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Don Hill’s Legal Defense May Be Less About the Facts and More About Martyrdom

Former Dallas City Councilman Don Hill is viewed in the community as a nice guy. The feds will be working hard to change that perception in his ongoing bribery trial.
Brian Harkin

Last Monday, at the end of the first day of the Dallas City Hall corruption trial in federal court, I thought I picked up a little note of letdown in the press corps. I even heard one reporter sniff that the government's bribery accusation against former Dallas City Council member Don Hill and others "doesn't seem like much of a case."

Not that the press corps wants to see Hill, his wife and three other defendants convicted. That would give us too much credit. All the press corps wants is blood. Anybody's blood. And, yes, the case does seem bloodless—a month-long desert slog through dunes of documents and whirling sands of small-time finance. That's no fun. What we want are people in pirate hats with knives in their teeth swinging off the façade of City Hall on ropes.

Ain't gonna be that way.

The government's cases against some of the defendants, buttressed by lurid phone taps and photographic evidence, look strong, at least at first blush. But the linkage from those defendants to Hill—the main target because he is the only elected official on trial—appears weaker. There is no videotape of Don Hill with a patch over one eye singing "yo-ho-ho" while he counts his doubloons.

This will be a fairly technical case. It will require the jury to understand an arcane area of public finance. Hill, his wife, Sheila Farrington Hill, and three other defendants are accused of extorting money from affordable housing developers five years ago in exchange for votes and support from Hill and Hill's appointee to the city plan commission, D'Angelo Lee. The fact that Hill, Lee and others may have received money isn't enough to send them to jail. The jury must decide they took money in exchange for votes or official influence—that they literally sold their votes.

Hill, his wife, Lee and two other remaining defendants will argue they received legitimate payments for services legitimately rendered and are now victims of an overzealous Bush White House-era prosecution.

Nine of the original 14 defendants have pleaded guilty and are working for the prosecution. They will testify it was all about bribery. Their testimony will be discounted by some X-factor, large or small, because they are all trying to save their own skins.

But for you and me this trial is about much more than the guilt or innocence of the accused. In this case, City Hall is on trial and, in a sense, the city itself. This broad allegation here is of deep-running corruption at Dallas City Hall involving Dallas' entire approach to redressing a history of racial segregation. There's a reason the feds took so long to put this together. They were workin'.

That's one really good thing about having the trial here, instead of in West Texas on a change of venue where the trial of former councilman Al Lipscomb happened in 2000. I know the feds don't put these trials on as public morality plays, but you know what? These trials are public morality plays. It will be good for Dallas to watch this one unfold at close quarters.

Meanwhile, don't kid yourself that Hill is automatically going down. Sure, the feds have all kinds of telephone taps and paper and transactions and undercover videotape, not to mention a host of accused co-conspirators who have flipped and are going to point the finger at Hill.

But Hill's got a hand of cards too.

First, you put all of this against a backdrop of Dallas as the World Capital of the Exonerees. I refer, of course, to the international attention drawn to the city since Dallas County's first black district attorney, Craig Watkins, started turning over rocks, finding case after case in which Dallas juries had sent innocent black people to prison for life or most of it.

Those were county cases. The Don Hill trial is federal. That distinction is without meaning in the context of what I'm talking about here.

Look. One-third of the jurors in the Hill trial are black. I hope the community's history of racial injustice is important to the third of the jurors who are white and the third who are Hispanic as well, but it damn sure is to the black ones. With them, the federal prosecutors are going to have an extra amount of climbing to do to demonstrate they are pursuing justice and not just-us.

In that sense, the depth of this case will cut two ways. According to the 166-page indictment, prosecutors will be showing the jury how city officials and legislators—none of whom is indicted here—used all kinds of financial arrangements, tax policies and economic development incentives to help the alleged conspirators in this case make their money.

So on the one hand jurors might hear all that evidence and conclude, "Wow, Dallas City Hall is really a dirty place, and we need to help these nice G-men clean it up."

