Reform-Minded GOP Prosecutor Targeted by Police Unions, Her Own Party

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Harris County, Texas DA Pat Lykos was one of the prosecutors I praised in Reason last summer.

In 2008 Pat Lykos, a self-described Goldwater-Reagan Republican who supports the death penalty, was elected as chief law enforcement officer of Harris County, Texas, the county that has executed more people than any other, in a state that has executed more people than any other. In fact, under the leadership of former D.A. Johnny B. Holmes—a handlebar-mustached, lock-’em-up tough guy whom the Los Angeles Times once called “the killingest prosecutor” in the country—Harris County by itself sent more people to death row than the 49 states that aren’t Texas.

So Lykos would seem to be an unlikely criminal justice reformer. But upon taking office she set up her own team to review prior convictions for mistakes, similar to Craig Watkins’ unit in Dallas . . .

Lykos has initiated three exonerations so far. In 2010 the Innocence Project of Texas gave Lykos its Honesty and Integrity in Prosecution Award. The organization’s spokesman, Jeff Blackburn, told The Daily Beast earlier this year that “Harris County was the standard bearer of everything bad in criminal justice” until Lykos came along. Under her leadership, Blackburn said, the county “is becoming the single most powerful example of how to change this system and make it work right.”

Naturally, then, Lykos is now facing a challenge from her own party.

Pat Lykos promised in 2008 to change the culture at the Harris County District Attorney’s office, and she has.

The new direction has not pleased everyone. The first-term incumbent drew an opponent from her own party campaigning on a simple message: The office is going the wrong way.

Lykos argues she is a reformer with three years of improvements under her belt while Mike Anderson, a popular 30-year veteran of the courthouse, is trying to convince voters the machine used to be better run.

“A prosecutor needs to run that office,” said Anderson, who was an assistant Harris County district attorney for 16 years before spending 12 years as a felony criminal court judge.

“It’s an enormous undertaking for anybody,” Anderson said. “It would be very hard for anybody who has never been a prosecutor and never tried a case as a prosecutor to run that office.” . . .

Anderson has attacked Lykos for DIVERT, a program she created that allows the equivalent of deferred adjudication for first offense DWIs, and her “trace case” policy, which lessened penalties for possession of trace amounts of crack cocaine or crack pipes.

Lykos says the trace case policy has lowered the jail population by 1,000 inmates and freed up resources for more severe crimes. . . .

Sheryl Berg, a state Republican Executive Committee member in Senate district 11, said she supports Anderson.

“I said it’s time for new leadership,” Berg said. “And I said I thought he was the ideal candidate for that position.”

She also denied that a fight at the top of the ticket is bad for the party.

“Robust competition brings out the better candidate and brings out better voter turnout,” she said.

Valoree Swanson, another Republican Executive Committee member who is supporting Anderson, said Lykos needs to be replaced.

“She’s a moderate who is soft on crime and is rude to people who work under her,” Swanson said. “It really hurts her that she was never a prosecutor, a lot of her policies are bad policies.”

Lykos also recently received a vote of no confidence from the Houston police unions for the trace policy. Lykos has said pursuing felony charges for trace amounts is not only wasteful (she says she wants to prosecute cartels, not crack pipes), it’s problematic because there often isn’t enough of the drug for both the prosecution and the defense to test it. The cops of course hate the policy because arresting petty users is a hell of a lot easier than arresting major dealers. And when you don’t charge the users, they can’t pad their stats for those lucrative federal anti-drug grants (and, if Houston is similar to what we’ve seen in Atlanta and New York, for raises and promotions).

Lykos is not without her problems. Her office is currently the subject of a grand jury investigation over the accuracy of portable DUI breath test units. Lykos herself appears to be concerned about the problem, but her office is apparently continuing to process DUI cases based on the tests, anyway. But the intra-party anger seems to stem mostly from her efforts to change the culture in the Harris County DA’s office.

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19 Responses to “Reform-Minded GOP Prosecutor Targeted by Police Unions, Her Own Party”

  1. #1 |  Ryan P | 

    In a county with thousands of untested rape kits, the argument is that we should spend more money and time continuing to send extremely small time druggies to prison rather than trying to solve all those backed-up rape cases?

