Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Douglas Becker and the responsibilities of leadership

Douglas Becker and the responsibilities of leadership 

by Maurice Chammah

I listened to Douglas Becker on a chilly December morning, seated behind both my camera and his massive, imposing wooden desk, originally designed for partnered lawyers--one on either side--but now comfortably placing Mr. Becker a good five to seven feet from me or, on a different day, a client. The desk was one of many features of this stately office that unpretentiously indulged many of the standard trappings of the legal profession. His wife’s darkly hued painting of the Alamo sat on one side of the room, while on the other, a stick figure version of Becker, drawn by his seven year old stepson, featured big triangular ears, a goofy little briefcase, and the words “Wolf Lawyer” scrawled across the length of the construction paper.
Mr. Becker, sporting a scruffy white beard and leaning back every so often in his big leather chair, prides himself on being wolfish in all of the right ways, “zealously” defending his clients “within the bounds of the law” and ethically doing everything in his power to sway a case. Since he went into private practice in the early 1980s, Becker has done this for both “sides,” prosecuting and defending both individuals and the State as they confront one another. Unlike many we have interviewed in the past, Becker doesn’t always defend or always prosecute.

Previously, Becker worked under the authority of the Attorney General, and what struck me about his style was his particular way of talking about authority. In multiple frameworks, he expressed a certain kind of admiration for authority, while eschewing any interest in holding authority himself. “I actually was a judge for about ten years, and as community service,” he said, “but I didn’t like it.” He continues, admitting “I hated having to decide who was telling the truth. I hated having to rule in favor of one person. I like much better just to take either side and argue what you could on their side, and let someone else take that kind of heat and pressure.”

In this clip he’s talking about the offices of district attorneys and the differences between counties in terms of prosecution and defense, something we ask about often in our interviews. While he does give a nod to the demographics of a given county in shaping the culture of prosecution, he puts much more emphasis on the personalities of "who was the leader, who was the DA." Nobody, he adds, will perfectly meet the requirements of the majority of the population of any county, and so their personal feelings and goals play a large part in everything from the fervor of the prosecution to the tightness of the evidence to the likelihood of the death penalty being sought. The prosecutors in turn influence the conduct of police officers, which then directly affects how crime is investigated, which then affects the evidence available to prosecutors in a constantly reinvigorated loop.

Although he isn't interested in being a judge, he doesn't always employ the style of the fiery advocate either. Speaking in a slow, measured tone, Becker still has a judicial tendency to attend to both sides of an issue. Addressing police misconduct, he first argues that it would be "unfair to blame" the entire Houston police department based on the actions of a "real limited number." Tilting the back of his head into the leather cushion, he then hops over to highlight the particularly shocking cases of José Campos Torres, who was found floating in a Houston bayou days after being brutally beaten and left to drown by police officers, and Calvin Sellars, whose confession was obtained with a gun at his head and a boot on his neck. "That's police misconduct," Becker chuckles matter-of-factly, and yet for him these kinds of moments are exceptions. "I still think," he concludes, "the majority of D.A.s, assistants, police officers, are motivated to acted honestly, with integrity, do their jobs the right way."

But he doesn't shirk responsibility. Becker explains that district attorneys, much like presidents, have to be "very careful" about every word they say, because "there are people hanging on that word." And indeed, Becker himself is an example. Throughout his interview, he makes multiple references to moments when the words of a superior had to be interpreted, pondered, and the result was a personal course of action influenced by those words. When one attorney general asked Becker if he thought anyone innocent had been convicted, Becker was taken aback, and realized he had never thought in those terms, though he proceeded to do so after the interaction. He in his recollection as powerfully brief.

And so Becker's understanding of prosecution and law enforcement, while it highlights the power of individuals, also put those individuals under a lens and holds them accountable for practically "every word." For the most part, he finishes, the ways that both the leaders and followers have handled themselves under such lawyerly scrutiny was, in his word, "impressive."

Listen to the clip: