It’s impressive that TCDLA is celebrating its 50th year. It is incredible how far this organization has come. Although I have not been practicing for all of its 50 years (although some days it feels like it!), as a tribute to this special anniversary, I will try to give some insight into where we have been, where we are, and where we will be in the next 50 years insofar as the rural practice of law is concerned.
Although TCDLA was born in the late sixties, the rural practice of criminal law was somewhat unfazed by the 60’s counterculture. Most rural communities looked upon all that hippie hype and culture with contempt. Sure, there were glimmers here and there of awakenings of the rights of the individual. However, law enforcement usually subscribed to their own brand of rural justice. I have heard stories of a local sheriff taking a suspect to an open grave and telling him to spill the beans or else. I remember one old Texas sheriff telling me about his technique for getting a Defendant to confess. He would handcuff them to a chair, then slide a glass jar with a snake in front of them. He cautioned that the snake would need to be kept unfed for a few days to get it sleepy and docile in order to stay in the jar. He said it was remarkably effective for getting confessions but lamented the one time it did not work as expected. The snake was too fresh and perky, so when the Sheriff slid over to the handcuffed defendant, it leaped out onto the guy’s lap. He screamed and jumped up so high he hit the ceiling. He crashed down, breaking the chair as the snake slithered off and hid in the jail. The Sheriff was really upset that it took so long to hunt down the snake and get it back in the jar. When I asked how he could get away with this stuff, he said, “Hell, no one ever complained.”
Trial advocacy was also quite primitive. You did not have NITA, the Trial Lawyers College, or the National Criminal Defense College. Instead, a young lawyer went to court and watched old-timers practice their craft. Their strategy often involved doing things to distract the jury so they would ignore the state’s damaging evidence. To do so, criminal defense lawyers might wear different colored socks and shoes. One might blow smoke rings or use the old Clarance Darrow technique of fixing your cigar so that the ash would be distractingly long. You might bring large boxes with eye-catching, intriguing labels to distract the jury. The boxes were, in fact, often empty. You would hear things from lawyers like, “Calling your attention to the night of February 25th, what, if anything, unusual occurred?”
During this time, prosecutors were usually placed in office by the local powers that be. There were usually two types of justice, giving breaks to the haves and giving the shaft to the have-nots. Rural criminal defense attorneys did not usually put too much time or thought into practicing criminal law. This was usually a sideline, something to avoid unless it was a bad month, and the light bill was due. Rural lawyers were also expected to have drinks at lunch with the local movers and shakers to maintain their position at the feeding trough. Driving back to the office half-drunk was understandable. Few women practiced law in those days. Tristes with the secretaries were common without many repercussions.
This process more or less trucked along until the 1980s. Suddenly, the war on drugs ramped up the time, energy, and money spent on the criminal justice system. Cops started to shy away from giving teenagers a break by throwing their marijuana away and calling their parents as punishment. They needed convictions and photo ops to show their progress on the war on drugs, which in turn led to federal funding to keep up the good fight. Fighting communism was replaced by fighting drugs. Even the federal system was structurally changed so that citizens accused of violating federal drug laws could be uniformly hammered. In Texas, trial by ambush was the norm. Hiding exculpatory evidence to get convictions got DA’s awards and speaking engagements.
By the 90s, jurors looked like angry villagers with torches. The OJ Simpson trial was exhibit A in the public perception that the criminal justice system was broken and needed to be tougher. Judges and DA’s often followed this train of thought to keep their jobs. Asking for discovery in open court was like getting a root canal. No elected official wanted to be seen as being soft on crime. The upside was that criminal defense attorneys were forced to up their game to deal with these challenges. Trial advocacy schools and seminars started springing up. Actual trial techniques replaced criminal defense attorney gimmicks and tricks. Blowing smoke rings in court was replaced by storytelling and humanizing the citizen accused. More and more dedicated criminal defense attorneys got on board with these ideas. But huge sentences for drug cases were becoming more common and were celebrated by the press and society.
Then along came 9/11. It did not per se replace the war on drugs but gave another dimension to the fear and loathing of criminal defendants. Trial by ambush was still accepted policy. An open file policy was a gift that could be taken away by filing too many motions or giving the DA’s office a hard time at trial. You had paper files in which things could be taken out of without your knowledge. You had to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat to figure out precisely what happened with your case. This was probably when public sentiment against criminal defendants was at its highest.
But as is often the case in life, things change. Once the war of terrorism simmered down, you started hearing about cases of people wrongfully convicted of violent crimes being cleared by DNA evidence. The notion that prosecutors were angels began to crack. You would watch the news and see people freed after decades of imprisonment for crimes they did not commit. Even to a tough-skinned rural Texan, this struck a nerve. Occasionally, someone might say, “Well, maybe criminal defense attorneys aren’t all bad.” You would have been tarred and feathered if you said that a couple of years ago.
Michael Morton truly busted the cap off the unethical mindset held by so many old-school rural prosecutors. Suddenly, hiding evidence did not get you awards and a speech at a banquet. It got you sanctioned or disbarred. Once seen as a tremendous gift to the defense bar, prosecutors replaced their open file policy with free zip drives of everything in the file! Instead of hiding exculpatory evidence, prosecutors made sure they told you about it, then sent emails to make sure you got it! A complete 180 degrees from days past.
While this was going on, society started figuring out that all its problems were not being fixed by billions of dollars spent on the war against drugs. Of course, it all started in California, but as the years rolled by, this train of thought crept its way into our rural areas. Suddenly, 50 years in TDCJ for possession started to seem a harsh.
Then Covid hit. I do not need to preach to the choir about what happened then. Jury trials were as realistic as a pardon from the governor. You now had court hearings in your living room wearing flip-flops. Extraordinary times. Before Covid, you were required to file a motion for a continuance if you wanted to postpone a hearing. Now, all you had to do was cough in a zoom hearing. Instead of the Judge saying, “Please rise for the jury!” now we heard, “Counselor, your device is muted!”.
So, what now? What is the future for the rural practitioner? Hell, I have no idea! Well, maybe some. The playing field has been leveled a little bit more. Gone are the days of trial by ambush. Technology has made it easier to handle our cases effectively. I believe that prosecutors now worry more about doing the right thing.
I am hopeful that as our profession progresses, the citizen accused is treated with greater respect and humanity. Drug laws need to be revamped, for everyone’s sake. As for our profession, we have now been promoted from being detrimental to society to being necessary instruments in the pursuit of justice. One day, we may even be knighted like barristers are in England, but don’t hold your breath! If you look like you have breathing problems, you may get tossed out of the courthouse. Wait a minute, that gives me an idea…