district attorney

Prosecutors from the Travis County District Attorney’s office may be pursuing a life sentence against public affairs graduate student Gene Vela, who is being charged with aggravated assault against a public servant after he was allegedly involved in police stand-off Nov. 10.

Vela, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002, was booked in the Travis County Jail on Nov. 11 at 3:26 a.m., the day after being shot in the torso by police. He was shot after alledgedly aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus. Police were originally summoned to his apartment following a 911 call from a friend of Vela’s.

Adam Reposa, who represented Vela in court Tuesday, said the district attorney’s office may be pursuing a life sentence against Vela.

Steve Brand, prosecuting attorney for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, said that no plea offer had yet been made on the case.

“I can see the argument why he should spend life in prison, but there is currently no offer on the case,” Brand said.

Brand said more investigation into the incident is required before plea negotiations can begin.

“It would be premature to say there are currently plea negotiations,” Brand said.

Vela, who is in custody, is scheduled to appear in court next Friday. Brand said the district attorney’s office would not support reducing Vela’s bond — which is currently set at $100,000 — in order to more quickly release him from custody.

It looks like that the main argument against District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s resignation is that if she resigns, Gov. Rick Perry will get to appoint a conservative Republican to serve for the remainder of her term. Therefore we should ignore the fact that she was driving drunk, lied about it, threatened the officers and asked for special privileges by ordering officers arresting her to call the sheriff and the chief of police. 

But a Perry appointment might actually motivate Democrats in 2016 to go and vote, because elections have consequences. The consequence of all those Democratic establishment endorsements for Lehmberg over a real progressive (hint: Charlie Baird) is that we may end up with a Perry appointee. However, in the long term, it might be good for Austin politics. It’ll motivate Austin residents to get educated on local issues and on the people running for office, and, I hope, go vote.

—Hooman Hedayati
UT class of ‘09

Austin is a city that likes to drink. It’s no coincidence that the nightlife, music festivals and hot weather for which Austin is known go so well with a cold beer or mixed drink. In fact, a 2012 study by Time Magazine calls Austin the fifth drunkest city in the nation, beating out infamously raucous towns like New Orleans and Las Vegas.

But this dubious title comes with the responsibility to partake in a manner that does not endanger yourself or others. On Friday night, Rosemary Lehmberg, the Travis County district attorney, failed to honor this responsibility when she drove southbound on R.M. 620 after having consumed several alcoholic beverages. A witness calling 911 reported that Lehmberg’s car had been driving in the bicycle lane for about a mile, after which it re-entered the road and was swerving in and out of its lane, at one point crossing into oncoming traffic.

Police found her car in a church parking lot and arrested the DA for driving while intoxicated.

Lehmberg was released from the Travis County jail Monday morning and in a letter to County Attorney David Escamilla said, “I am guilty of DWI and of acting unreasonably and the fault is all my own. I am deeply sorry for my actions.” However, Lehmberg has no intention to resign from her post as Travis County DA, despite a growing number of voices calling for her resignation. The Texan counts its voice among them.

An average of 1,213 Texans are killed in accidents caused by drunk drivers every year, according to the anti-drunk driving advocacy group MADD. Indeed, the organization reports that 40 percent of all traffic fatalities in Texas are caused by drunk drivers. Lehmberg is lucky that her “acting unreasonably” didn’t lead to an accident, or worse.

And although nobody was injured as a result of Lehmberg’s drunk driving, her violation of such an important and serious law is enough to warrant her resignation.

During her arrest, Lehmberg refused to submit to a field sobriety test, and details about her blood alcohol content (BAC) have not been made public. Currently, Lehmberg faces up to six months of jail time and a $2,000 fine, but if test results show a BAC of 0.15 or higher, her punishments will be more severe.

