Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Criminal Defense

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition that occurs in people who have experienced a frightening or violent event, i.e., trauma.  The condition’s symptoms include nightmares, avoidance of the situations or people that remind the individual of the incident or series of incidents, flashbacks to the incident, trouble sleeping, feelings of being on edge, and they usually continue for over a month, and can normally be traced to a specific indecent or series of incidents.  Some people are familiar with this condition through their readings or experience with veterans who have faced combat or hostile fire, or incidents like the USS Cole bombing. PTSD can manifest within a few months of the incident, or sometimes even months or years later.

However, veterans are not the only ones who experience trauma.  Many of us have had veterans as clients, and I frankly started learning about this disorder because of my attempts to assist veterans in criminal court.  However, if one thinks about it, many of our clients have been exposed to trauma.  People who were physically abused as children, people who were assaulted in prison, women or men who were sexually assaulted, young people who were part of gangs and the violence in their neighborhoods, people who have lost family to suicide, or been in a deadly fire, or were injured in a tragic car accident, all can experience PTSD.  Now, before you get skeptical, think about these questions as they relate to our clients, and see if it is likely our clients could answer “Yes” to any of these questions, regardless of why.

  1. Do you have nightmares?
  2. Do you feel anxious? [cannot sit still, worries, less than calm]
  3. Do certain sounds or smells make you feel anxious?
  4. Are you uncomfortable in crowds?
  5. Are you frightened by sudden loud noises?
  6. Are you uncomfortable if you cannot see the entire room?
  7. Do you ever feel uneasy or threatened? [or, do you have sudden angry outbursts for no apparent reason?]
  8. Do you have trouble sleeping?
  9. Do you avoid noisy areas?
  10. Do you have negative views of yourself, or feelings of guilt or blame?

These questions are not all encompassing, nor are they a surefire way to detect it.  If one takes the risk factors [abusive childhood, for instance, anyone who has been involved in a CPS case, or prior military service in a hazardous area or direct combat, or prior prison time, or prior losses of loved ones in a violent way, for example] and then observes the client [are they hyper-vigilant, keep the their backs to the wall, head on a swivel, or are they complaining of sleeplessness, irritability, bad dreams, taking anti-anxiety medications, do they appear to look for threats or complain about how some guard reminds them of their dad, “that bastard”, etc.], then this is worth following up for several reasons.

First, the circumstances that produce the PTSD are often quite mitigating to juries, judges, and prosecutors.  It will not always help, but if people begin to see your client as the kid who was abused and placed in a foster home instead of the armored car robber, then this can only help.  Second, the PTSD itself is often the root of the actions that got your client here in court in the first place.  Whether it is being caught with controlled substances that they use to anesthetize, or the drinking that led to the DWI, or a flashback that caused an over aggressive reaction that led to an assault charge, a diagnosis of PTSD could mean you have both an explanation for the illegal act and a way forward, i.e. treatment.  This can only help your client.  Last, it can provide, in some instances, a defense, particularly if one can put the fact-finder back in the incident that caused the PTSD and see how it was perceived by the client.  In limited instances, it may even provide a defense against intent if one can prove a flashback occurred or that the circumstances were a misconception.

So, we know to at least look for the presence of this disorder in our all-too often traumatized clients.  Next, since we are lawyers, we need to prove this so we can use it.  If our client is a veteran, often that simply means obtaining his or her medical records if they already have such a diagnosis.  If they are vets but do not have the diagnosis yet, then see if one can arrange for a VA examination and diagnosis.  First though, one may need to obtain the records that support the diagnosis, such as combat awards (a Purple Heart, a Combat Action Badge/Ribbon, commendations with a “V” device for valor under enemy fire, awards for heroism [such as a Bronze Star], or a unit citation) or the discharge papers, called a “DD-214”, which will list the job, deployments, and action history of the service member. If these records are not available, a request can be sent to the VA to obtain a copy. We can also look to the unit history maintained in the archives of the separate services, which will list combat or hazardous actions by the person’s unit.  These can be obtained by an e-archives release form downloaded off the web.

For our civilian folks, the records process is trickier.  Prison and jail discipline or medical records are often a surprising gold mine, even if it looks as if your guy was written up for the fight.  Attacks on your client are often documented in either medical or disciplinary records. The reader may poo poo this, but how many of your friends would respond with calm equanimity to an attempted sexual assault or shanking?  For older cases of sexual or physical abuse to a client during their childhood, one needs a subpoena typically to the Children’s Protective Service agency in the county that handled them, and a release for any medical or counseling records. Juvenile records are often also a good source for this. We may also want affidavits from family [this works for the vets above as well] members as to the client’s waking up at night screaming, increased drinking, increased drug use, or sudden bursts of temper since returning from prison, the service, the fire, or since leaving foster care.

