Interview with Mark Pryor

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Table of Contents 
  •  Background 
  •  Law school and early career 
  •  Relationship between defense lawyers and prosecutors 
  •  Discretion and trial approach 
  •  Plans for the future 
  •  Blog
     
 
Transcript 

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    MAURICE CHAMMAH: All right, so we’re here on May 3, 2011 at the Texas After Violence Project office with Mr. Mark Pryor. Maurice Chammah is doing the interview and Emily Smith is on the camera. I guess if you’d like to start by just generally telling us about your background and where you’re from and just generally what led you to Travis County.

     
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    MARK PRYOR: Sure. It’s kind of a long story.

     
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    CHAMMAH: You can take as long as you want.

     
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    PRYOR: Well, I grew up in England, went to school there, went to journalism school there- should I be looking at that or you?

     
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    CHAMMAH: I mean I guess whatever you want

     
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    EMILY SMITH: Whatever you want.

     
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    PRYOR: Went to school in England, went to journalism school there, became a newspaper reporter, worked for some newspapers there for a few years, and then in 1992 decided to go to North Carolina, because my mother was from there, Chapel Hill, and then I had family there so I went out there and fell in love with the place,

     
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    ended up staying, did some freelance work as a journalist, met, perhaps eventually ironically, met and wrote a story about a guy on death row, who became a pretty close friend for, well for the rest of my time in North Carolina, basically.

     
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    That got me interested in the death penalty, and I was working on capital cases as a mitigation investigator, and the guy I was working for, the attorney, became a good friend and he kind of persuaded me to go to law school. So that’s what I did. I met my wife in law school.

     
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    Both of us became saddled with debt, so we came out to Texas to work for big firms, both hated it. I just wanted to be in front of a jury, and couldn’t afford to be a defense lawyer, because you know you have to start a practice and was lucky, got a job at the D.A.’s office here in Austin, and now I’m a Texas prosecutor.

     
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    CHAMMAH: Yeah. And when did you first start here?

     
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    PRYOR: Well I came down here in January 2005, worked for a year as a prosecutor, then had my third child, couldn’t afford to feed her, so I had to go back to a civil firm for a couple years, fed her up good and proper for two years and now I’m back. I’ve been back for just over two years, so I’ve been a prosecutor for three years altogether.

     
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    CHAMMAH: I’d be interested to hear more about, both the relationship with the man on death row and the work as a mitigation expert, because I definitely had not known that.

     
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    PRYOR: Well, my interest was initially, it was almost academic because we don’t have the death penalty in England, and I was very curious about a system where you did, and what it was like for the people on it, for the victims, and everything, and it was through my family contacts that I went to a meeting of the, I think it was called the North Carolinians Against the Death Penalty, just as a journalist, and was asking there, because they knew my grandfather, who had been a minister.

     
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    They kind of welcomed me in and then introduced me to this guy on death row, who- his name is John Conaway, who turned out to be, I think, almost exactly four weeks younger than me, four weeks older than me, but age was the only thing we had in common.

     
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    He was the product of rape in rural North Carolina, had killed- I don’t think there was any dispute about his guilt- killed a couple of people in cold blood in a robbery. But his case interested me because- it seems like it would make a good movie, but, for example, he was convicted by a jury and one of his codefendants was testifying against him, and that codefendant had a first cousin on the jury, and it was a first cousin by blood and by marriage, so that was kind of what he was up against.

     
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    But anyway, he was an intelligent guy, very, very uneducated, but super intelligent, super interesting, always wanted to talk about things, and we just got on very well, and it was only last year that his case was eventually- they had a resentencing hearing because of that jury issue, it was overturned on appeal, I think on the federal level. Now he’s serving, I think he will now get out when he’s about sixty, so he’s gone from death to a chance to get out again, which is good.

     
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    CHAMMAH: I don’t know what it’s like in North Carolina, but did you actually go visit him or was this just letters?

     
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    PRYOR: Oh no, I went to visit him once a month for about five years and then we wrote letters too. You know, he did a lot of artwork, pictures and things. I introduced him to some friends who wrote letters to him as well. Yeah.

     
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    It became difficult just because he’s, I guess they have different boundaries, and there are certain things they don’t get in prison, and so he would be a little bit forward about trying to obtain photographs or other materials that I wasn’t super comfortable sending him. But, that’s a product of the system as much as- I mean it’s just human nature. I didn’t hold it against him, but it was kind of a shame that he started to get that way.

     
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    CHAMMAH: Did you actually work in his case on mitigation?

     
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    PRYOR: No. No. I did offer to. He had a couple of lawyers who- I think he changed lawyers a couple times, and I offered to help out, but I think they had the facts pretty well nailed down. I think it was just a matter of it getting through the legal system very slowly.

     
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    CHAMMAH: And did that have an effect on the way you experienced going to law school? I mean, what was the effect of that on your education, and now your path?

     
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    PRYOR: Well at that point it helped persuade me to go to law school, and when I was in law school, because I went to Duke, nearby, I worked in the death penalty clinic, and that’s when I was doing mitigation work, driving out to rural, tiny little towns, where- it was astounding to me that some of these people would even get on a jury.

     
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    I probably shouldn’t say that, but it was just very different from a death qualified jury that you would get here, where we have one going on right now in my court, a death penalty case, and we’d knock on doors in the middle of the day, and people would kind of shuffle to the door drunk in their underwear, and it was just very different.

     
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    And in fact, they always sent us out in pairs, the guy I was with was a gay student and some places he wouldn’t even get out of the car. We had to go into one particular bar to ask for some information and I always got away with everything because of my accent, but he just was like, “I’m not going in. I’m staying in the car.”

     
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    With that said, everyone always spoke to us, they were very polite, never had any problems. But it was just really interesting to see, especially now that I’m in the system, see how it varies across the- just Texas and North Carolina are so different.

     
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    CHAMMAH: Yeah. Tell me more about that variation.  

     
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    PRYOR: Well I imagine that- I’ve seen some of the questionnaires that the jurors here fill out, and for the most part, I’ve had friends who’ve been on death panels, which doesn’t sound good, death penalty case jury panels, and these are all intelligent people who, regardless of their beliefs, in my mind, would feel comfortable, trust their judgment.

     
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    Whereas some of the people we were talking to in the more rural areas of North Carolina, I would be less comfortable with trusting with my life, with anybody’s. Not just death penalty cases. Deciding a D.W.I., which can have some technical evidence to it, sort of, I don’t know, it was very eye opening.

     
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    CHAMMAH: Is this Texas versus North Carolina or urban versus rural.

     
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    PRYOR: I’m guessing it’s urban versus rural. I’m sure you have the same thing out here. I just haven’t really experienced it, which makes me sound like a snob, so I will say I grew up on a farm, so, rural, but yeah.

     
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    CHAMMAH: So then you came after law school, first to Dallas.

     
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    PRYOR: To Dallas, worked in a big firm for three years.

     
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    CHAMMAH: What kind of cases?

     
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    PRYOR: A lot of them were just commercial, huge corporations suing each other. There were some media, defamation-type cases, which were interesting. I had one- the only trial I had in three and a half years was a pro-bono case in federal court where the plaintiff had sued, really just a completely innocent police officer for damage that had been done to his house when they arrested him.

     
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    It was a nonsense suit, but we managed, through the legal side of it, to get in front of a jury, who then found for the police officer in less than half an hour. But it was good experience, and I worked on some political asylum cases, which were probably some of the most important work I’ve ever done as a lawyer.

     
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    A couple of people who would have been, either had attempts on there life or had been tortured, both journalists, one from Pakistan, one from Colombia. The woman from Colombia fled with her son just as she was being chased down by paramilitary, basically. Got here and she had been a speech writer for the president’s wife and a news reader and everything.

     
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    But when she got here she had nothing. She was lost. So she was given- We won that case. And then the journalist from Pakistan, a man with his family, same sort of deal. He’d been tortured, fled, got him asylum cleared. Those are important cases and those sort of maybe helped me realize that I didn’t need to be helping big companies sue each other for money. I wanted to do something a bit more important, for less money.

