If you haven’t yet read Sunday’s explosive Express-News story by Brian Chasnoff, don’t do it while drinking your morning coffee. You’re likely to spit it out. Besides, you won’t need the coffee. Astonishment and anger will serve.
The newspaper told the tale of James Preston Green, 37, who has been convicted four times in the past decade for driving while intoxicated. We’re talking stumbling, incoherent, raving drunk. Offering a cop a Rolex to let him go drunk. Whining that he needs to get home to play Easter Bunny drunk. Weaving into the oncoming lane drunk. Warning an officer that he was “personal friends” with the district attorney and the police chief and that the cop would be “fired and be a meter maid and working at Walmart” drunk.
So drunk that he told one arresting cop he “should arrest some real criminals like rapists, drug dealers and murderers.” As if that wasn’t enough, the officer reported Green said he should be arresting some “Mexicans and n——.”
I’m confident Green is unaware of how lucky he is that he is white. One police car video camera showed him responding to an order that he put his hands on his truck by reaching into his pockets – the sort of move that has cost more than one black man his life and convinced a jury that the officer had reasonable cause to shoot.
Yet on Oct. 14, despite the fact that Green’s blood-alcohol level was more than double the legal limit and he was on still on probation for an earlier felony DWI charge when he slammed into the rear of a car on the Wurzbach Parkway and fled the scene, Bexar County District Judge Ron Rangel sentenced him to yet another probation.
Rangel didn’t judge much. He simply accepted a plea bargain worked out by the district attorney’s office. For good measure, the plea deal also included dismissing two felony domestic violence indictments involving two separate girlfriends of Green’s.
Why the sweetheart deal for a guy who clearly isn’t a sweetheart?
It could be because his father enjoys the power that comes with wealth and community standing. Jimmy Green owns J. Green Jewelers in Stone Oak and is a former Rey Feo who raised more than $200,000 in scholarship money to win the crown.
It may have something to do with the fact that Jimmy Green attends a weekly Bible study session led by District Attorney Nico LaHood. Green and the DA’s office say LaHood had no involvement in the plea negotiations.
But on the very day the judge approved the deal, Jimmy Green posted a photo of the Bible session with this lavish endorsement: “Nico LaHood’s mens bible study the best I ever attend!!! Men come join us!!!”
Maybe LaHood played a role. Both Jimmy Green and the DA’s office say he didn’t. Maybe he didn’t even know about the deal. Courthouse sources say he hasn’t exactly been overly involved in office affairs since losing his re-election bid in last March’s Democratic primary.
Which raises one of two underlying issues suggested by this story. If LaHood was involved in this deal, he should be held accountable. If his employees could offer such a deal under these circumstances without his involvement, he should be held accountable.
But the reality is that LaHood’s bosses fired him on March 6 when Democratic voters rejected his re-election bid by denying him their nomination. And it wasn’t close. He lost by 18 points.
In the private sector, when people are fired there is a fairly conventional ritual. Their access to the company computer is terminated immediately if not sooner, and they are asked to clean out their desk that day before being escorted out of the building by security.
That’s not the way we do it with powerful people employed by the taxpayers. If they lose in a Texas primary, they have just shy of 10 months on the job – or not. (The New York Times‘ front page featured this lead headline Sunday: “GOP lame ducks fade from House as clash looms.” The story says they may not be able to pass $5 billion for the border wall because many of the 40 who lost their seats, as well as retiring members, are not coming to work.)
In the wake of his defeat, LaHood strongly indicated he was taking his firing personally. He announced he was no longer a Democrat and said, “The party today has been hijacked by a leftist ideology, a neo-Marxist ideology, that is really fascist in nature.”
Not all lame ducks have a bad attitude, but 10 months is a dangerous amount of time to keep rejected people on the job. Texas does it because they want to have increased influence in presidential elections, but you have to wonder how many lame ducks – whether they are judges, DAs, or constables – are using their offices to settle scores or ingratiate themselves with potential employers or clients.
The other issue raised by this mystery is encapsulated in a quote the newspaper received from Rangel: “Judges in most circumstances don’t really have the ability to reject a plea bargain. When it comes to plea bargains, they never tell me what the strengths and weaknesses [of a case] are. I never have any idea.”
My question is this: If criminal district judges can’t reject plea bargains – which represent the vast majority of matters that come before them – why are we paying them $158,000 a year? A Walmart greeter could handle the job.
People who know him say Ron Rangel is a a good guy. And he apparently is sensitive enough to be embarrassed by the story of Green’s serial DWIs. On Monday, Rangel issued a warrant for Green’s arrest for allegedly violating his probation by drinking – something he has repeatedly done on his earlier probations.
Still, when a repeat offender such as Green comes before a judge with a plea deal like this after multiple priors, doesn’t that judge have a responsibility to question the prosecutors about why they are letting the defendant off so easy? It’s not unimportant. In one of Green’s arrests, an officer said he watched Green swerve into the oncoming lane and narrowly miss another vehicle. The people in the car he rear-ended in his last arrest were lucky not to suffer serious injury.
The fact is, some judges do occasionally reject a plea agreement. Often these judges are former prosecutors. If Rangel is right that prosecutors never tell him why they don’t want to go to trial, he should start asking them.