Tag Archives: Jefferson County

Recalling an encounter with a courtroom legend

A recent blog post noted one of those individuals, the late Ross Perot, who saw value in communicating with the media.

My writing about Perot brings to mind another sharp-minded Texan I had the pleasure of meeting. It was a spontaneous encounter in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Beaumont, Texas.

Perhaps you remember the late Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. He was a flamboyant trial lawyer who defended celebrities, big hitters and individuals of enormous wealth. He was, as I understood it, a tremendous courtroom thespian, known for a dramatic flair.

Here’s what happened during one sweltering day in downtown Beaumont …

I was walking toward the courthouse when I ran into a fellow I knew well, a lawyer named Gilbert Adams, who at the time also served as chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party. We chatted for a moment. Then Adams asked if I wanted to meet Racehorse Haynes. Do I? Of course I would, I said.

Adams yelled at the gentleman standing about 30 feet away, “Hey Race! I want to introduce you to someone.”

We approached Haynes and Adams said, in effect, “John, this is Racehorse Haynes. Race, this is John Kanelis. John is the editorial page editor of the Beaumont Enterprise.”

Here is where it got real interesting in a hurry. When Adams told Haynes I worked for the newspaper, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s was still a significant media presence in the Golden Triangle, Haynes’ eyes expanded to the size of saucers. He opened them wide and seemed, as I recall, to nearly drop the pipe he was smoking out of his mouth.

He then regaled me about his relations with the media, how he generally trusted the media — if you can believe such a thing in today’s climate — to report matters accurately and fairly.

Haynes talked, talked and talked some more. He talked so much that I — not this famous lawyer — was forced to cut the conversation off. I had somewhere I needed to be; I guess Racehorse Haynes had a lot of time on his hands.

I remember meetings like that one with fondness, if only because it reminds of a time when journalism — and those of us who practiced the craft of journalism — played critical roles in telling their communities’ stories.

Yes, I also want to be called for jury duty

A member of my family is a happy young woman. Why? She’s been called for jury duty in Oregon.

She has been summoned to appear for jury duty in a Circuit Court, which is the highest level of trial court in Oregon. She is thrilled. I want to join her in her excitement at being called to perform a vital act of citizenship.

I long have bemoaned my own lack of jury-duty experience. Of course, I am much older than my great-niece.

I was called a time or two when we lived in Oregon. I never served.

Then we moved to Texas in 1984.

I have received summons while living first in Jefferson County and then in Randall County in Texas. But only one time have I been ordered to report. I did so around 1995. I went to the Randall County Courthouse, sat around for most of one morning and then we were informed that the litigants settled; we were excused.

Every other time has resulted in potential jurors being excused without even having to report to the courthouse.

My great-niece asked whether she is “crazy” to want to serve on a jury. No, honey, you are not crazy. You are a conscientious citizen of a great country.

I have been told that my job as a journalist likely disqualified me from jury duty had I been selected as part of a pool of potential jurors. Indeed, my wife once was chosen for a Jefferson County jury pool, but then was disqualified when one of the lawyers recognized her last name. He came back to her and said an editorial that I had written for the local newspaper suggested a bias on her part. Her response? “He wrote it. Not me.”

I’m retired these days. I am living in a county with a significantly larger population than any of our previous counties of residence. I figure my chances of getting a summons are reduced.

Rats! I would love to serve on a jury. Just as my great-niece asked: Am I crazy?

Time of My Life, Part 18: Serving as a judicial watchdog

Every so often reporters and editors encounter public officials who actually appreciate the work of holding those officials accountable for their actions.

I met a few of those folks along the way during my 37 years as a journalist. One of those individuals stands out. I want to discuss him briefly to demonstrate that some individuals do not view the media as “the enemy of the people.”

I arrived at the Amarillo Globe-News in January 1995 after spending nearly 11 years as editorial page editor of the Beaumont Enterprise way down yonder in the Golden Triangle region of the Gulf Coast.

We got into our share of scrapes in Beaumont. One fight we had was with a couple of state district judges in Jefferson County. They presided over courts with criminal jurisdiction, meaning that they only tried criminal cases; the civil caseloads were sent to other judges in Jefferson County.

Well, these two judges had to face the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, which had received a complaint about the judges’ sentencing practices. These two jurists were in the habit of backdating sentences for individuals convicted of crimes. Example: If someone committed a crime on Jan. 1, but was convicted on Dec. 30, the judge would sentence the individual to a prison term that began prior to the commission of the crime. Such a sentencing practice dramatically reduced the amount of time the individual would serve behind bars.

