Chris and Shannon Save the World (well, almost…)

Originally published on

In one of the most egregious examples of a bad arrest, my client was finally vindicated today as the Travis County Attorney dismissed her DWI charge.  The story is one of the most compelling that I’ve seen as a defense attorney.

My client was a victim of physical and verbal abuse at a Wal-Mart last year.  Bystanders were so appalled by the violence that there were two separate 911 calls to the police.  One of these callers described my client being strangled by her assailant and then dragged out to my client’s car in the parking lot.  The police responded, but as they arrived, the assailant drove away with my client in the passenger seat.  Although the police pursued the vehicle, it disappeared into a residential neighborhood.

Next, a resident of the neighborhood was awoken to a loud crashing sound outside his home.  The crash turned out to be my client’s vehicle hitting the resident’s parked car on the street.  The resident witnessed the assailant running away on foot, while my client’s vehicle drove away.

Meanwhile, the police had set up a perimeter around the neighborhood.  As my client fled, the police caught sight of her car and pulled her over.  Because they thought that the assailant was still driving, the police conducted a “felony stop.” That means that they drew their weapons and ordered the driver out of the vehicle with “his” hands up.  Well, it turned out that the only occupant of the car was my client, so she was treated to further trauma at the hands of the police, who had originally been sent to protect her.  The police were a little slow on the uptake on this one, so they conveniently forgot that their initial investigation related to a felony assault, and they launched into a DWI investigation on my client.  She was ultimately arrested for DWI and blew .15 on a breath test, which is well over the legal limit.  She was also charged with Leaving the Scene of an Accident.  The police never bothered to find out who assaulted her, as that case has been completely forgotten.

After my investigation of the case a few months after the incident, I was appalled at the Austin Police Department’s treatment of a victim of interpersonal violence.  Despite the high breath test, I believe that my client had legitimate defenses for her conduct.  For example, under Texas law, “duress” is a complete defense to a misdemeanor if the defendant was compelled to commit a crime by the threat of force.  In my opinion, and that of trauma experts, my client’s survival instincts compelled her to escape the abusive assailant, who constituted a continuing threat of violence.  Perhaps, the assailant ordered her to drive the car after he initially escaped the police?  Certainly, that would amount to the requisite level of compulsion for the duress defense.

Moreover, “necessity” qualifies as a defense if: (1) the defendant reasonably believes the conduct is immediately necessary to avoid imminent harm, and (2) the desirability and urgency of avoiding the harm clearly outweigh, according to ordinary standards of reasonableness, the harm sought to be prevented by the law proscribing the conduct.  In this case, I could argue that escaping a life-threatening situation outweighed the potential danger of driving while intoxicated for a short period of time in order to get to a safe place.

Most of all, I needed an expert witness to help me prove that these defenses were viable.  Enter my wonderful girlfriend, Shannon, who holds a degree in Social Work from UT and works as a counselor at SafePlace (a non-profit organization specializing in treating abused victims).  She took a special interest in this case and helped connect me to some excellent resources at both the UT School of Social Work and SafePlace.  From there, I found Rev. Dr. Chrys Parker, who specializes in the science and psychology of trauma victims.  Dr. Parker’s one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever met, and she quickly adopted my case as a pet project.  Not only did she wholeheartedly agree that my necessity and duress defenses applied to excuse my client’s alleged crimes, but she also posited that the State couldn’t even prove that my client engaged in a “voluntary act” in committing the DWI and Leaving the Scene offenses.  Dr. Parker convincingly claimed that my client’s ability to make any type of rational choice was completely gone once she was in the throes of the traumatic event; instead, her body went into the automatic pilot of “survival mode,” as her entire being became devoted to the goal of escaping her abusive assailant.  Dr. Parker was able to incorporate cutting-edge research on the physiological and psychological effects of trauma on a person’s body.  Since the offenses require proof of a “voluntary act” on the part of the defendant, Dr. Parker’s testimony would be particularly effective at dismantling the State’s case at trial.

Dr. Parker and I were geared up for the trial today, but the prosecutor ultimately made an offer that we couldn’t refuse.  I’m proud that the justice system worked without having to put a trauma victim through the stress of reliving a horrific experience.


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Elizabeth Street Cafe features affordable and tasty French-Vietnamese cuisine in vibrant spot on South First

On Friday night, Shannon had a hankering for some Asian food, so we decided to check out Elizabeth Street Café on South 1st.  Elizabeth Street Café was created by the same culinary geniuses behind Perla’s and Lambert’s, and we had high expectations based on reviews from friends.  We weren’t disappointed.

The idea behind Elizabeth Street is Vietnamese-French, which is a type of fusion that’s based on the Indochine days when France colonized Vietnam.  Although my overall impression of Elizabeth Street is that the menu’s mostly Asian, there were definitely some French twists mixed in that I’ll discuss later in this post.

The place is very popular, as we had about a 30 minute wait despite it being a rainy Friday night.  But Elizabeth Street has a great patio replete with heaters, and the outdoor beverage/appetizer service made the wait roll by quickly.  The restaurant offers beer, wine, and sake, along with an assortment of “punches” that are made from different mixtures of these drinks.  We stuck with the beer, as Shannon enjoyed a Samuel Smith Organic Ale, while I opted for a Chimay Red.  For a snack, we shared an order of the shrimp spring rolls, which were accompanied by three delicious sauces (sweet chili vinegar, peanut, and ginger-jalapeno.  Besides the shrimp, the spring rolls were filled with avocado, bean sprouts, cilantro, jalapeno, and lime zest.  We thoroughly enjoyed this flavorful starting dish.

Soon, our names were called and we entered the actual restaurant, which was buzzing with the noise of diners enjoying their food.  In a small space with densely packed chairs and specials featured on a chalkboard, the place definitely had more of a café vibe than your typical Asian restaurant.  As evidence of the hipness of this spot, we saw Ben Kweller arrive with some friends.  We had just seen Kweller play a concert for his new album, Go Fly a Kite, at the Beauty Ballroom the Friday before, so it was interesting to see him in a different setting.  And two tables down, we saw one of Shannon’s friends from work.

Shannon and I decided to share a “banh-mi,” which is a house-baked baguette with mayonnaise and assorted vegetables along with a choice of filling.  We selected the grilled lemongrass tofu and mushrooms.  It turned out to be a terrific dish, and this was definitely one of the French-influenced options on the menu.  The banh-mi was like an awesome toasted sandwich, with the lemongrass tofu imparting some Eastern flavors.  The tofu had the texture of grilled eggplant, and we both thought it tasted excellent.

Next, we each opted for a bowl of pho (flat-rice noodle soup).  Shannon chose a vegetable broth with mushrooms, radish tops, organic tofu, and broccoli rabe.  Meanwhile, I had a pork broth with pork belly, meatballs, and a soft-boiled egg.  Although we both enjoyed the dishes, we were surprised by the lack of flavor of the broth when it was first brought out.  However, the bowls were accompanied by a plate of garden herbs, bean sprouts, jalapeno, and lime.  These additions, along with four table sauces, could be used to add as much flavor as you want to the relatively bland broth.    The actual noodles and meats in my pho were very satisfying, and I thought that the egg imparted an excellent flavor to the dish.  Shannon also was happy with her pho after she added the right amount of sauces.

We very much enjoyed our first experience at Elizabeth Street.  Although it’s more expensive than most Asian-style restaurants in the city, it’s cheaper than comparable upscale dining spots.  Given the hip vibe, good drinks, and unique food, we’ll definitely be returning again soon.

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The rain brings hope and relief for Austin’s beloved Greenbelt

At the Scottish Woods Entrance

What a blissful feeling that we have had some relief-filled rain lately. I know for me, it felt like I’ve been holding my breath and with the rain finally came my release. Aaaaahhhhhhhh. With NPR and environmental sources spewing out fact-based predictions that Texas is entering a catastrophic drought full of dustbowls and desert-climate, I couldn’t be more thankful to walk Lady through puddles and turn on my windshield wipers.

About two weeks ago I went jogging at the Barton Creek Greenbelt near the Twin Falls entrance, and the dusty, grim trail shocked my system. It’s no secret how dry things have been, but the crispy, cracked earth and the dust in my eyes forced me to release just how bleak things are getting. (Click here for our post about the Greenbelt in May 2011, and click here for our post about the Greenbelt in June 2010).

Yet, these past two weeks of rain showers have proven the resiliency of nature, as I’ve been back to the Greenbelt several times and actually waded into flowing water. After observing a hollow shell of a creek for so long and now witnessing gushing streams and cascading waterfalls, I feel like a storm of hope has washed away my dooms-day doubt.

At the Barton Skyway Entrance!

Not to say that we are out of a drought or that long-term predictions have changed. But having Lady and myself enjoy the greener and wetter Greenbelt these past two weeks has reminded me that even in the midst of darkness there are moments of grace. And even that idea I know is only my humble human interpretation of something quite unknown, but still. I at least can acknowledge the undeniable truth that things change, for better or worse. The world and our forecasts are fluid. And right now, so is the Greenbelt!

If you have any spare time, I recommend heading out to there while there is moving, clear water. It is a sight to behold and filled me with pride for this beautiful oasis in the middle of our city. I’ve been enjoying the Scottish Woods entrance, so check it out! All the pictures on this post our just from my iphone camera, so know that it’s 100 times prettier in person.

Scottish Woods entrance

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Checkin’ in and Tunin’ up with the Self

So Hi,

I just wanted to say hi and that I miss you, blogging.  I’ve been meaning to write it’s just, well, as soon as one blog-worthy idea or event happens, a new one comes. And then I’m behind. And then I’m not sure where to start. And then I’m telling myself just write anything, dammit! And then it becomes this well, thing. This colossal blockade thing buzzing in my brain. This thing were suddenly I can’t blog. Now it’s been too long. How do I get started again? And now the pressure. The barrier is causing massive build up and something’s going to blow. Unless… I slowly unlock the gate just a bit. A slow stream to refill the canyon of emptiness I’ve felt with no recent blog entries. So that is what this is. My little blog that could. That can. That can help me get over the hump, over the rainbow, through the woods, and back in action, gas on the pedal and full speed ahead.

(Written last Friday…)

Today began as a rather discomfited morning. I was working two part-time positions, and I recently decided to leave one position, as it just wasn’t the “right fit”. Deep down I knew this, but it took a long time to admit it to myself. (And even longer to admit it to my boss.) I could feel this uncomfortable churning, sloshing sensation concentrated in my belly – my body was communicating to me that I had to leave. So I somehow mustered up the courage to turn in my two week’s notice on Monday. She decided that today made the most sense to be my last day, so I arrived at 8am sharp, turned in my key, exchanged best wishes, and walked away.

Although I knew this position just couldn’t and wouldn’t work for me, I had continued to try out of stubbornness on my part but also because I felt so guilty. I really did and do care about the agency, the people there, and the meaningful services they provide. Yet, it just wasn’t for me and the direction I want to go. And I know this. But that messy, sticky guilt feeling couldn’t help but seep in to my mind, sneaking under the door I was trying to close.

So after I walked away, I took a breath, and suddenly a new sensation entered my body. And this one, I was happily shocked to welcome. Pride. I truly felt pride. Like proud. Of myself. Me! Although the guilt wasn’t and isn’t all gone, the feeling of pride inspired me to do some self-reflection as I drove home, which may of course also be because my car radio currently doesn’t work. As I did some deep sea fishin’ into my soul, I caught a big one as I realized that my autopilot-self would have stayed at the position for the sake of the other people who work there. I wouldn’t want to burden them and or have them feel badly about me leaving. But as I’ve been preaching at my other position as a counselor the value of listening to oneself and the importance of self-care, I guess I’ve begun to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk. And I’m proud of myself for that. Although life is largely based on our relationships and connections for support, ultimately I believe that each person is responsible for his or her own life and well-being. I only can truly find my own happiness and I only can truly take care of myself. And I did! I advocated for my own needs and happiness! I did it! I fought my own internal negative thoughts and changed my reality. And not to say that I could have found this courage without the support of my loved ones…but still, I have to give myself a little credit. And that feels nice.

And even though after I left the office my usual “default” would be to crawl into bed with that gooey guilty feeling, I decided to spend the last of my last paycheck from this job, and treat myself to a much needed massage at the fabulous and serene Austin Viva Day Spa. And despite that my mind kept creeping back to the morning as I lay naked on the massage table, I covered myself with gentle, kind thoughts and warmed my heart by redirecting my attention to the peaceful place I was so thankful to have found. And as if the day couldn’t even get better, my amazing boyfriend met me for lunch at this adorable Italian bistro, Cipollina, where we had a deliciously decadent oyster mushroom, butternut squash sandwich, spinach salad, and one the best cheese plates I’ve had around town. By this point in the day, my guilt had pretty much melted away, and the sun in me was shining! Even though the skies outside were gray, I felt really prideful, because I knew I had acted true. Did this day really happen???

So the moral of the story is, yes I am a little bit cash poorer, but I’m internally richer after tuning in, turning off the guilt impulse, and driving happily ever into the direction of bliss. Peace out, as I have a cupcake to devour.


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Just Brakes on South Lamar: The Austin Grinch

I had an awful experience at Just Brakes on South Lamar today, and I’m writing to let everyone know that they should stay far, far away from this place.  They advertise that they can replace break pads and shoes for $99.98, but apparently that’s only the price if you agree to get about $1000 in work done on the rest of your car.  They may call themselves “Just Brakes,” but they wanted to do a whole lot of other crap to my engine despite the fact that I regularly get it serviced and there had been no problems when I took it into Groovy Lube two weeks ago.