     
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    CHAMMAH: Why Travis?

     
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    PRYOR: Because they were the only ones that would give me a job. I mean I didn’t apply to a lot of places. There aren’t a lot of places I’d want to go. In fact, doing this job now I don’t know that I’d want to be a D.A. pretty much anywhere else. I came down here and they were good enough to give me a job.

     
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    CHAMMAH: And what was that experience like, coming on into this department as opposed to the big firm? What was that culture of lawyers like?

     
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    PRYOR: It was different: from a thirtieth floor comfy office with a nice window, a view over Dallas, I had a small office with no window at all, but I was in court every day and I loved that. Colleagues were fantastic. Everybody just really enjoyed what they were doing. And the biggest thing for me was the, the biggest surprise, and something I still talk about, is the relationship between the defense lawyers and the prosecutors.

     
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    We all get on so well. I mean I just finished that big cold case, worked with the defense lawyer on that for a year and a half, then went to trial, never an uncivil word between us, ever. He was my friend going in, he’s my friend coming out. I just never saw that in the civil world. Everyone is so combative, so hostile, and that was a surprise to me, and continues to be a great relief, and a great pleasure, I think.

     
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    CHAMMAH: Why is it so combative in the civil world?

     
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    PRYOR: I don’t know. I don’t know whether it’s the personalities of the people who do that kind of work, whether it’s the assumption they’ll never see each other again so they can be like that, whether it’s- I don’t know.

     
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    Perhaps because they only ever talk on the phone or by emails, so they can- like being in a car you’re in a bubble, you can act all tough. I don’t know. I don’t know. Because we see these defense lawyers day in, day out and maybe that’s why we’re civil. That’s just a much nicer working environment.

     
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    CHAMMAH: And when you say working together, could you talk a little more about  the, just what that process is?

     
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    PRYOR: Yeah. Well, we have, I mean obviously when we get a case, so taking this cold case as an example, I have a huge box of, initially two boxes of information, papers, photographs, police reports, forensic stuff, videos from interviews, that kind of thing.

     
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    And he wants to see as much of that as he can, as a defense lawyers, to do his job, and in some cases, depending on the lawyers involved, there might be more or less material given out. And so in this case I just worked to make sure he had everything he wanted.

     
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    In fact, what I ended up doing was fairly early on making a total copy of everything in the box and just putting it out near the front, so he could have access to it. And then if he wanted to take- He could come in and review it. If he wanted to take something away, then he’d call me and say, “Hey can I get a copy of this video to take home?”

     
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    And I think almost always, I said, “Yes.” So it’s a long discovery process, we had issues trying to track down witnesses. He was unable to find somebody who we wanted as a witness, a very important witness for his side, so we pitched in and put Cold Case Unit to work finding that witness for him. Motions, filing motions, agreeing on stipulations for trial, that kind of thing.

     
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    CHAMMAH: Do you feel like that extent of working together is common?

     
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    PRYOR: I think so, I mean we have the- I know the office has an open policy as far as discovery, so I think people generally prefer to not hold things back, because it can be hard, especially in a big case, to remember what you’ve given, what you haven’t given, and there’s always the risk of Brady material. It’s so easy to have two boxes of information, and say you don’t give him a disc, and it’s one of twenty, and you haven’t watched it, and there’s something on there.

     
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    Well, you’re responsible for that. And it’s fairer. I think my worst nightmare in this job is having an innocent person convicted. It’s the one thing that would keep me up, it does keep me up at night. And so to me it’s just much fairer for them to see everything that I’ve got, so they can give their guy the best defense possible. In the cold case, one of the reasons I’m fine with that result.

     
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    I believe he’s guilty, but I also know that he got a good defense and he got access to every single possible piece of information. So, which of course helps from our perspective on the appeals. There’s less for him to- It’s harder for him to complain of an unfair trial or Brady issues.

     
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    CHAMMAH: And will you go on to handle that appeal?