Which brings up a point – PEOPLE DO NOT LIKE TALKING ABOUT TRAUMATIC EVENTS BECAUSE THEY WERE TRAUMATIC.  One needs to get at least some trust, some facts, or some family help to prove this disorder up, because no one likes sharing difficult times from their past with strangers.  Would you?  Keep this in mind and treat the issue with some dignity.  Do not expect immediate help from the client as to the horrible things they had to endure.  This does not happen in a holdover cell meeting; it happens over time and investigative effort.

 

So, look for the PTSD that many of our clients have, find the proof, and use it to lessen their consequence.  Good luck!

Age of Sanctuary: End Times

On May 7, 2017, the governor of Texas Greg Abbott, signed a new document that would go into law September of this year. This new law addressed the controversy around “Sanctuary cities” and now requires police to ask about a person’s legal status. In simple terms this new law would require local police to question a person’s legal status and arrest them if they are undocumented. If they do not, the police can face criminal charges as well as fines. This new law is being met with extreme resistance from Pro-Immigration groups and the American Civil Liberties Union but also applauded by many. I will try to highlight the viewpoints from both sides to help easily paint the picture.

The easiest way to explain the idea of a sanctuary city is to first understand the difference between Federal and State law. Immigration is Federal law and handled by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice. In the past, it was the duty of DHS to find and catch undocumented people, not state/local  law enforcement. However, once an undocumented person was arrested and convicted by a State Judge they are SUPPOSED to be reported to Immigration for deportation. This is where the term “Sanctuary City” comes into play. There are certain cities/counties that even after conviction they do not report the undocumented person to DHS and let them leave jail after completing their sentence. With the new President, he vowed to put an end to “sanctuary cities” and Texas quickly followed. The catalyst for this action occurred in San Francisco (which is a Sanctuary city) in 2015, when a girl was killed by an undocumented individual despite him having been in jail multiple times. The argument is if San Francisco complied and notified Immigration officials, the individual would have been deported and this murder never would have happened. By implementing this new law, Texas hopes to facilitate the deportation of undocumented individuals.

However, the opposition of this new law argues many different points. One complaint of many local law enforcement is that they would be spread too thin. They do not have the manpower nor would that be a good use of local law enforcement.  Their view is that our police have bigger issues to deal with than doing the work for DHS. They can’t do the work of DHS and still keep up with their local duties. Others say that we can’t hold all the undocumented people in jail because there just isn’t enough room. A similar law had been tried in Arizona a few years back which gave the police the power to ask for an individual’s legal status. Ultimately this law was removed but many people argue that this new Texas law is the same wolf in different sheep’s clothing.

Even though this new law is supposed to come into effect on September 1, 2017, it will be met with much opposition and legal challenges. It will be interesting to see if other states follow Texas’s example and implement similar laws. Below is an excerpt from the Associated Press regarding the new bill.
The Associated Press reports:

“The new Texas law was blasted by opponents as the nation’s toughest on immigrants since Arizona’s crackdown in 2010, disparagingly known as the ‘papers, please’ provision. They are now vowing a court challenge in Texas similar to what unfolded in Arizona.

“Every major police chief in Texas, which includes some of the largest cities in the U.S., opposed the measure that allows police to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they detain, a situation that can range from arrest for a crime to being stopped for a traffic violation.

“It also requires police chiefs and sheriffs — under the threat of jail and removal of office — to comply with federal requests to hold criminal suspects for possible deportation. Republicans have a strong majority in the Legislature and shoved aside Democratic objections, even as President Donald Trump’s efforts to withhold federal funding for sanctuary cities have hit roadblocks in federal courts.”

Defending Yourself

Face it, it’s going to happen to all of us.  An 11.07 writ alleging ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC” for short).  Essentially, a client or former client is accusing the lawyer of representing them poorly or misleading them in some way, thereby causing their incarceration.  This happened to me this year.  I was initially pretty upset, but I was also prepared.

The details aren’t that important, but some basic facts are material.  My client, who we can call “Donnie” was accused of robbery.  He was on parole for murder and had been convicted of several prior felonies.  He has been incarcerated most of his adult life.  This offense was also committed in front of a surveillance video camera.  Making matters worse, and harder to defend, my former client Donnie confessed to every element of the offense on video after being Mirandized by a professional and thorough detective.  For some reason, the ADA on the case did not list the enhancements on the indictment but everyone was aware of their existence and the great leverage they provided.  Eventually, Donnie pled guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison.  I was very pleased with that result.  Donnie’s family was pleased with that result.  Donnie himself was ecstatic being sentenced to only six years with the indefensible facts and his numerous prior convictions and the possibility of facing a minimum of 25 years in TDCJ.

Flash forward to this year, I received a package from the clerk’s office containing the 11.07 Writ, the State’s Answer (basically punting) and an order for me (trial counsel) and an attorney from TDCJ to provide affidavits as to our memories of the case so that the trial court could make findings of fact and rule on the 11.07 writ.

While I was not anticipating such a matter in this case, I was aware it could happen.  And I was ready.  My client alleged I did not share the facts of the face with him, mislead him about the possibility of parole and was generally ineffective.

In this case, as well as all other cases, I followed the same practice.  I kept my physical file in storage (alphabetically for easy access but that may be some level of OCD) along with all discovery materials, my notes, work product and details of my meetings and correspondence with my client, the ADA, witnesses, and Donnie’s family.  I was able to detail my meetings with the client, the letters and correspondence I sent him and the ADA and the dates of the jail visits very easily.  I prepared an affidavit detailing what Donnie was told and when.

I certainly don’t relish the fact that Donnie will spend some more time in prison, but I sleep soundly at night that he knew exactly what was going to happen to him during our case and that his plea was done freely and voluntarily.  I also sleep soundly at night that I have detailed notes in his file as well as all my other cases so that I can defend myself if needed.

 

Significant Decisions Report for April 28, 2017

This week saw the High Court issue an opinion in the case of Lewis v. Clarke, which is (sadly) not about America’s two greatest explorers suing each other for whose name should get precedence in the history books. But William, when you think about it, the Clark and Lewis Expedition sounds like a late-70s progressive rock band, not a merry jaunt across the American West, so Lewis and Clark it shall remain. Sadly for us, however, the case is not one of criminal significance, so we are bereft of guidance from on high. However, the Fifth Circuit, Court of Criminal Appeals, and Texas courts of appeals will ride to our rescue.

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

Alexander v. City of Round Rock et al.

Officers with Round Rock PD pulled over Mr. Alexander after they witnessed what they considered “suspicious activity.” Naturally, Mr. Alexander did not want to answer questions, and, finding their authority so challenged, the officers “forcibly removed Alexander from his car, handcuffed him, and ultimately arrested him for resisting a search.” Ah, the jackboots of authority are already stamping on the human face, forever.

Alexander sued the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of numerous constitutional rights. The District Court granted the officers’ motion to dismiss on grounds of immunity. The Fifth Circuit affirmed in part, and reversed and remanded in part.

The facts are thus: Alexander was a patron of a hotel in Round Rock, Texas. Just after 9:00 p.m., he returned to the hotel from a grocery trip, when he spied a stray cat in the parking lot. He stopped his car and attempted to induce the kitty into coming out of hiding so that Alexander could feed him (I promise there won’t be too many animal cases this week, but, like the good dogs in last weeks, feeding stray kitties is something I heartily endorse, because animals are awesome and people sometimes suck). Anyway, his animal welfare deed done, Alexander returned to his car, at which point he was pulled over by Officer Garza. Alexander identified himself but told Garza that he would not answer any of Garza’s questions, which prompted Garza to call for backup for “noncompliance” (there’s your dystopian tip-off of the day).

On appeal, Alexander argued that the officers violated his constitutional rights by: (1) unlawfully detaining him; (2) arresting him without probable cause; (3) retaliating against him for exercising his constitutional rights to remain silent; and (4) using excessive force. In order to overcome the nefarious defense of qualified immunity, Alexander had to show that the official seeking immunity has violated a statutory or constitutional right. If that showing is made, the reviewing court must then determine whether the official’s actions were objectively unreasonable in light of the clearly-established law for the time.

So while Alexander may not ultimately prevail on these, the Court of Appeals, taking his well-pleaded allegations as true, found that he was at least entitled to survive the motion to dismiss stage. Which makes this a case to watch for those of us interested in vindicating the civil rights of those who find themselves inappropriately on the wrong side of the law.

Lincoln v. Barnes

In another qualified immunity case, the Fifth Circuit discussed whether a Texas Ranger violated the Fourth Amendment right of a citizen to be free from unlawful seizure when he arrested Erin Lincoln without a warrant, probable cause, or justifiable reason. The rationale for her detention was that she was a witness to her father’s shooting. The Fifth Circuit did find that this was a Fourth Amendment violation, and then considered whether the right violated was clearly established at the time of the violation. The Court of Appeals found that the arrest and custodial detention of a “witness” violated the Fourth Amendment, and thus Erin could maintain her suit against the Texas Ranger for violating her civil rights.

