Sunday, November 8, 2015

Who Shot Judge Kocurek?

            Thirty-odd years ago when federal Judge “Maximum John” Wood was shot by an assassin in San Antonio the killing was met by genuine shock on the part of the public. The assassination was seen as an attack on the judiciary, on the system, on the Constitution, on the very fabric of our lives as Americans. In the intervening years a lot has happened to put the judge’s killing in perspective. There’s been 9-11, the Iraq War, the corruption/meltdown of Wall Street, to say nothing of global warming, AIDS and ebola. It’s not that Judge Wood’s killing wasn’t important. Instead, we just learned that a lot worse things could happen, and have. But just recently, this weekend in Austin, another shooting took place that may actually come closer to spelling an end to society as we know it than the demise of U.S. District Judge John Wood, who it turned out was merely killed by a drug dealer fearing a heavy sentence.
            Today in the Texas capital a lot of theories are circulating about who could have possibly wanted to shoot Travis County District Judge Julie Kocurek, for many years the presiding officer of the state criminal courts in Austin. The possibilities are not endless and generally break down into three lines of suspicion: a personal grudge, involving a scorned lover or a betrayed friend (not to question the judge’s morality or sense of loyalty, but some motive involving the day to day personal interactions we all have as human beings, even judges.) Or the trigger was pulled by a “crazy” who did not know she was a judge or was responding to her on some level other than as a member of the judiciary—a commonplace example, offered here not necessarily because it’s likely but just because it’s illustrative, someone she quarreled with about a parking space or a neighbor who didn’t like her lawn. It can happen, again even to judges. The third and most obvious likelihood regards her work in the courts, and here, in the Travis County Courthouse, there are two lines of thought, one that the authorities would prefer to believe than the other.
            Current speculation involves the wide range of heavy cases she has handled including high-profile murder trials. We could mention any of those defendants but as of this moment, knowing nothing else, it seems unfair to people who already have enough to worry about in terms of getting a fair trial, without adding public suspicion that they tried to cap the judge. Suppose however it’s not an individual case but cases in general—or Travis County cases in general—and the approach to handing out justice at the Thurman-Blackwell Criminal Justice Center that made someone draw a bead on Judge Kocurek. Since the shooting there have been interviews and statements about what a great jurist Julie Kocurek has been, her switch from the Republican Party of then-Gov. George W. Bush who first appointed her, and her efforts to introduce, for example, a working system of indigent defense in the county. There’s no point in arguing any of that here. The question is not what kind of person Julie Kocurek is nor even what kind of judge she has been but how she and the system she has led have been perceived by someone who happened to have access to a gun, which in Texas means a lot of people. In that respect, like it or not, as leader of an unfair and discriminatory system she makes a good target. Especially for minorities and the dispossessed. It’s not something anyone wants to talk about in the liberal Mecca but it’s true.
            You may argue, but this is Austin, and we don’t do that here. There have been some recent cracks in the city’s liberal veneer, certainly, the growing feeling that perhaps the Texas capital is not quite as progressive as people like to think—and that the police have been a little out of control, sure, but no worse than anywhere else. That the performance of the courts in particular might be cause for violence is just so much hogwash, right? Is it, though, really? The police will presumably eventually produce a suspect in the judge’s attempted murder and it will likely not involve social discontent, and to the degree it has anything to do with her work on the bench it is much, much more likely to involve justice in one case than justice writ large. But the judge has been shot or shot at. She’s lying in a bed in Brackenridge Hospital, apparently no longer in mortal danger from her wounds. You may believe it does her a disservice to consider her service, at a moment like this, but it’s actually the best moment possible. This community has a problem and Judge Kocurek has been a big part of it, whether that led to the attack on her or not. Likely not. Yet you can bet that investigators are considering her record—without the social context—so it behooves us to, as well.
            What you see below are figures released by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice earlier this year. Travis County, despite its reputation for liberalism, continues to send a higher percentage of blacks to prison than many major municipalities in the state. Look at just two figures, for example, comparing Harris County and Travis County in terms of those sent to state prison, Huntsville, i.e., the Big House. About one half of the people Harris County sends to state prison are African-Americans, while a quarter of the population of that county is black; so the Harris County courts send blacks to prison at a rate twice the black population of Houston. About one-third of all prisoners from Travis County are African-Americans while blacks represent about 9 percent of the Austin population. You do the math. This is the judicial equivalent of racial profiling and it’s been like that for a while in Austin. It may be getting better, but better is not the same as good.


County of Conviction
Black
Hispanic
White
Other and Unknown
Total
Prison
Bexar
1,649
6,090
1,193
36
8,968
Dallas
8,346
3,939
2,631
96
15,012
El Paso
204
1,660
259
11
2,134
Harris
12,017
6,896
3,958
174
23,045
Travis
1,384
1,630
949
20
3,983
Prison
23,600
20,215
8,990
337
53,142
State Jail
Bexar
93
387
96
3
579
Dallas
243
168
196
3
610
El Paso
10
72
6
0
88
Harris
1,097
407
477
11
1,992
Travis
94
72
76
1
243
State Jail Total
1,537
1,106
851
18
3,512
SAFP
Bexar
22
136
52
1
211
Dallas
249
152
183
7
591
El Paso
4
25
8
1
38
Harris
65
33
62
2
162
Travis
32
31
24
0
87
SAFP Total
372
377
329
11
1,089
Total
Bexar
1,764
6,613
1,341
40
9,758
Dallas
8,838
4,259
3,010
106
16,213
El Paso
218
1,757
273
12
2,260
Harris
13,179
7,336
4,497
187
25,199
Travis
1,510
1,733
1,049
21
4,313
Total
25,509
21,698
10,170
366
57,743