     
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    PRYOR: No. We’ve got an appellate division that does all that stuff. Someone once told me I was in sales not warranties. Not to say that I’m not careful about messing things up, but I have another murder case from last year that the judge actually granted a motion for new trial because one of the- my main witness attacked the defendant in open court and that upset some of the jurors and so it’s up on appeal and I’m not handling that. I have to retry the case if it comes back down, but no I don’t do the appeals.

     
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    CHAMMAH: So how often would you say you do these sort of murder or big workload cases.

     
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    PRYOR: Well I’ve only been there, this time around- My first stint at the D.A.’s office I didn’t have any murder cases. This time around, I’ve only been there two years, tried three now, two of them as first chair, one of them as second chair.

     
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    And I was just looking at my trial docket for the rest of the year and I’ve got, it looks like, four significant trials. Two murder trials, one capital murder trial, and a serial rape case.

     
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    CHAMMAH: And what’s the process by which it gets assigned to you as opposed to someone else?

     
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    PRYOR: The cases come in, I’m not sure how they get assigned to a court, but then each court has a grand jury. They present the cases to the grand jury, those cases that get indicted get sent up to the court chief and he just doles them out. I mean it depends a little bit on your seniority or experience.

     
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    We have a new guy in the court who just came from the county attorney’s office, and so he’s not going to get a murder straight off, but he is helping on one of mine. So it’s partly- It depends on the court chief too. Some like to have one person handle all of the D.W.I. cases, or all of the rape cases, maybe.

     
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    But generally they’re just kind of doled out evenly and we have about anywhere from a hundred and twenty to a hundred and fifty cases each at any one time. It’s a lot.

     
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    CHAMMAH: Wow. But only a very small number go to trial.

     
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    PRYOR: Yeah. One or two percent go to trial.

     
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    CHAMMAH: One thing that I wonder, especially in a place like Travis County, is the cases that end up being, because it’s your discretion or the office’s discretion over whether it’s a capital- if it is a capital, whether to go for the death penalty or not. What is that process like, of making those decisions in the office?

     
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    PRYOR: Well I can speak to my experience, which is fairly limited. I’ve only ever been assigned one capital case, and that’s one that I have right now. Basically, whether or not it’s capital depends on the facts, rather than some policy decision, it’s whether the elements of the statute are met.

     
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    If it is, it goes to- it gets assigned to a lawyer, like me. I’ll do some work on the case, I’ll put together a presentation, and then we have a committee of people, the D.A. and basically division chiefs, and then just present it to them, either with or without a recommendation as to whether to seek the death penalty.

     
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    And then they talk about it, and everybody gives their input. But at the end of the day it’s Rose Lehmberg [the D.A.] who decided yes or no, eventually.

     
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    CHAMMAH: And what influences, I mean you individually as opposed to the committee as opposed to Rosemary Lehmberg one way or another?

     
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    PRYOR: Me? As to whether I would recommend death? I think my position on the death penalty right now is that I would not be comfortably pursuing a death penalty case, so. And the great thing about the office is that’s fine, I can say that. And I’m not the only one.

     
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    I’m not- It’s just one of those issues that’s complicated and it’s sort of academic and very personal all at the same time. I’m just not at a point right now where I feel like I’d be a good advocate on a death penalty case. That’s my politically correct answer.

     
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    CHAMMAH: Right, of course. And then there are, I’m assuming now, other lawyers within the same department who would say, “I’ll take that one,” and then it just gets reassigned or-?

     
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    PRYOR: I don’t know. I mean, I have not heard of an instance where somebody gets assigned a case, the death penalty is sought, and then that lawyer is like, “I don’t want to do it. I’m getting off.”

     
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    We seek it so rarely, and it really is just the worst of the crime, that we see a couple a year, if that. It’s just not such a big issue in Travis County as it is elsewhere. And I guess, from what I read, it’s becoming less of an issue elsewhere too, Houston seeking it a lot less too.

     
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    CHAMMAH: I’ve been reading the same things. Well if you want to talk about generally- you started to talk about your relationship with defense lawyers and with other prosecutors, but generally your thoughts about style, in terms of trial lawyering, how you as opposed to another lawyer think about going about picking the jury, cross-examining, that kind of stuff.