  2. #2 |  el coronado | 

    Wasting your breath, Ryan. The city/county/state can’t seize a rapist’s car & house & bank accounts. Druggies and their lovely lovely seizable assets are manna from heaven, and Houston (and every other city in the country) ain’t gonna let it go. Then too, if a cop/cops were hypothetically on the take – fat envelopes coming in every week like clockwork – do you suppose those hypothetical bribes would be coming from rapists? Or drug guys?

  3. #3 |  Gojira | 

    *sigh* I love being from Texas. By god, we don’t take shit from anybody! ESPECIALLY punk black and latino guys who think they can do whatever they want with their bodies in their own properties! The audacity!

    If only Rick Santorum can get elected, so we can extend the old Harris County policies all over the nation. As he himself stated, the notion that people can “do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody” is absurd and wrong.

    Again, quoting Santorum, true freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever you want, it means, ““the freedom to attend to one’s duties to God, to family, and to neighbors.”. That’s right: the freedom to attend to your duties. God I can’t wait! And the best part is: even if he doesn’t get elected, BO and ROMNIAC3000 will continue the same policies, with the overwhelming support of the public! Bloodthirstiness FTW!


  4. #4 |  EH | 

    Is that what it is, “there’s just no money in rape?”

  5. #5 |  marco73 | 

    Every city and county in the US has some sort of federally funded task force in place to stamp out the “scourge” of drugs. The federal dollars roll in only when reports of arrests are compiled and rolled up to federal bureaucrats.
    Everyone in the legal system from judges to cops to jail guards receive some federal dollars, from more court cases and more arrestees and more prisoners.
    So what if we are putting away people for multi-year sentences for having residue in a crack pipe? As long as jobs, overtime, and pensions are funded, the legal systems works just fine.
    Pat Lycos is messing with people’s paychecks. That’s why they are going after her. No one is naive enough to believe its about justice, or whatever they call it now.

  6. #6 |  Cynical in New York | 

    Lycos gets a “meh” from me for the following; 1. Government Gang Bangers hate her, 2. She still thinks the drug war is worth fighting

  7. #7 |  Dwight Brown | 

    For an alternative view on this, I commend to the attention of Agitator readers Life at the Harris Count Criminal Justice Center, a blog written by a former DA who was fired by Lykos, and is now in private practice as a defense attorney.

    My personal opinion, as someone who is not a lawyer and who is observing this through the newspapers at a distance of about 150 miles, is that Mr. Balko is playing down the severity of the problems with Ms. Lykos’s office, including the grand jury investigation into DUI testing.

    “Anderson has attacked Lykos for DIVERT, a program she created that allows the equivalent of deferred adjudication for first offense DWIs,”

    And which is in direct violation of the law. I disagree with the law as written, as well as the way DWI is handled in the post-MADD era, but I do expect the DA’s office to abide by the law until it is changed.

  8. #8 |  derfel cadarn | 

    You know the GOP standard bearers would not wish to be associated with honesty and integrity. The police unions and officers are lowlife scum who find it much easier to harass the general populous rather than attempt to do any serious police work,cowards in body armor with big guns and no ethics. Are not we fortunate to be living in America today.

  9. #9 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Let’s not be too quick to judge. I can see how her DIVERT and trace case policies would draw fire. Anytime you slow the rate of growth in prison population, you reduce the need for new cops, courts, prosecutors, and prison guards. This is a jobs issue. Those people need to eat too, you know, and it’s not like there are a lot of other jobs out there for those who specialize in keeping the high-walled people farms stocked with fresh warm bodies. Anything that slows that process is bad, bad, bad!

    Like the Hollywood movie industry, the U.S. just happens to be the world leader in locking people up. We don’t want to give up being the best in yet another industry due to the whims of some prosecutor who seems to think convictions and incarcerations are only for dangerous convicts and repeat offenders. From the tough on crime GOP and police union perspectives, you only have to look at the number of people still walking around free to realize the tremendous growth potential of the criminal justice system.