Fines and jail time are the repercussions that Rosemary Lehmberg, Travis County resident, faces as a result of her reckless decision to get behind the wheel while intoxicated. However, Rosemary Lehmberg, Travis County district attorney, has a greater responsibility as a public official. We look to our elected leaders as role models who should hold themselves to high standards worthy of their positions. Lehmberg violated those standards and no longer deserves to enjoy the privilege of her elected title.

Everyone makes mistakes, and Lehmberg’s arrest should not overshadow the contributions she has made as DA. But those whose job it is to enforce rules that exist for the well-being of the public must take special care not to break them.

Already, lawmakers at the Capitol have politicized the issue, with Republicans calling for Lehmberg, a Democrat, to resign and Democrats pointing out that Republican Gov. Rick Perry would be the one to appoint a replacement if she leaves office.

In our eyes this issue is much more straightforward and must be treated accordingly. Lehmberg committed a crime — one that put lives at risk. Rather than cloud that transgression in partisan politics, all public officials regardless of party affiliation should call on Lehmberg to demonstrate unequivocally that drunk driving is completely unacceptable by resigning.

Allegations of improper analysis of evidence have been made against the Austin Police Department crime laboratory by Debra Stephens, a former forensic scientist and employee of APD. The Texas Department of Public Safety is currently investigating these allegations.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature approved a law requiring crime laboratories analyzing evidence for court to be inspected for accreditation. In a Dec. 27 letter to Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, Stephens wrote that the inspection and accreditation first conducted on the APD lab were invalid due to unqualified lab employees and mishandling of evidence. The letter was not released to the media until January.

Buddy Meyer, Travis County assistant district attorney, said representatives of the Texas Department of Public Safety are still investigating the allegations and have not yet reported a final conclusion to the DA’s office. He also said Lehmberg has released reports detailing the complaint to defense attorneys in Austin, whose cases might be affected by the allegations.
“From [2005] forward, the accredited laboratory was managed by non-scientists and unqualified personnel,” Stephens wrote.

She attached, along with her letter to Lehmberg, evidence in the form of three exhibits which she claimed indicated the crime lab had rushed to report results before sufficient analysis was conducted.

“I would estimate that there are hundreds of other cases that were analyzed without regard to laboratory protocols in ‘rush’ case requests that I was unable to identify,” Stephens wrote. “Part of my decision in releasing these documents to your office came from my belief that this information could be uncovered by the defense community and brought into the courtroom to discredit these individuals and the whole Austin Police Department crime laboratory.”

Pat Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, wrote in a letter to the district attorney’s office that there could have been insufficient testing before the APD crime laboratory issued a preliminary report.

“From my review of these cases, appropriate chemical analysis was preformed prior to issuance of the final laboratory report,” Johnson wrote. “The documents provided on two of the cases, however, do not show any testing before the ‘Preliminary Report’ was emailed. I suspect there may be more records ... and those should be reviewed before deciding whether this is a problem.”

Johnson also wrote that he recommends the APD crime laboratory not refer to “preliminary reports” as reports, but as “preliminary findings” to help distinguish them from authentic lab reports.

Bill Gibbens, spokesman for the Forensics Science Division of the Austin Police Department, said Stephens allegations were unrelated to a previous complaint made by another APD employee, Cecily Hamilton, about faulty work in the crime lab in 2010.

“Ms. Hamilton’s complaint had to do with a DNA related issue and Ms. Stephen’s allegations are a chemistry related issue,” Gibbens said.

Printed on Thursday, January 26, 2011 as: APD Lab faces allegations of poor analysis

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A day after the former Penn State assistant football coach who is charged with sexual abuse of boys declared his innocence in a television interview, an email surfaced from a key witness against him, saying he stopped an alleged attack in the team’s showers.

Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant who a grand jury report said saw Jerry Sandusky allegedly sodomizing a boy in the locker room, said he stopped the act and went to police. That added confusion to the already emotionally raw situation that has enveloped Penn State University and resulted in the firing of coach Joe Paterno, the ousting of president Graham Spanier and charges of perjury against the athletic director and a former senior vice president.

The Nov. 8 email from McQueary to a friend, made available to The Associated Press, said: “I did stop it, not physically ... but made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room ... I did have discussions with police and with the official at the university in charge of police .... no one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes for those 30-45 seconds ... trust me.”

McQueary is a former player and current assistant coach who was placed on indefinite paid leave last week after school officials said he had received threats. Emails sent to him seeking comment were not immediately returned.

On Monday night, Sandusky said in an NBC television interview that he showered with and “horsed around” with boys but was innocent of criminal charges, a statement that has stunned legal observers. Sandusky’s comments, they said, could be used by prosecutors trying to convict him of child sex-abuse charges.

“Mr. Sandusky goes on worldwide television and admits he did everything the prosecution claims he did, except for the ultimate act of rape or sodomy? If I were a prosecutor, I’d be stunned,” said Lynne Abraham, the former district attorney of Philadelphia. “I was stunned, and then I was revolted.”

The state grand jury investigation that led to Sandusky’s arrest followed a trail that goes back at least 13 years, leading to questions from some quarters about whether law enforcement moved too slowly.

The grand jury report detailed a 1998 investigation by Penn State police, begun after an 11-year-old boy’s mother complained that Sandusky had showered with her son in the football facilities. Then-District Attorney Ray Gricar declined to file charges.

Another apparent missed opportunity came in the 2002 incident that McQueary reported to Paterno.

The case took on new urgency about two years ago, when a woman complained to officials at her local school district that Sandusky had sexually assaulted her son. School district officials banned him from school grounds and contacted police, leading to an investigation by state police, the attorney general’s office and the grand jury. Gov. Tom Corbett took the case on a referral from the Centre County district attorney in early 2009 while he was serving as attorney general.

He bristled Tuesday when asked whether it was fair for people to criticize the pace of the probe.

“People that are saying that are ill-informed as to how investigations are conducted, how witnesses are developed, how backup information, corroborative information is developed, and they really don’t know what they’re talking about,” he told reporters.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the pace of the investigation.

The Patriot-News of Harrisburg reported Monday that only one trooper was assigned to the case after the state took it over in 2009. After Corbett became governor early this year and his former investigations supervisor in the attorney general’s office, Frank Noonan, became state police commissioner, seven more investigators were put on it, the newspaper said.

Printed on Thursday, November 17, 2011 as: Email outlines reaction to alleged Sandusky attack, adds twist to case

CENTER — The district attorney in a Texas county with a well-known drug-trafficking route repeatedly allowed suspected drug runners and money launderers to receive light sentences — or escape criminal charges altogether — if they forfeited their cash to prosecutors.

As a result, authorities collected more than $800,000 in less than a year using a practice that essentially let suspects buy their way out of allegations that, if proven, would probably have resulted in prison sentences.

“They were looking out for the treasury of their county instead of doing the job of protecting society,” said R. Christopher Goldsmith, a Houston attorney who represented one of the defendants.

The system engineered by Shelby County District Attorney Lynda Kaye Russell is now one focus of a federal criminal investigation that is also reviewing whether Russell and other law enforcement officials targeted black motorists for traffic stops.

Interviews, court records and other documents reviewed by The Associated Press show numerous examples of suspects who went unpunished or got unusually light sentences after turning over tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The money from those and other defendants increased the DA’s forfeiture account by more than two hundredfold and helped ease a tight budget. The county’s former auditor has testified that at least a portion of it was spent on campaign materials, parades, holiday decorations, food, flowers, gifts and charitable contributions.

In one instance, a man accused of transporting 15 kilos of cocaine and more than $80,000 in cash got probation after forfeiting the money to the district attorney. When the Justice Department learned about the deal, federal officials regarded it as so outlandish that they took the rare step of building their own case.

In another case, a woman caught with more than $620,000 stuffed into Christmas presents walked away after reaching a similar agreement.

Russell, who has been district attorney in the county on the Texas-Louisiana border since 1999, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. She announced in June that she was resigning, effective at the end of the year.