To make a long story short, Paul the mechanic spoke a lot of gibberish about what was wrong with my car. The only part I really understood was that my discs were so messed up that they were bleeding brown rust onto the side of my white car.  I was surprised to see this brown “rust” because I’d never noticed it before.  Paul also said I’d need to get the rust power-washed off because it was so bad (more on this later).  In sum, Paul wanted to replace all the calipers, “rebuild” something or other in the rotors, and replace a bunch of stuff in my engine because there was more “bleeding” going on their.  He touched a lot of stuff and showed me the black crud on his finger.  That was supposed to be the proof, I guess.  I nodded my head in fake understanding, while my brain began making pessimistic cost estimates.  I was thinking, “Oh, shit, this is gonna cost a grand.”  Well, that was actually optimistic of me.  My ultimate quote: $2500!!!!!  “Holy crap,” I exclaimed, “That’s more than the value of my car.”  Paul recalculated the estimate without the engine overhaul, and it still came out to over $1000 to fix my brakes!

I ordered them to put my car back together because I was getting the hell out of there and calling my south Austin mechanic, Jose Salgado, to see if he does brakes.  They tried to get me to come back in for a “reduced” price (apparently, this is a negotiation), but any level of trust was completely gone and I had no interest in continuing the conversation.  After calling Jose to verify that he could fix my brake system for much cheaper, I went back inside, where Will the Manager tried to make me feel like a moron.  “Hey, man, you wouldn’t want us to not tell you about your car’s problems, would you?  We’re legally obligated to let you know what’s wrong with your car.  We could tell you everything’s fine, but you wouldn’t like it when it broke down later.” I didn’t bother to explain my feelings about their “legal obligations.”  Instead, I just shook my head and told him to put my car back together because I was leaving as soon as humanly possible,  Then: “Come on, man, just let us put some pads and shoes on for you — I’ll do it for $120.”  Here, the shrewd reader would ask: what happened to the $99.98 advertised price?  I later learned from Yelp! that you only get that price if you agree to let them assault you with their overpriced services on their initial estimate.  Will the Manager had victimized others in that list of reviews (check these reviews out — no one gives them more than one star!)  Here’s one more detail to show how bad these people are: while I was in the garage, I heard them talking about putting up signs for “Early Bird Specials” to get more customers, as they surely wanted to trick other people into buying their “99.98” line.

Will tried to tell me that my car was in such bad shape that I wouldn’t even be able to make it to my body shop on South Congress and Woodward.  I told him I’d take the chance.  He told me that it could “go” at any minute.  I half-suspected that these crooks would sabotage my car when they put the wheels back on just to prove Will the Manager right.

When I got to Jose’s place on South Congress, I showed him the “rust” on the side of my car that was so bad I’d need it power-washed (according to Paul at Just Brakes).  Jose wiped a little away and laughed.  The “rust” was brownish pollen from a tree I’d parked under during the last couple of wet days.

Moral of the story: go to a trustworthy mechanic like Jose Salgado (512-736-4795).

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A Christmas Story: Immigrant mother reunited with baby after prosecution dismisses felony drug charge

Originally published on

In one of the best examples of excellent prosecution, the Travis County District Attorney dismissed drug charges against my 17-year-old client, who was mother to a newborn baby and faced possible deportation to her home country of Honduras.  The story is a heart-warming example of the criminal justice system working correctly, and I’m proud to have a played a role in returning my client to her baby just days before Christmas.

My client conceived her baby when she was just 16.  Since the baby’s father was 19 at the time, the relationship was considered “statutory rape.”  As a result, CPS became involved and forbid her from continuing her relationship with the father.  Still, the father was one of the only people my client could count on to help with important caretaking tasks, and when the baby became sick, she called upon him to drive her to the local CVS to pick up a prescription.  Along the way, the father committed a traffic violation, leading to a police stop.  Unbeknownst to my young client, this guy was a cocaine dealer, and he threw five baggies of cocaine onto my client’s lap as the policeman walked up to the car.  My client panicked, and she stuffed the baggies down her bra to conceal them from the officer.  Regardless, the policeman’s suspicions were aroused, and he ultimately discovered that my client was in possession of the cocaine.