I included both of these cases in this week’s Significant Decisions Report to highlight the difficulty, and potential reward, in bringing civil rights cases against police officers. Qualified immunity is a hell of a hurdle to overcome, but it can be overcome. The secret is in a well-pleaded complaint and good lawyering to carry one through the motion to dismiss and summary judgment stages. If you have one of these cases in your office, it would behoove you to get the petitions from these cases and/or talk with the attorneys representing these citizens.

Court of Criminal Appeals

Ex Parte Pete

Following conviction, Mr. Pete decided he would testify at punishment. But when he approached the stand, he was still shackled, and who should espy such a circumstance but the jury. It should be noted at this juncture that the jury should never see the defendant shackled. Pete asked for a mistrial, but the Court took it under advisement and allowed the punishment trial to continue. The trial court interrupted the proceedings and granted the mistrial. Following the grant of mistrial, Pete filed an application for habeas corpus and tried to reinstate his trial bond.

The issue on appeal is whether a mistrial granted at the punishment stage resets the entire trial or merely the punishment stage. The Court of Criminal Appeals discussed the fact that a defendant ordinarily has the right to have the same jury assess both guilt innocence and punishment. But because Pete’s motion for mistrial was only as to the punishment stage, and thus his motion for mistrial necessarily indicated that there would be another jury to hear his punishment case, he would have “invited” the error of which he might complain. So regardless of what the real answer is to the question, in this case, invited error means the defendant loses.

Judge Walker dissented without written opinion, which is a shame. I’d have like to read it.

Miller Jr. v. State

Miller Jr. was charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency by contact. He waived his right to a jury trial and sought a bench trial. After his conviction, he received a prison sentence. Miller Jr. filed a motion for new trial alleging ineffective assistance in that his counsel allegedly promised him that he would receive probation if found guilty at a bench trial. This advice was wrong because under the former Art. 42.12 that applied at the time of the commission of the offenses, only the jury could recommend a probated sentence. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion for new trial, applying a deferential standard of review. On discretionary review, the Court of Criminal Appeals addressed the proper standard of prejudice to be shown in cases of erroneous advice about probation eligibility. So for Texas law, the standard of prejudice to be shown regarding ineffective assistance of counsel is NOT (I repeat, NOT) whether the defendant’s decision to waive a jury would be different. It is whether a jury would have decided differently than the judge. And since that is the appropriate ineffective assistance prejudice standard, the Fifth Court of Appeals was correct to deny Miller Jr.’s motion for new trial.

Judge Yeary dissented without a written opinion, which, again, I would dearly have loved to read. Come on, dissenters. We, your loyal fan(s), want to hear from you!

First Court of Appeals

In Sanchez v. State, No. 01-16-00862-CR, the First Court of Appeals considered the legal sufficiency of the proof of value in a theft case. Our intrepid thief stole his neighbor’s VW Bug, whose value was sought to be established at trial by the testimony of the owner and the investigating officer. The owner’s testimony was insufficient, because she did not describe the timeframe in which she purchased the vehicle nor the length of her ownership. However, the investigating officer’s testimony, though rather on the anemic side, was nevertheless sufficient because he referenced the Kelley Blue Book (no, hashtag appellatetwitter, not that Blue Book, nerds). So even though the officer had never seen the car in question, he could nevertheless bring in a hearsay valuation from a book that is hardly regarded as entirely authoritative within the car sales context. Don’t believe me? Try getting your Kelley Blue Book value on a trade-in.

Sixth Court of Appeals

In Oringderff v. State, No. 06-16-00085-CR, the Texarkana Court of Appeals, the defendant challenged his conviction for felony DWI on the ground that the trial court erred in overruling his motion to suppress and that the evidence was insufficient. However, the Court of Appeals found that, under the totality of the circumstances, the arresting officer had probable cause to pull Oringderff over due to a combination of Oringderff’s bad driving (going over the fog line) and information from a 911 caller. Not that even had Oringderff prevailed on this point would it have changed the legal sufficiency calculus, because in a legal sufficiency review, the court considers all evidence, whether rightfully or wrongfully admitted. So there’s a good lesson – raising legal sufficiency on the grounds that the evidence was insufficient because the trial court stubbornly refused to grant your brilliant motion to suppress is going to get you nowhere.

Tenth Court of Appeals

In Ex parte Billy Mack Maddison, No. 10-16-00081-CR, the defendant filed an application for a pretrial writ of habeas corpus challenging the constitutionality of Texas Penal Code § 33.07, online harassment. The trial court granted the writ, declaring subsection (a)(1) unconstitutional. A majority of the Tenth Court of Appeals, however, disagreed.

At issue is whether Texas Penal Code § 33.07 is a content-based regulation. Once again, the dreaded demon of Scott v. State, 322 S.W.3d 662 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010) rears its bestial head, with the pernicious (and incorrect!) line that there is no First Amendment protection for speech which invades “privacy interests” (seriously, someone find me that exception in the First Amendment), and the Tenth Court of Appeals merrily traipses down wrong path from the outset. The Court of Appeals concludes that Sec. 33.07 is content-neutral because it is viewpoint-neutral, which confuses the two analyses.

Chief Justice Gray, writing in dissent, gets the issue absolutely correct. I’ll leave it in Chief Justice Gray’s words: “Because you must look to the content of the speech, or into the mind of the speaker (intent), to determine if the statute is violated, the prohibited speech is properly characterized as content based. As just one simple example, support in favor of a political candidate would not be prohibited under the statute although it showed a photo of the candidate and was made to appear to be posted by the candidate, even though it was not. On the other hand, a negative political ad posted on a web site or sent over the internet without the candidate’s approval would fall within the prohibition of the statute. The statute sweeps clearly protected political and expressive speech within its prohibition. But you have to look at what is said and how it is said to determine if it is prohibited the statute. That makes it a content based impairment of speech.”

Could not have said it better myself, Mr. Chief Justice.

 

 

The Defense Bar Remembers Hon. R.H. “Sandy” Bielstein

“I am heartbroken for the loss of a great man and my great friend.  Sandy meant so much to so many of the lawyers and staffers in the Fort Bend Justice Center. He was a mentor to so many, and a friend to all. But he remained special, and occupied a unique spot in my heart.

On my first day as a licensed Texas attorney, a wrong turn brought me to Sandy.  The new judge took me under his wing when I showed up in this new place, with no friends, no guidance, or experience to do the job. He taught me to be a lawyer. He taught me that standing up for justice sometimes meant standing up to fight an unwinnable fight. As a Judge, in both words and actions, he taught me that respecting every person without regard to race, religion, status, or fortune, was the mark of a good attorney, a decent person, and the key to a fair justice system.

 Truly, Sandy was more than a friend. In my times of hardship and illness, he stepped up to help me. When I could barely walk, he stepped up to pull me along. When I was distressed, and thought I could go no further, he was my calming influence to get me through the pain.  He was my counselor, my guide, my leaning post, and the man who encouraged me to be better than I ever dreamed I could be.  I know I will miss his booming voice and smiling face, but I will keep a smile knowing he’s resting in a much better place.

In time, someone will come along and fill his seat, but no one will ever take his place. His words and deeds will be legend, and his professional legacy will live on through us, his mentored.  My family and I, along with the people of Fort Bend, owe a great debt to Sandy, and to his family, for allowing us to share him.

I will forever miss my accidental friend.” O’Neil Williams

 

“Of the things I loved about Sandy, perhaps what I enjoyed the most, was his wry sense of humor. He loved to tease people, giving many of us nick-names, and it was something of a badge of honor to receive one from him because it meant he really liked you. Years ago a mutual friend named Jim suffered the loss of 1/2 of a finger in a shooting accident. Whenever they met, Sandy would smile, hold his hand out flat and say ‘Hey Jim, give me 4 1/2!’   In chambers one day Sandy asked me, ‘Have you seen ‘ole 4 1/2’ lately?’ No name needed. I won’t tell you the nickname he gave to me because it would take too long to explain. But ‘Ole 4 1/2’ and I are going to miss our good friend, and his keen sense of humor.  You were our one of a kind friend, servant of this nation in the USMC, servant of the City of Houston with HPD, and servant of Fort Bend County as an outstanding judge. Rest in peace, amigo.” Timothy Quill

 

“I remember when they came for my stepdad. It was in the middle of the night when I ran downstairs and saw the police inside our home. I watched helplessly as he was handcuffed, shoved into a police car, and taken from me. Falsely accused by a corrupt family attorney and subsequently indicted of one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, my stepdad reached out to a fellow Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Marine, R. H. “Sandy” Bielstein. The only thing my stepdad did was save my mother from a hell another man created, raise her children as his own, and teach me that the greatest power known to man is that of unconditional love. Sandy defended his honor against this injustice and fought for him all the way to trial. It was years later, after I had enlisted in the Marine Corps, that the verdict came back. Not Guilty.

It has been over 20 years since that night and never would have thought I’d end up becoming a trial attorney, let alone have a criminal defense practice in his court. Judge R. H. “Sandy” Bielstein dedicated his life to defending this country, defending his community, and preserving the rights of those falsely accused both from his private practice and from the bench. His calling to live a life of service and to help make the world a better place is not only what made him my hero, but also my mentor and friend. I hope that everyone, when such people cross their paths, never take someone like Judge Bielstein for granted. I certainly never did, and never will. He was truly Liberty’s last champion. Rest in peace, Your Honor. Semper Fidelis.” Mark Metzger

 

“Judge Bielstein was one of the very few Judges who thanked me for helping bring a case to conclusion without costing the County/State a lot of money.  He said, as a Private Investigator, our jobs were equally as important in his court.  I found him to be a man of his word, a man of integrity and honesty.  I will miss seeing him on the bench.” –Anonymous Private Investigator

 

“When I started my own practice focusing on criminal defense around 2006, I had a serious problem: I had no experience. I had heard that a Judge down in Fort Bend, a man I would later know well as Judge R.H. “Sandy” Bielstein, would appoint rookie lawyers from the bench. So I went down there and met with him. I mentioned that my trial advocacy Professor at UHLC was David Cunningham and he told me that he would appoint me some cases and that I should continue my tutelage under David (and David still mentors me to this day). I got my first hung jury in front of Judge Bielstein, and I also got my first not guilty. He also gave me a recommendation to TCDLA’s Trial College.

Many years later another lawyer told me that Judge Bielstein had told him something along the lines of ‘I didn’t think Fox would make at as a lawyer, but I was wrong.’

I love that man. He gave me a career, even when he wasn’t sure that I would have it in me to make it as a lawyer.

Judge Bielstein gave me a shot. He gave a lot a lot of people a shot.

He was a good man and a fair man and it breaks my heart to know that he has passed. I wouldn’t have a career without him, and I know many other lawyers are in the same boat. We are all poorer with his passing.” Fox Curl

 

“When I was starting my life as a Defense Attorney, well…I  wasn’t. I wasn’t anything. Some people say during their whole careers they have been standing on the shoulders of giants. Little did I know I would meet three of them at once. I remember parking my car that August day in 2004 thinking to myself “Where am I?”  Little did I know, I was parked in front of the office of my future mentors and future adopted family. I nervously waited for my mentor while his secretary calmly told me he would be coming. Finally, in walked Ralph Gonzalez.  He and his office mate, Diana Adams, would mentor me and show me the ropes here in Fort Bend. I remember him hurriedly coming in, welcoming me to his office. He then whisked me away to “the courthouse.”

I literally didn’t know where the courthouse was. We went up the elevator of the Travis Building and went to the Court. Not only did we go to court, Ralph and I went back to the Judge’s chambers. By the time we got there, there were other attorneys sitting in chambers and behind the Judge’s desk was this large bearded man smoking a cigarette and speaking with this loud booming voice. That man was R.H. “Sandy” Bielstein. Ralph introduced me to him and he welcomed me to his court and Fort Bend.  After introductions I observed my first juvenile docket with Judge Bielstein on the bench. I remember thinking to myself…I would kill to have his voice!

Months and many questions later, I received the news that I passed the bar. People asked me if I was going to Austin to be sworn in, and I thought to myself that there’s only one person I would have swear me into becoming a bonafide attorney. That was Judge Bielstein. I still remember standing in front of that giant man trying to get the oath right. I was so nervous. He took his time with me and after that he took pictures my mother would keep asking for.

He would later be the Judge that gave me my first appointed case. I still remember it was an assault case. My first check.  From then on his chamber door was always open. He always had time for me, even when his chamber was full of other attorneys vying for some time with him. He would sit with me through good times such as those, and was there for the bad times. I still remember his voice of anguish when I talked to him about the bad turn of events that took the life of Diana Adams. Though he and Diana had been adversaries at one time, they became fast friends soon after. I could see it hurt him when I told him the terrible news.

I learned so much from him over the years. Like “it never hurts to ask” the Court anything. You’ll never know what may come of it. I also learned that regardless the individual, mercy is due. That is rare in these “tough on crime” days.