Such sentencing policies don’t sit well with prosecutors. The judicial ethics commission got a complaint and it dropped the hammer on the two judges. It issued a public reprimand, which in the world of judicial punishment is a real big deal.

We at the Beaumont Enterprise editorialized in support of the Commission on Judicial Conduct’s ruling. We were highly critical of the backdated sentences that were handed down. Our criticism of the local judges obviously angered the two men, but that didn’t dissuade us from calling it the way we saw it.

My time in Beaumont ended and I gravitated to the Panhandle in early 1995. I quickly made the acquaintance of one of the judges who punished the two judges in Beaumont. He was John Boyd, chief justice of the 7th Texas Court of Appeals headquartered in Amarillo.

Justice Boyd knew of my background and for years after our first meeting he would invariably bring up the editorial support we gave to the judicial conduct panel on which he served. He would tell others with whom we would meet of the position we took to endorse the punishment handed out to those backdating judges.

I always appreciated — and still do! — the recognition that we sought only to hold judges accountable for their actions. If any of “our” judges got stepped on, well, so be it.

RIP, Racehorse Haynes

I just heard that one of the more fascinating characters I’ve had the pleasure of meeting has passed away.

Richard “Racehorse” Haynes died early today. He was 90.

Man, I’ve got a short story I want to tell. So I believe I will.

Many years ago, when I was living and working in Beaumont, Texas, I walked down the street from the Beaumont Enterprise — where I worked as editorial page editor — to the Jefferson County Courthouse.

I approached the front door and waved at a fellow I knew, a local lawyer named Gilbert Adams, who motioned for me to approach. I did and at that, Adams introduced me to Racehorse Haynes, who standing next to Adams puffing on a pipe. “Hey, Race,” Adams said, “I want you to meet this fellow.” We shook hands and Adams then informed Haynes that I was editor of the local newspaper.

So help, as God is my witness, when Haynes heard that that I was a member of the media, his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. We stood there for seemingly hours. I barely got a word in edge-wise. Haynes regaled me with his tales of his relationships with the media; he managed to tell me why he was in Beaumont in the first place, which was to assist Adams on a case that Adams was working on.

I ended up having to break off the visit. I am pretty sure it would have gone on until the next great flood.

Two things stood out about Haynes, whose reputation as one of the nation’s top criminal defense lawyers was well-known; I certainly knew of him. I knew that he was from Houston and that he had defended some very high-profile defendants.

The first thing I recalled at the time was how grandfatherly he appeared. He was not a physically imposing man. He was dressed in a plain dark suit and he looked like, well, anything but a flamboyant barrister.

The second thing, of course, was how he garrulous he was with a media guy. His status as a “famed” lawyer didn’t seem to impede his willingness to talk about anything with yours truly.

We said goodbye and went our separate ways.

Years later, I moved to Amarillo to become editorial page editor of the Globe-News. Then I learned of Haynes’ connection to the Texas Panhandle. It was where a Tarrant County judge had moved the trial of one Cullen Davis, the Fort Worth millionaire who was accused of murdering the live-in boyfriend of his estranged wife and his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Davis was thought at the time to be the richest man ever accused of a capital crime in the United States.

A Potter County jury acquitted Davis, whose lead counsel in that trial was Racehorse Haynes.

So, one of the nation’s more notable lawyers has passed from the scene. I just felt compelled to tell you my Racehorse Haynes Story.

May you rest in peace … “Race.”

Grand jury reform arrives in Texas

Way back when I arrived in Texas, in 1984, the newspaper where I started working had just begun an editorial campaign to change the way the state impaneled grand juries.

The Jefferson County criminal justice system had come under fire over suspicions that a grand jury might have been seated to get back at political foes of a district judge. Our newspaper, the Beaumont Enterprise, disliked the jury commissioner system and we called for a change to select grand juries the way the state seats trial juries — using the voter registration rolls.

We finally persuaded the county’s two criminal district judges to adopt a random selection method.

Well, this week, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law that makes it a requirement to seat grand juries in a random method.

http://www.texastribune.org/2015/06/19/abbott-signs-grand-jury-reform-legislation/

It’s a good day for the state’s criminal justice system.

As the Texas Tribune reports: “Under House Bill 2150, the state will no longer use the outdated system that lets judge-appointed commissioners pick jurors, a nationally uncommon practice that critics say is rife with potential for conflicts of interest.”