Her crime was a third-degree felony with a penalty range of 2-10 years in prison.  She also faced certain deportation upon a conviction for these charges.  As a result, I advised her that we couldn’t take any plea deal if she wanted to stay in this country with her baby.  Instead, we would have to fight the case, and I told her to prepare herself for a jury trial, which probably would take at least six months to begin.

However, at my client’s second court appearance, I encountered a remarkably reasonable prosecutor who sympathized with my client’s unusual plight.  At first, she offered to reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor, but I couldn’t accept this deal because any conviction for a drug offense is subject to deportation (unless it’s a one-time conviction for less than 28.5 grams of marijuana).  Although the prosecutor felt like I was asking for a huge concession so early in the case, she decided to do the right thing and dismissed the case.

My client’s now out of jail and back with her baby during these vital, formative days of the child’s life.  In a time when many prosecutors are criticized for seeking convictions rather than justice, I’m proud to report that the Travis County District Attorney did the right thing in this case.  Christmas is the season of giving, and this prosecutor gave my client the greatest gift of all: the freedom to be a mother to her baby.

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Heroic victims who speak out against child sex abuse deserve to be praised, not questioned

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, allegations of child-sex-abuse by a former Syracuse basketball assistant coach, and allegations that an Austin State Hospital psychiatrist sexually abused eight victims since 2001, it’s time for our culture to consider why it took over a decade for these accusations to surface.  In that period of time, how many other innocent children did these monsters abuse?

The first step in changing a culture of silence is to recognize the heroics of the children who report the abuse.  Anderson Cooper has led the way in calling one of Sandusky’s outspoken victims a “hero,” and the media should take a cue from Cooper’s progressive approach.

When a child victim speaks out, it’s completely inappropriate to begin cross-examining the victim about why he or she didn’t report the abuse sooner.  I recall Matt Lauer’s irresponsible interview of the daughter of an Aransas County judge after she released a video of her father’s physically abusive tirade seven years after the incident.  Lauer questioned her like he was a defense attorney attacking a testifying victim.  Instead of praising her for her courage, Lauer wanted to know why it took so long for her to release the footage.  Lauer continually implied that she must have some improper motive.

That’s not the proper way to treat courageous people who report abuse, and Lauer’s irresponsible journalism could discourage other victims from coming forward for fear of being further victimized by a bully interviewer.  In the context of sexual abuse, a child victim must feel overwhelming emotions of humiliation and fear.  To overcome those emotions and identify the perpetrator is such a brave feat that it should be praised rather than immediately questioned.  Bob Costas’ interview with Sandusky revealed that this creepy monster is trying to weasel out of the charges.  To prevent him from walking free, we need more of the victims to publicly stand up and confront their perpetrator.  That’s true bravery that must be celebrated if our culture’s going to wage a winning war against sexual predators.  Let the defense attorneys question the veracity of the victims’ accounts in the courtroom – trust me, these defense attorneys don’t need any free help from the media in disparaging the victims’ accounts.

Although I was never the victim of sexual abuse as a child, there was one incident from my childhood that helps me empathize with the humiliating feelings of such victims.  I attended St. Mark’s, a private, all-boys school in Dallas, and when I was in the 8th grade, my cruel classmates decided to gang up on me one day by starting a rumor that I’d been “raped by construction workers.” I tried to ignore their taunts at first, but eventually it escalated to everyone asking me if I’d really been raped.  When one of my friends started asking me about it before the start of math class, I snapped.  I bull-rushed him, knocking open a door as I carried the fight outside.  I swung wildly, backing him up into a pole, upon which he hit his head quite hard.  My classmate started crying and became very angry with me, giving me the silent treatment.  I remember school administrators becoming involved, and I don’t think I was on speaking terms with my friend for a week.

The reason I tell that story is that even when rumors about sexual abuse are false, they’re very upsetting to a child, who doesn’t want to be ostracized from his friends.  Now, consider a boy who really has been sexually abused by an adult man.  The humiliation of being raped combines with the fear of being teased for being homosexual within a homophobic  and cruel teenaged world.  For example, one of Sandusky’s victims was ridiculed by his peers for playing a role in legendary coach Joe Paterno’s firing.  The bullying became so hurtful that the boy left school in the middle of his senior year.

I can’t fathom the level of courage that such a child would need to muster in order to publicly expose his abuser.  If the child chooses to speak out, then the last thing he needs is for people to question the truth of his story.  Above all, that child needs the support of his community.

As a society, by praising the victims who speak out, we can make a significant stride towards ferreting out sex offenders before they have a chance to abuse yet another child.  Let’s follow Anderson Cooper’s lead and refer to the brave, outspoken victims by one word: hero.  After all, that’s what they are.

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