When I moved my dad in with me after my mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer, Judge Bielstein would take time to ask me how he was doing. How I was doing. And after my father passed recently the last conversation we had started with Judge Bielstein asking me how I was doing. Even though I know he wasn’t feeling well, he was still concerned about how I was.
Last Sunday I lost another giant. We all did in the legal community. Rest In Peace Judge Bielstein…you will not soon be forgotten.” Scott Martinez

 

“Although I don’t have a special Sandy story to tell, I’ve known him for nearly 30 years.  I first met Sandy when I was in law school and knew him when I was a prosecutor and he was in private practice.  I always had an enormous amount of respect for him, both as a lawyer and for his service to the city of Houston and our country.  When I first started going to Fort Bend County regularly, I stopped by his office.  He presented an earnest welcome and extended an invitation to visit any time.  I remember thinking walking away impressed with how nice and welcoming he was to me.  That seemed to be the way he always was.  He was warm-hearted and friendly and he seemed to be that way with everyone.  He was a great judge and will be missed by the citizens of Fort Bend County.” –David Kiatta

 

“Judge B was the most influential person in my legal career.  He was the presiding Judge at my first jury trial as 3L intern at the Fort Bend DA’s office, as ADA in Fort Bend,  and as a defense attorney.  He was a scholar and a gentleman.

As the presiding judge of very first trial as 3L intern, he was kind, patient, and reassuring.  After a 3 minute Not Guilty, he invited me back to his chamber for a cigarette and to help dissect my direct of the officer and closing statement.  He gave me great insight into my presentation and comfort of the courtroom.  As the presiding judge my first trial as ADA, he was fair, tough and always patient.  After a long deliberated Guilty, we once again sat in his office to discuss the case, but he had quit smoking by this time.  As a prosecutor in his court, he made me a better lawyer and legal analyst.  He demanded that I know the facts and the law, otherwise it was the demise of my case.  As a judge over my first trial as a defense attorney, he was jovial and once again patient.  After long day of deliberations, and a guilty and not guilty, we again sat in his office to discuss the case, my plans for the future and just how I was doing.  We laughed at how during my closing, I accidently asked the jury for a guilty verdict (old habit).

On so many different occasions through our 10+ years of friendship, I would lose my demeanor for what I thought was a just right or equitable.  He would kindly listen to me blow my smoke and make his ruling.  But what I loved most was how he would gently let me huff and puff  if I disagreed.  Always listening and but kindly say, “Mr. Tu…” if I got too far out of line.

There is a hole in my heart for the citizens of Ft Bend County, to the personnel at the courthouse and to me personally for such a great and unexpected loss.”  Paul Tu

 

“I received my first court appointment in Fort Bend from Judge Bielstein in the early 2000’s. He asked who I was, and when I told him, we went back into chambers and talked. I let him know that I was a vet and he told me that he was a Marine; once a Marine, ALWAYS a Marine.

He was a crass, chain-smokin’ cool dude. Told me about his time as a vice cop for HPD in the late 70’s in the Montrose area. We had a good laugh about some of the places he patrolled and some of the busts he made. The guy was the best and fairest judge that I have EVER been before. He treated the defendants and lawyers with the utmost respect. Judge Bielstein knew how to talk to and treat poor people, which sadly, alot of local judges in this area (Harris Co.) have no clue how to do. They have NEVER been around poor people but for a court setting and it shows. He was different. He had empathy AND integrity.

Rest in peace Judge. Semper Fi.” Kendric M. Ceaser
“I met Judge Bielstein approximately 2001 having been introduced by a mutual friend. He was very friendly.  He gave me my first appointment in Fort Bend and told me how to get on the misdemeanor and felony appointment lists.
He was an extremely fair Judge. He was very stern when he had to be, but went that extra mile to save a probationer.
He was always fair in his rulings, and pleasant to be before.
I will miss him.” – Lawrence T. Newman

 

“The news of Judge Bielstein’s passing was devastating for so many people, and it was a harsh and unwelcome blow to the legal community in general and to Justice in particular. I feel that kind words just seem so insufficient to honor the memory of such an exceptional man, but these are the words that come to my mind when I think of him:  He was a remarkable man who gave invaluable advice, possessed immeasurable grace and compassion, was always there for you when you needed  him, had a golden heart the size of Texas, was a staunch advocate for Lady Justice, and he could always, always make you laugh. And then laugh some more. I will miss him so very much. ” –Leigh Love

 

“I met Judge Bielstein several years ago in his judge’s chambers, introduced by another mentor of mine who urged me to come to Judge Bielstein’s court to get some appointed cases as I was starting my fledgling practice. Hardly a rare story, as it seemed Judge Bielstein had a soft spot for fresh, young attorneys looking to make their way. After that, hardly a week went by when I wasn’t in his court working cases that he had appointed to me. We talked in his chambers often, and he would always ask how I was doing and how my practice was going.

Judge Bielstein became a mentor to me, as he did with so many young lawyers, and his words of wisdom and advice constantly resonate in my mind, especially those that came in a conversation in his chambers after trying my very first trial as lead counsel. Every trial lawyer will always remember his first trial, and as luck would have it, Judge Bielstein would preside over mine, making it that much more memorable.