 

On the other hand some of the jurors, especially the black ones, might look at that same evidence and say to themselves, "If this is how City Hall does business, then we will assume it does business this same way in North Dallas, the only difference being that up there the people getting the gravy can hire better lawyers. So we're supposed to hang our guy because he wasn't slick enough?"

Remember this: Don Hill is viewed universally in all segments of the community as a nice guy. He gets a few points knocked off among the church ladies in South Dallas for ditching his wife in favor of another woman, whom he married, but people still think of him as a nice guy, not an asshole, and that counts.

And then there is this. This is the big one. Don Hill's lawyers have got federal judge Barbara Lynn by the short ones. (Can you say that about women?) Anyway, they have her by what they want to have her by.

Maybe you've been hearing whispers of how dumb Hill's lawyers are because they continue to goad the judge over her gag order, holding prayer meetings, putting up Web sites and the like even after she warned them all to shut the hell up. When I drove off from the courthouse Monday, I spied the defense team talking to a scrum of news crews.

Yeah. They're real dumb. Like foxes.

The best thing Hill's team could accomplish right now would be to force Lynn to put their client in jail. Then he's a martyr, and that message goes straight by Barbershop Twitter to the four black jurors. The message? It's a lynching.

Lynn knows that. How do I know she knows? Because when she called Hill down a week ago for talking to the press, accusing him of criminal contempt, she put off dealing with that charge until after the conclusion of the trial. And when the defense team challenged the racial makeup of the jury, Lynn caved immediately and forced the feds to add a fourth black juror.

I know she's just obeying the law. But she is also showing that she is sensitive to the racial politics of the case, and so I'm going to make a real big leap of logic here and assume she doesn't want to lock up Don Hill and make him look like Martin Luther King Jr. in the Birmingham jail.

Hill's team already has succeeded in laying out a context, by accusing the feds of mounting a Bush-era racist vendetta. If you're white like me, you can dismiss all of that out of hand as a bunch of cooked-up bullshit. Those black jurors might dismiss it too. But not out of hand. Not without thinking about it first. That's the difference between white folks and black folks.

If nothing else, the Don Hill legal team has a really good shot at hanging this jury up by its thumbs, especially if they can goad Lynn into putting Hill in the slammer during the trial.

I am so convinced I am right, I am going to go out on a limb and make a prediction. If Hill and his lawyers continue to openly defy the gag order and if Lynn still refuses to lock them all up for it, you will see Hill start doing things like cutting the tops off parking meters near the courthouse, tugging the ears of courthouse security guards and displaying fistfuls of mattress labels that he has illegally slashed from new mattresses.

That doesn't leave the judge without options. She can always sequester the jury for a month or however long this sucker takes, holed up in some hotel unable to see their loved ones, mow their lawns, catch any good sales or get the hell away from each other. Oh, we're talking about some real unhappy campers in that deal. But so what? Sometimes the wheel of justice grinds hard.

That's not exactly a King's X for Lynn. By putting psychological pressure on the jury, she puts strategic pressure on the prosecutors and increases the chances for any kind of screwup.

On the other hand I don't see them screwing up. The feds came across in the first day of the trial as very put-together, very buttoned down, maybe even sort of bulletproof. The defense lawyers, on the other hand, were all over the place—some good, some terrible, some somewhere in the middle. D'Angelo Lee's lawyer seemed to argue that the Plan Commission is so stingy—not paying its members any salary at all—that the members have almost no choice but to get a little action going on the side.

 

Good luck on that one with the white jurors from Collin County. You know, this isn't exactly Chicago. People here don't believe in acceptable levels of corruption.

The connections in all of this to Hill are gray and bloodless. Some of the case is technical and arcane. Toss in a pinch of natural doubt and a fistful of racial politics: I think Hill drifts farther and farther away from the bull's-eye where the feds need him.

For me, the most interesting witnesses will not be the flamboyant ones. I will be watching for those real boring City Hall bureaucrats who are going to explain why D'Angelo Lee needed his own tax increment finance district. I'll be there with my box of popcorn for that one.


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