           
Just as there’s growing disenchantment with economic equality in the country, and black disenchantment with the criminal justice and police forces nationwide, there’s a growing unease among blacks and the dispossessed in Austin. On the economic front there has been the gentrification of East Austin. There’s not much more you can say about that at this point, it’s already a done deal, no one can turn back the clock. In the criminal justice system however the wrongdoing continues. Blacks and Hispanics are profiled, arrested and sent to prison in numbers far outweighing their percentages in the population, numbers so starkly disproportionate as to make even the blind question what’s going on. Except in the Travis County Courthouse, where it’s business as usual. Judge Kocurek made headlines last year by warning then-Gov. Perry about a subliminal threat he may or may not have made to those pursuing a criminal case against him. Good for her, one supposes. But she has declined repeatedly to speak to violence against unarmed black men by the Austin police department, and the grand juries she supervises have repeatedly failed to indict officers. Nor did she speak up when a sole indictment, that of Det. Charles Kleinert for manslaughter, after he shot a black man point blank in the back of the neck, was thrown out in a dubious action by U.S. District Judge Earl Leroy Yeakel two weeks ago. To believe the police unions, cops are getting killed across the country as part of social unrest. The directors of the FBI and DEA both claim a “Ferguson effect” in which the police are now afraid to do their job for fear of being called out as racists. BlackLivesMatter is pushing the envelope, too, per many candidates for public office, even Democrats. If that’s true it’s not such a big jump to believe that judges and prosecutors are now being targeted as well.
But in Austin, you may ask?
This is a town after all in which people save their excitement for booze, music and the lake. Pussy, dick and good weed are the major motivators in local society. Those are the hipsters, however, and the rest of the public may be less-easily satisfied. The practical argument has always been made in Austin, and especially recently, that there aren’t enough black people in town to have a smackdown with police, in other words genuine civil unrest. But civil unrest is like any movement for change, you just need a few people who feel strongly enough and a few others who like what they see enough to join in. Increasingly, despite the falling black population, it feels as if the sentiment for confrontation is rising. The federal courthouse was briefly picketed after the Kleinert ruling and a visitor to that court on Friday, the morning before Judge Kocurek was shot, noted there was an extraordinary number of federal officers wearing ill-fitting blazers and looking on uneasily from the courthouse door. So, obviously, the idea that something might happen had occurred to someone in authority before Judge Kocurek parked her SUV in her driveway Friday night. So, too, you can be sure there will be a U.S. Marshal’s car outside Judge Yeakel’s home for the foreseeable future.
The argument is also made that Austin has a large number of highly-placed minority officeholders, including a black sheriff and a Latino police chief, which makes unrest unlikely—but so did Baltimore, where rioters argued that they weren’t taking to the streets despite black officeholders but because of them. In Austin, today, an oddly-effective argument can be made that Chief Art Acevedo, who finally seems to have taken control of his own department from the police union, and Sheriff Greg Hamilton, whose officers have mostly avoided controversy, need to stay in their jobs. But doubts about how well Austin’s actual diversity compares to its reputation for diversity have still been cropping up a lot, and have been present in the minority community longer still. As a witness to issues of race and privilege in the city there would seem to be no one better than Marc Ott, the city manager, another black in power, and his testimony on the subject, although brief, is direct: a grainy six-minute video on YouTube from five years ago, filmed at Austin’s historically-black college, Huston Tillotson. The video has been summoned up recently, to make the rounds, as part of the general minority rumbling in town, and in it Ott is seen sitting on the dais next to State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, another African-American officeholder, as he starts a brief description of what Austin is really like. It’s not a Chamber of Commerce view nor is it a pretty picture he paints, at least as regards relations between the Caucasian majority and minorities in town. Ott begins by citing a 1920s-era consultant’s report on how the city should control the “Negro population.” He calls out what he describes as “the hardest demographic division” he has seen as a public servant, I-35, and liberal hypocrisy in a community in which everyone is super-conscious of the ecology, for example, and other liberal markers, but when you raise the issue of treatment of blacks and Hispanics, faces go slack and the subject is changed.
           “When I first came here,” Ott begins his discourse, and it’s hard to catch every word because of the video quality, but there’s no missing his meaning, “I was invited to receptions and different kinds of things as people were trying to get to know me, and invariably people would ask, ‘What do you think of Austin?’ In Austin as a newcomer there’s lots of good stuff to talk about. The climate is nice here . . . ‘It’s a very vibrant, thriving community,’ those are the kinds of things I would say back. ‘I love Austin, it’s great, I’m glad to be here,’ which was true. But as time passed, I began to learn more.” There’s no point in repeating the city manager’s complete comments, he’s more articulate in expressing his own views of the city he administers than any quick synopsis can be. It’s important to note that Ott was in his third year in office when he made these observations so there’s no doubt that his opinions had time to take shape. He ends by quoting Martin Luther King Jr., about the nature of two evils, doing wrong and being silent about wrong which, basically, he ascribes to white Austin although he doesn’t use the color-word. The bottom line is that this isn’t the city white people think it is, especially in regards criminal justice, and Julie Kocurek has been a big part of that. It’s hard to believe that anyone among the dispossessed would go gunning for her, but if they did, would we really be so surprised?

M.T.

(mbeki.townsend@gmail.com)


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