So much can and will be said about this great man. He possessed the qualities and character which make not only a great judge, but a wonderful human being, whom I am both grateful and proud to have known. I will always hold him in the highest of regards, and will be forever grateful for everything he did to help me as a young lawyer. He will be truly missed.” –Wade Smith

 

“There are always people in one’s life who have an impact that is often not fully appreciated until years later. They say and do things that one realizes only long afterwards mattered a great deal.  Some people set out a path that they point out for others to walk.  I have been very fortunate in my life to have had contact with such people, both men and women.  Some have stayed in my life to this day; others had a brief but powerful impact that even now I still find myself contemplating.   They have included many folks from all walks of my life – school, service, the legal profession, friends and loved ones.  One man in our local courts here also had that kind of impact on my life.  His name was R.H. [he never liked his first name much] “Sandy” Bielstein, judge in the County Court Number Four in Fort Bend County, Texas. I know many of my colleagues have older, funnier stories of him; I do not pretend I knew him as well as others did.  I only know what he meant to me.

 

I began practicing out here almost twenty years ago. I was young, green, and thought I knew something.  Sandy was the first one to remind me of the limits of my knowledge, yet he still kept encouraging me to work here, to take appointments in his court, to help juveniles, and to handle more difficult trial and capital work once he knew I was qualified to take those matters.  There are countless times when I would sit in his chambers, having a cup of hot coffee while talking with him and absorbing some sense of his views on life and the law. He had crammed a lot of living into his years; he had been a Marine, a cop, a defense lawyer, and a judge.  He had seen quite a bit of life and more of lawyering than I likely ever will.  I tried to glean what I could from those times in his office, but there were three times that stand out to me most.

 

The first was when I had come back from Bosnia, and a tour of duty that profoundly changed how I viewed the world and my place in it.  He, along with his friend Susan Lowery down the hall, were the very first judges to welcome me back and put me to work to rebuild the practice I had shut down when I left on recall.  His constant encouragement to handle more difficult and challenging work helped me move up to more serious trial cases out here, and he introduced me to the district court judges with approval, approval I have tried hard to keep earning.  The second was during one of the most challenging and difficult trials of my professional life, a capital murder case that seemed destined for a bad outcome from the start. His exact words to me as I sat slumped and exhausted in the chair in his office after a long day of grueling jury selection, were these “Son, there ain’t nothing that says you have to like this job, or the clients, or the outcome.  You just have to do your best, and never quit trying.”  It was spoken like a Marine, and it put some steel back into my spine so I could keep going the next day.  I have never forgotten that.

 

The last time was when, a little while back, I had foolishly volunteered to help on difficult juvenile cases that came into his court.  These included cases of the mentally ill, the violent, the sex offenders, and the indigent and abused who fell into his court.  I found the work humbling, because there were often no good choices for these kids, and he knew it as well.  I kept on doing the work after a particularly sad case of a mentally ill youngster whom it seemed had been cursed by a very uncaring universe.  I kept on doing it because he took me in back for our one thousandth cup of coffee, and said to me ‘If you were a medic, and you could not save some, would you stop trying to save the next one?’  I knew the answer, and so did he.  He just had to remind me.

I will miss his often bawdy and always irreverent humor.  I will miss his gruff kindness, and his antipathy for those who had no sympathy for the ones that God seemed to have left behind.  I will miss his spirt, and his desire to always find a way to get justice done.  We all will.

Most of all, I will miss hearing that voice saying, ‘Come on in, sit down, have a cup of coffee,’ to me and so many others.” –Pat McCann

 

 

“Just as countless others can say, Judge Bielstein appointed me to my first case. That is not all he did for me as a new attorney. Being in Judge Bielstein’s Court allowed me to constantly experience what I think is the greatest part of working in criminal law, being able to truly help people strive to live a better life. With each case that came before Judge Bielstein, as he talked to the defendant about their case, you could see and feel the genuine concern he had for them and the positive changes he hoped to impress upon them. Judge Bielstein showed me that no matter where you are or what you are doing, if you take every opportunity to help and show compassion, others will see and follow your lead. Judge Bielstein truly cared about all the people that came into his courtroom. He was a great person and Judge, I will miss him.” – Nina Marie Amadi

 

“Judge Bielstein will be missed, but never forgotten!  Many years ago Judge Bielstein had enough faith in me to offer court appointments. I was merely a rookie’s rookie. However, Judge Bielstein’s confidence in my ability to defend defendants instilled a desire which developed into a passion for criminal defense. To this day I am unable to think of any other jurist, in any jurisdiction that could compare to Judge Bielstein and his assurance that justice will prevail.  Rest in peace, your honor!” Louis Salmon