     
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    PRYOR: I suppose, as with any job, your personal style comes into it, the way you do things. I mean, if you talk to my colleagues they would tell you that I don’t prepare as in depth as some of them. I have some people I work with who are fabulously detail-oriented, and write out every question for every witness. They’ll hunt down every rabbit trial just to make sure.

     
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    I hope I’m not shooting myself in the foot by saying this, but I tend to try to focus in on what I think is going to be important to jurors, not always what’s going to be important to, in a more sort of legalistic or- I don’t know what the word is, but I try to limit my world when I go to trial.

     
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    I won’t call every possible witness to explain every possible eventuality. When I have a witness on the stand, I won’t keep them there for long. When I spoke to the judge- I’ve been in the same court for two years, he would tell you that some attorneys, when they’re examining a witness, just go on and on and on, and maybe I’m too impatient to do that,

     
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    maybe I’m not thorough enough, maybe I’m too big picture or something, maybe I’ve had my fill of persnickety lawyer when I was at the civil firms, running down every single case in the world. I don’t know.

     
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    I feel very strongly that you can get a theme across, a message across, facts across, in a way that doesn’t have to be convoluted, doesn’t have to be boring. But at the same time, it’s thorough enough. That’s a very long-winded way of answering the question.

     
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    CHAMMAH: Well I’m curious about—because I’ve heard a lot about this idea of a theme—is it always obvious what the theme is, or does it sometimes take some kind of creative craft in developing it.

     
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    PRYOR: No, usually it’s pretty obvious in big cases what the theme is. A murder case that’s on appeal now, it’s just a simple case of revenge. The victim had stolen from the guy who shot him and this was payback time. In the cold case, again it was fairly straightforward.

     
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    It was obvious from the facts, from the crime scene, that it was a case about rage, jealous rage. And I had to kind of—I wanted to explain to the jury in that case why it took so long and how it could be a cold case, or an unsolved case in eighty-five, but now be solved.

     
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    And so I kind of explained that thematically too by saying that in this case the defendant himself made a series of mistakes, and I called them breadcrumbs, that led the police to his door, and I suppose that was more manufactured, a less obvious theme, but I did it because I felt like it was true, and it was a way of conjuring some imagery that would help the jury understand that passage of time.

     
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    Because people, all the time, when we’re investigating it and working it up, “Oh it’s a cold case for a reason. It’s cold for a reason.” As if to say, “Once it goes cold then it can never be solved,” and clearly that wasn’t true in this case and other cases.

     
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    CHAMMAH: And this cold case makes me think, though I’m sure you have plenty of other experiences on this, but just generally your relationship to families of the victim, how you interact with them, what that relationship is like as it develops.

     
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    PRYOR: You know, I don’t—we have a victim-witness counselor, coordinator, and in my court she’s fabulous. I mean she’s so good, and she’s a real buffer between me and them because victims can get so, obviously, emotional, wrapped up in the cases, and she’s a really good conduit for information.

     
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    She’s trained, she’s a sociologist I guess, and she knows how to talk to people in a more delicate manner than perhaps I would be able to. But in the big cases, I just really enjoy it, because you get bogged down in pictures of, just things you wouldn’t want your kids to see, death and destruction.

     
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    And you see while you’re doing it, you meet the mother. In the cold case, Johnny, the son, and he says, “I’ve not slept a full night for twenty-five years.” And you’re like oh, wow, we’re doing this not just to prove that we can catch a bad guy, but we’re doin’ it so Johnny and the victim’s sisters can have closure.

     
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    Like saving somebody from the Colombian paramilitary. You sort of feel good about that. Never felt that good about winning judgments for people in the civil world.

     
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    CHAMMAH: And then what is that like on the defense end? Do you feel like that’s different from what defense lawyers go through with the families of their—

     
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    PRYOR: I’m sure it’s probably pretty similar. I mean they get to, if it’s like in the cold case, Wade Russell the defense lawyer got to know the defendant pretty well I’m sure. And then to see him get sent to prison I’m sure is difficult. I don’t know if Wade believed in his innocence or if he just- I don’t know. I’ve not been a defense lawyer, so it’s hard to know, but I do imagine that that would be very difficult, very emotional for him.

