I’m writing while sitting in the courthouse gallery on Monday morning, at the punishment phase of P. David Romei’s felony trial. Saturday night the jury convicted the former Executive Director of the Arts Council of the Brazos Valley on two of the three counts of theft and misappropriation of public and private funds. Today the jury decides if David will go on probation or serve as many as ten years in prison.
1. As my two previous posts note, I think the case against David was overwhelming. That the jury deliberated for more than 30 hours over two and one-half days bespeaks the caliber of our citizenry that answers a jury summons. That they acquitted him on one charge while convicting him on two—while reducing one felony charge to a misdemeanor—shows the careful, deliberate way in which they approached their duties. One of the newspaper articles said a fraction of those summoned showed up, and that extras had to be diverted from the leftover jury candidates from another trial. It looks like the best members of the potential jury pool took their civic duty seriously.
Nevertheless, another portion of our citizenry doesn’t seem to appreciate the sacrifice. Some of the anonymous internet comments about the jury demonstrates why I’m glad those people stayed on the sidelines:
Hour and a half until a free lunch, too. I’m betting the verdict comes after that. I have a feeling there are a few jurors who realize they can milk this for all it’s worth. — Dean Travers, Texags.com
People not smart enough to get out of jury duty probably like all the freebies they can get! — 91_Aggie, Texags.com
2. These kinds of comments reflect the artificial socialization of the web, where everybody hides behind a nom de plume, and nobody comes face to face with disapproving grimace. But they also demonstrate the degree of enmity Dr. Romei created over the years. To put it bluntly, he pissed a lot of people off with his hard-driving, sometimes abrasive manner. Some relish seeing him knocked down. That’s not to diminish the seriousness of his transgressions. I agree with the verdict.
3. There’s another factor in this community that engenders resentment against people like Dr. Romei. Although this is a university town, it’s a right-wing one. A lot of small government conservatives resent what amounts to their property tax money going to “frivolous” activities such as the arts. One vociferous opponent is a former city council member, Dick Birdwell, a noted letters-to-the-editor advocate for conservative causes. That Romei has been convicted serves as vindication, not only with regard to his conservative philosophy, but also against rival city council politicians who supported the arts. It’s interesting that one of the few Romei supporters consistently in the courtroom gallery was Robert Wareing, a former city councilman known for his advocacy of Arts Council projects.
4. This trial put two good legal teams on display. If I were unfortunate enough to be charged with a crime, I’d hate to be prosecuted by Bill Turner but would feel fortunate to have a defense attorney like Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. Earlier in his career, Haynes became legendary for courthouse antics, such as when he once tried to nail one of his hands to the defense table. His deportment is more restrained these days. Part of that may be his advanced age, another the fact that the defense has been slogging uphill throughout this trial. As I said, the evidence presented seemed one-sided in favor of the prosecution.
Bill Turner proves, if you’re hard-nosed enough as a prosecutor, you can continue to be elected as a Democrat in this body cavity of the red-state beast. It must be terribly frustrating to local Republicans that they can’t manage to unseat Turner and fellow Democrat Chet Edwards, whose support of Texas A&M and veterans’ issues keeps him employed as the congressman who represents both College Station and the Crawford Ranch.
By the way, Racehorse is now a member of the Brazos County Bar Association. Shortly after Judge Smith dismissed the jurors for lunch, a representative of the local bar offered him a complimentary membership. Judge Smith, in a departure from his stern countenance while court is in session, joked that the dues waiver was probably the only reason the Houston attorney agreed to join. Haynes is no pauper, having received at least a $1 million fee for defending T. Cullen Davis. He has been known for his creative fee arrangements, such as taking title to a defendant’s pickup truck.
5. Steve Fullhart, a reporter and weekend news anchor for KBTX in Bryan, became the unsung hero of this trial for his up-to-the-second blog reports on his station’s website. He endured all but the last day of the trial standing up, running the news camera part time and typing into an I-Phone the crisp sentences that kept trial watchers from afar in touch with Brazos County justice. With all of this workload, he found time to moderate the incoming comments to his blog, ostensibly weeding out some of the more worthless and vitriolic that plague forums such as Texags.com and the Eagle’s readers’ comment section.
6. As I listen to the testimony today, there’s one obvious goal by the defense: Convince the jury to grant probation and keep David out of jail. Romei is now a convicted felon. He lost his job with Texas A&M when he was indicted. He has been unemployed for two years. He faces no legitimate prospects for future employment using his Ph.D. He sold his house. He’s down to two months remaining in COBRA insurance coverage, for which he must pay all of the premiums–including the portion normally paid by an employer. If put on probation, he’d have difficulty living somewhere else where he’s unknown, as he will have to report to his probation officer at least monthly, and could be bound by other restrictions. In addition to a fine, the judge would undoubtedly obligate him to pay restitution, and there’s always the possibility of a civil suit from the Arts Council. In other words, even if set free he would have to live without favorable employment prospects in a community where he is considered a pariah, pay fines, restitution, and probation fees under penalty of imprisonment for default, and somehow provide for his medical needs without insurance. At least, prison would furnish him three hots and a cot, and a health clinic. Suffice it to say he will be adequately punished whatever the jury decides.
Update: Turner asked for 10 years imprisonment, but the jury decided on two years probation, plus a $5,750 fine and the possibility of restitution that will be decided by the judge. I’ll bet Dick Birdwell and a bunch of anonymous Texags.com posters are miffed! That these fiscal conservatives would have locked him up at taxpayers’ expense for a non-violent crime that is unlikely to be repeated serves as a prime example of the contradictory nature of right-wing thinking.