The old system allowed judges to pick jury commissioners, usually friends, to find grand jurors. It’s been called a “pick a pal” system. Friends pick friends, who then might be friends with the judge whose court has jurisdiction.

The “potential for conflicts of interest” surely did exist.

I once served on a grand jury, in Randall County, that was picked by the old method. We had an uneventful term, meeting every other week for several months. I learned a lot about my community.

My participation as a grand juror, though, all but eliminated me from consideration for a trial jury, District Attorney James Farren told us, as we then would be seen as “pro-prosecution” by defense counsel.

That’s fine.

But I’m still quite glad to see the Texas Legislature enact this long-needed reform, which follows the model used in the vast majority of other states.

If a randomly selected trial jury is qualified to sentence someone to death, then a randomly selected grand jury ought to be qualified to determine whether the crime should be prosecuted in the first place.

Panhandle no longer forsaken?

It’s been said over the years — often by yours truly — that Democrats have given up on the Texas Panhandle while Republicans have taken us for granted.

The major candidates from both parties don’t come here often to campaign for office, to court voters or tell us how important we are to their electoral chances.

Well, this week two major candidates for lieutenant governor are venturing into the Panhandle to do all of that.

http://amarillo.com/news/local-news/2014-10-27/van-de-putte-stumps-Amarillo

It’s the Democrat’s visit that I find most intriguing.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte staged an Amarillo rally understanding full well that she’s venturing into the belly of the beast, so to speak. She is planning a last-minute statewide blitz that includes Amarillo and Lubbock, the twin “capitals” of the most Republican region of a most Republican state.

Will this visit put her over the top? Don’t bet on it. Her Republican foe, and the presumptive favorite, state Sen. Dan Patrick is coming here as well. I’m still waiting to see if another state senator, Republican Kel Seliger of Amarillo, plans to throw his arm around Patrick’s back on a star-spangled podium. Patrick’s visit is more expected, given the voting strength he is expected to enjoy here.

Van de Putte? That’s another matter.

Honestly, it’s a bit gratifying that a leading Democrat would even bother to come here.

Yes, the pendulum swings both ways.

Back in the old days, when I first arrived in Texas, I landed in Beaumont, one of the last Democratic strongholds in Texas. Republican candidates for high office were as hard to find in Jefferson County as Democrats are in, say, Randall County.

This is all part of why I long for a day when Democrats can regain something akin to equal footing with Republicans statewide. It brings all regions of the state into play and attracts candidates of both major parties to all regions to do what they call a little “retail politicking.”

That is a good thing for the political process.

 

Disappointed once more in jury system

Call me weird. I got word last night that I won’t be called for jury duty after all. Drat! Let down … once again.

I get these jury summonses from Randall County District Clerk Jo Carter’s office on occasion. They tell me to be ready to report on a certain date. Potential jurors are given the chance to phone in ahead of time to see if they’ll be called. I made the call Saturday night and, sure enough, the recorded voice said “all jurors are excused.”

I’ve never served on a trial jury. It’s one of those thing in life that always has intrigued me. Even when the “job” paid $6 daily for jury service, I didn’t mind working basically for free. Texas trial jurors have gotten a pay raise since then. Don’t think I’m holding myself up as some paragon of public service virtue, but I’ve always considered it my duty to serve.

I want to serve on a trial jury, but I fear it won’t happen.

I received a single jury summons when I lived in Oregon, but I got excused because my wife, sons and I were set to leave on a two-week-long trip to southern California on the day I was to report. They let me off the hook.

Then we moved to Jefferson County, Texas. I think I got summoned twice there. Nothing came of either call. My wife once got picked for a jury and actually went through the process of lawyers “striking” jurors. She got struck at the last minute because the defense lawyer recognized her last time, associated it with mine — as I was editorial page editor of the Beaumont Enterprise newspaper — and excused her from duty.

We moved years later to Amarillo. Not long after moving here, I received a summons to report in Randall County. I called ahead of time. Bingo! I got the word I had to show up the next day. I did. I sat in the jury waiting room for most of the morning. Then, shortly before noon, the judge came out and informed us that the parties had settled and we could all go home.

It’s been downhill ever since.

Every time I get the summons, I make the call and am told the same thing: Don’t bother reporting.

Maybe I should be happy that the parties settle, or that the criminal defendants have plea-bargained their way out of having to stand trial. It saves the county and the state money that comes out of my pocket.

However, I’m always ready to serve as a juror. If only they’ll give me the chance.