     
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    Not just the defendant, but the defendant’s wife, she now has lost somebody too. And I’m real cognizant of that. I’ve said to my judge, “You know every time somebody gets sent to prison on one of my cases, I don’t like it. I genuinely do not like it.” And he said, “You know what? The day you stop feeling like that is the day you give up.”

     
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    And he and I, I think have very similar philosophies, and that’s that prison is sort of a last resort. It’s not somewhere anybody should be sent to lightly, by the judge, by the prosecutor. And so that’s the part of the job I guess I don’t enjoy. Even in a murder case, if I know they’re going to the penitentiary for thirty, forty years, that part is not a good feeling.

     
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    And yeah, I’m sure that defense lawyers, maybe they—If I lose a case, nothing really happens. I mean maybe a bad guy gets back out on the street, but nothing changes immediately. The families still don’t have closure. But if a defense lawyer loses a case, a big case, a murder case, everything changes for their client.

     
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    I’m sure that’s stressful and unpleasant. I’m sure it is. And I know there are some defense lawyers, first thing they do when there’s a guilty verdict, is ignore me, ignore their client, and hand up their sheet for payment. But I’m sure most of them don’t.

     
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    CHAMMAH: It was fun reading, on your blog, some of the kind of banter that seems to go back and forth between—I mean there was the whole motion about your accent, but then there’s also times where you’ve said things, like, things I read as a joke, like, “Oh defense lawyers are just about getting acquittals and we’re just about justice,” and these kinds of—But tell me more about that relationship as you—

     
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    PRYOR: It depends on the individual defense lawyer. I tend to make more jokes like that with people who take themselves more seriously, just to irritate them. But I think both sides know what our roles are, and both sides know that you can’t get through this without humor. I mean you just can’t do it.

     
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    Even in the murder trial we had. There are moments where everyone knows something funny is about to happen, and if you don’t do it, if you don’t take that moment—It’s stress-relief, and in fact, you know, I had, in the murder case, the drive-by shooting, I had a witness on the stand, you I said to a friend, I said, “I have to make this witness laugh, or smile at least.”

     
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    He was a convicted felon, one of the toughest looking guys I’d ever seen. But I’d spent time with him. I knew he had a sense of humor. I knew he was not the meanest guy in the world, and I wanted the jury to see that, so I had to find a way to make him smile.

     
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    And I did, and afterwards the court reporter told me she had a huge crush on him. And then the jury told me afterwards that he was my most important witness. I made him cry too, but—it’s also important sometimes.

     
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    CHAMMAH: And along with that, what do you—you mentioned things keeping you up at night, and in the course of this work we think a lot about self-care with the kinds of things we expose ourselves to constantly and lines of work that involve some of the worse acts that get done. How do you think of taking care of yourself and what happens after five o’clock?

     
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    PRYOR: Well, you know since I’ve done this job, in three years I’ve come into the office twice on weekends in three years. Compare that to any civil lawyer you know. So the job—the people at work are very good at respecting time off, weekends, evenings, and for me, I had a wife and three kids who keep me grounded whether I like it or not. I don’t know, sometimes it gets a bit much.

     
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    When some of the bigger cases: death threats, people are whispering about death threats, you don’t know how real it is. You hardly ever hear about prosecutors getting assaulted. Well, there was one recently, some murder defendant attacked a prosecutor in open court. And then we had the assault in my case; but I exercise a lot, I play soccer, I write, I have my kids, and you know, the other thing is these cases turn over so fast.

     
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    The big civil cases last years and years. The longest running case I’ve ever had was less than two years. And that was the cold case. And most of them are not that heinous, they’re not bad people. Maybe that’s the answer to the question: that most of the people I deal with are not truly bad guys.