  10. #10 |  qwints | 

    There really is something to the claim that she is rude to people who work for her. I regularly read former Harris prosecutor (now defense attorney) Murray Newman, and he has documented a lot of pretty frustrating policies and errors that have nothing to do with criminal justice reform. For a summary of issues, take a look at this sarcasm-filled post:

  11. #11 |  HarrisCOFriend | 

    Radley – There’s a dirty underbelly to this story if you dig deeper. In between Holmes and Lykos there was another prosecutor named Chuck Rosenthal. You may remember him from the scandal that took him out of office.

    Rosenthal was one of the defendants in a lawsuit against some Houston cops who roughed up a guy for…you guessed it…filming cops in public. The lawsuit revealed a long string of racist and sexually explicit emails on Rosenthal’s computer and he resigned. Lykos came in as the reform candidate back then, and they’ve been gunning for her ever since.

    One of the leaders of the charge is a local GOP bigwig named Allen Blakemore, who was Rosenthal’s old campaign manager and Anderson’s new one. Blakemore is an out and out racist who has perfected the tactic of sending mail pieces to Republican primary voters with menacing Willie Horton-style mug shots of black and brown people, and declaring his opponents soft on crime.

  12. #12 |  CyniCAl | 

    “… she says she wants to prosecute cartels, not crack pipes … The cops of course hate the policy because arresting petty users is a hell of a lot easier than arresting major dealers.”

    Aha. Now it makes sense. She’s going after the wrong people.

    Follow the money people. Cui bono.

  13. #13 |  tired dog | 

    Lykos reportedly did not give a Swanson relative a job. Note that Swanson and Berg are just minor functionaries in the county R party, legends in their own minds. The county chairman, at least now, states support for Lykos. And Anderson seems to view his time on the bench and at the DA’s office as one and the same job.
    As for the cops, they can’t stand the loss of the numbers bumping easy busts, even if they’d eventually be downgraded to misdemeanors. Welcome to Harris County where you might beat the rap but it will be a hell of a ride.
    I would like the straight scoop in the possibly defective drunk-o-meters, and whether or not Lykos’ assistant Palmer took the 5th to protect herself or to point more questions in Lykos’ direction. Palmer has been around the office long before Lykos took over…hmmm, and was at some point a judicial candidate if memory serves, wonder if Blakemore was her CONsultant too?

  14. #14 |  CyniCAl | 

    Dave Krueger: “… you only have to look at the number of people still walking around free to realize the tremendous growth potential of the criminal justice system.”

    Here you go, Dave!–abc-news.html

  15. #15 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    Slightly OT: It looks like Radley is having a positive effect over at HuffPo:

  16. #16 |  Joshua | 

    I like how calling somebody a “moderate” is apparently a slur in Texas.

  17. #17 |  Goldbug36 | 

    Here in Illinois, it is so corrupt, they arrest some poor pot-smoking fool and promise to release him without charges if he will rat on some of his friends .. so he gets out the phone book and copies some names and addresses. Then the cops arrest these people, confiscate whatever they can from them, and send in a fabulous arrest report so they get lots of federal funding. Ain’t dat “War on Drugs” just special? Nah, Illinois isn’t corrupt; it’s just a Chicago rumor.

  18. #18 |  A Surplus of Law » Right Thinking | 

    […] falsely convicted. They could be more like Pat Lykos, now facing a primary challenge because of her reforms. Or they could be shifted to the defense side, to ensure everyone has competent […]

  19. #19 |  Thomas R. Griffith | 

    Looks like a few ‘Taxpayers’ get it. Only a fool would have no problem paying into an account that funds ‘mass round ups’ & mandates obtaining convictions of petty ass B.S. such as trace amounts and filming of public servants in public performing their paid duties. Sadly, as the products of the ‘Holmes Stable’ and ‘Rosenthall the Rotten’ die out, their legacy of corruption will live in empathy.

    When the public allows lawmakers & police departments to implement laws that require the imprisonment of low level crimes vs. paying fines and/or short probationary periods, they get what they (the complicit) deserve. Sadly, the non-complicit suffer just the same. Mrs. Lykos may have an (R) next to her name but at least she is trying to de-fool Harris County & save the the taxpayer a lot of money in the process. Too bad her Post Conviction Integrity Unit refuses to consider Closed/Cleared claims of false arrests and subsequent wrongful convictions void of DNA. When and if she does, will determine the true color of her heart & office. Until then, cherry picking is equal to avoiding the whole truth and nothing but. Thanks.