The finely tuned workings of the criminal justice system must be free not only of impropriety but the appearance of impropriety. If a prosecutor, judge or defense counsel loses the trust of the people, it can tarnish the legal profession, the courts and everyday perceptions of justice. Such appearances can be damning, the damage often irreversible.
Questions raised in the case of an attorney allegedly trying to cherry-pick the prosecutor with whom he would deal in a pair of drunken-driving charges leave stink all over McLennan County Courthouse. Swept up in it: two Baylor University higher-ups, one of whom reports directly to Baylor President Ken Starr, and District Attorney Abel Reyna, whose leadership has been battered by a flurry of resignations in his office.
Trib staffer Tommy Witherspoon’s Sunday story goes into too much detail to recount here, but it boils down to this: A married couple who work at Baylor get arrested in, believe it or not, two separate drunken-driving incidents on the same day. Reyna, either by agreement or “out of an abundance of caution” that he might have represented one of them in his days as a private attorney, recuses his office. County Court-at-Law Judge Mike Freeman appoints attorney Brittany Lannen as a special prosecutor.
This prompts Guy Cox, attorney for the Baylor pair, to go to some lengths to get Lannen disqualified from the cases, contending in a filing she was fired from the DA’s office for “incompetence, insubordination and unethical conduct.” Freeman recuses himself after meeting with the two. Then a week ago, Lannen files a motion requesting any hearing to disqualify her be held not in secret but in the open. She alleges threats by Cox in a seeming bid by him to see attorney Jason Darling appointed special prosecutor in the DWI cases instead.
Put these allegations together (plus recollections from Reyna’s former executive assistant) and one fair conclusion is that a fix was in the works to get the cases against the Baylor couple dismissed by a particular special prosecutor. Cox has declined to respond to our questions; Reyna and Darling say they never spoke with Cox before Reyna’s recusal. Freeman says he recused himself to maintain his relationship with Cox and Lannen.
Answers are required if the prosecutor’s office and courts are to emerge from gathering clouds of doubt: Why was the defense counsel so dead set to get rid of the special prosecutor chosen by Freeman? If Lannen is guilty of “unprofessional conduct,” why did the judge appoint her? Why are the judge’s relationships suddenly such he must recuse himself? Why did Reyna feel compelled to recuse his office from the cases when his former executive assistant says he had never represented the defendants during his days as a private attorney?
And how much truth exists in Lannen’s legal filing in response to Cox’s bid to give her the boot — including, to quote her, “Cox’s statements suggesting that he had reached a deal with a predetermined, handpicked attorney pro tem to ensure that the defendant would avoid prosecution for this offense.” And what of Cox’s alleged threats against Lannen? What would the State Bar say of all this?
If Friday’s hearing before retired Judge Mike Gassaway to disqualify Lannen is in private, rumors and allegations of justice being for sale at McLennan County Courthouse could fester, indicting those innocent of wrongdoing and engulfing others who have nothing to do with the cases. If the hearing is canceled, it adds weight to Lannen’s explosive claims, supported by those of Reyna’s former executive assistant.
So was a deal in the works to deep-six two DWI cases involving Baylor employees in the county’s justice system? The allegations are there. The evidence is damning. And if some reputations are on the line in this fiasco, so is that of justice itself.