cases.

“The death penalty is not reserved for the worst of the worst… It’s reserved for those with the worst lawyers,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision could set a precedent that allows others to challenge their death sentences based on the poor quality of their legal representation. Kovarsky said he did not know how many people facing death might be impacted by a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Ayestas.

Kovarsky also noted that death penalty defense, in general, has improved markedly since the 1990’s. For example, it is now considered standard for death penalty lawyers to check out the mental health and substance abuse histories of their clients, and to use that history to argue for leniency. But 20–30 years ago, doing so was not common practice.

During that era, according to Kovarsky, “lawyers existed in a legal culture that hadn’t really gotten with the program.”

The creation of regional capital defense offices, which now handle death penalty cases in many states, has also led to higher quality representation for those facing potential death sentences, Garrett said.

Ayestas’ challenge is the latest in a string of recent successful appeals to capital sentences originating in Harris County, which has sentenced more people to death since 1976 than any other county in the United States.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the death sentence of Duane Buck after finding that his trial was marred by the illegal exclusion of black people from the jury. That case was resolved when Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg allowed Buck to be resentenced to life in prison. She maintained that the racial bias exhibited in the original trial made it impossible to secure another death sentence.

The Supreme Court also overturned the death sentence of Bobby Moore in March. Moore was convicted and sentenced to death for killing James “Jim” McCarble during a Houston grocery store robbery in 1980. However, in a 5–3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas did not properly consider whether he met the threshold for being intellectually disabled, and therefore was ineligible for the death penalty.

On Wednesday, Ogg recommended that Moore be resentenced to life in prison. “I’m doing what I believe the law requires,” she stated. “The nation’s highest court has ruled that intellectually disabled persons can’t be subject to the death penalty.”

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Mixed Signals: GPS Monitors on Memphis Victims

Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick / Bracelet électronique
Wikimedia Commons

Mixed Signals: GPS Monitors on Memphis Victims

Nearly 70 victims of domestic violence and rape in Memphis are wearing GPS devices thanks to the city’s Sexual Assault Kit Taskforce, according to its monthly progress report published in October. The taskforce was created by the mayor’s office in 2014 after revelations that the Memphis Police Department had failed to test more than 12,000 rape kits. The group, which includes victim advocates and representatives from MPD and the Shelby County District Attorney’s office, is the cornerstone of a partnership between the city of Memphis and the Joyful Heart Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit founded by Law & Order: SVU actress Mariska Hargitay. The taskforce describes its mission as ensuring “the [rape kit] work and many aspects of reform are coordinated and continue to move forward.”

The GPS devices, which are tracked in real time, “provide an extra measure of safety by alerting victims when alleged perpetrators out on bond come within a certain range of victims who voluntarily wear the device,” taskforce leader Dewanna Smith told me in an October 23 e-mail.

There may be a precedent for Memphis’ rape victim-monitoring. In 2012, a Sacramento judge ordered a rape victim to wear an ankle monitor after she bonded out of jail, where she had been held as a material witness. But experts warn that jailing victims as material witnesses and subjecting them to monitoring may deter other victims from reporting sexual assault to police.

“If somebody accused of rape is enough of a risk that a victim would need to wear a safety monitoring device,” said Carrie Goldberg, a New York civil rights attorney and pioneer in the field of sexual privacy, “then perhaps it would make more sense to rethink that [perpetrator’s] being on the streets in the first place.”

Goldberg, who defends victims of hacking, leaking, and other online assaults, was also concerned that defense attorneys for the accused would be able to subpoena the GPS devices and use that information to discredit victims.

“This really seems like a weird way to control victims — and not make the streets safer from criminals,” she said.

Alerting victims when their attackers are close by could be helpful, Goldberg explained. Still, she questioned the need for a GPS device and not, for example, a text to the victim’s phone or a keychain that beeps.

The GPS device, she told me, “makes it seem like she’s the accused. And I don’t like that.”

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