By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Crystal ball:What does the new year hold in store for Dallas? Police Chief David Kunkle's divorce lawyer gets a new boat, thanks to his favorite client? Mayor Laura Miller at long last hauls off and slugs someone? The feds announce a major investigation into City Hall, then quietly steal away, never to be heard from again?
Probably, but those are the easy predictions, and being a serious-minded media-type person, we had a more important question: How will things change at the Dallas County Courthouse now that we've elected a slew of Democratic judges? Should we celebrate by firing up a joint on a street corner or knocking over a liquor store? Not just yet—but at least a couple of defense lawyers we know think we may see a change in how judges handle defense challenges to evidence. (It's not a sexy change, but the important ones usually aren't.)
Expect to see criminal defense lawyers file more motions to suppress evidence—because of an improper search, arrest or interrogation, for example, one lawyer acquaintance told us. The outgoing GOP judges had a lot of background in the prosecution biz, the reasoning goes, and tended to take a more limited view on when they should kick out evidence. Hence, fewer challenges.
Good theory, we thought, so we called defense lawyer Peter Lesser, a former candidate for district attorney, to see if it sounded right. "I think we'll see more [defense motions to suppress] for a couple of reasons," Lesser agrees. Partly because the Dem judges—many with defense experience—might appear to be more willing to listen to such motions, he says. More important, however, judges might change current procedure, in which they usually don't hold hearings on motions to suppress until after a jury has been impaneled. "Their point of view is that it's more efficient" to wait on the hearings, Lesser says. From a defendant's point of view, having jurors cooling their heels in another room while the motion is weighed might make a judge seem less inclined to toss crucial, if dubiously obtained, evidence. "Judges don't want to take a case away from a jury," Lesser says.
So here's another prediction: Expect sometime in the next year to hear cops, politically ambitious GOP lawyers and former prosecutors complain that the courthouse has become too friendly to the accused. And when you hear that, remember Dallas County's troubling track record of having wrongfully convicted prisoners freed from jail. Civil liberties or the same old way of doing things: It's an easy choice. Voters made it in November.