     
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    They just have done, the acts are not great. But I don’t feel like they’re bad people who, if I don’t get a conviction, will go out and rape and pillage. Or if I do get a conviction, they won’t come after me. I don’t think that many people exist, thankfully.

     
  •  You know it’s one of the problems I’ve had with my kids is explaining what I do, because I’ve got six year old twins and a four year old, and how do you explain the role of a prosecutor to a six year old? You can’t, and so basically I catch bad guys. That’s what I told them initially. But now it’s like, “Well I catch bad guys, but I try to change them into good guys.” And so, I don’t know it’s—  
  •  

    CHAMMAH: How do they react to that?

     
  •  

    PRYOR: Oh every time I come home they want to know how many bad guys I caught. And somewhere along the line my little one, four year old girl, got confused and thought I’d said my job was punching bad guys, so she wants to know how many bad guys I’ve punched. And it doesn’t matter to her how many times I’ve said I’ve never punched a bad guy in my life.

     
  •  

    I have to tell her that every night. “I didn’t punch any bad guys.” And then if I haven’t caught any bad guys, it’s “Why not?” But I think they’ll understand. They know I’m kind of part of the law enforcement-police thing. It’s just real hard to explain what I do. And maybe that’s a reason why I can leave it at work, because it’s too much effort to bring it home and try to share it with them.

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH: So you mentioned really early on that you don’t see yourself wanting to be a D.A., or moving up in that sense. If that is the case, because I often think of prosecutors as people who want to move up to things like D.A. and A.G. and even the political world sometimes, where do you see the other trajectories?

     
  •  

    PRYOR: For me?

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH: For you and for others in general.

     
  •  

    PRYOR: A lot of them go into defense work. A lot of defense lawyers are former prosecutors. Wade Russell, on my cold case, was a former prosecutor. Efraim Delafuente, who was my second chair, is running for judge. Also something I wouldn’t like to do. I don’t know. Right now I’m real happy doing what I’m doing. Maybe defense lawyer down the road one day for me?

     
  •  

    I don’t know, but I just really enjoy what I’m doing right now. Political stuff, got too many skeletons in the closet for that, too much being nice to people I wouldn’t want to be nice to. Plus there’s not really any job—judge, I don’t want to do; elected D.A., I don’t want to do.  Even if I won the lottery I still feel like I’d go to work every day.  I’d just go in a Porsche.

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH: Well, this might be a good segue. We can come back to the legal stuff but I am certainly curious to hear about the writings and the extent to there—the extent to which there is a relationship, is any, between this work and that work.

     
  •  

    PRYOR: I don’t know that there is because I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. My focus in my writing is fiction so it’s crime but it’s crime fiction but the books that I’m writing right now, I’ve got two completed books with an agent in Boston who’s going to try to sell them, has been trying to sell them, but they’re set in Paris.

     
  •  

    The main character is the head of security at the U.S. embassy there. I know nothing about that, just making it all up. You know, maybe from my job I know you can’t put a silencer on a revolver but I don’t think that I get any—too many plot points or—I don’t think there’s much bleeding over from from my job to my writing, I don’t think.

     
  •  

    Writing for me is a release. It’s a way to stand on a bridge in Paris and look at the—look at the river Seine rather than think about, you know, the rape case that’s coming up or something, so— I mean, crime has, crime has always interested me, so—but I guess there are different forms of it and versions of it and incarnations of it, so writing about it--

     
  •  

    I will say that during my cold case, the last few months I stopped watching some shows that I used to watch just ‘cause I was fed up with—one of them was Criminal Minds. Great show, but I just couldn’t watch it after a while. It was just, I’d had my fill of, of thinking about how to solve a crime because with a case like that you don’t just take what the cops do and say thank you very much, go to court.

     
  •  

    You think, “Can I solve it even more?” You know, “Can I find more evidence? Can I eliminate this possibility that can destroy my case?” The whole time you’re thinking about witnesses and their motivations and why they did things, why they’re saying things now, and so when you watch a show like that, it’s all about profiling, it’s like, enough.

     
  •  

    And, and, truth be told, my writing in the last few months is, I’ve barely typed a word and I think because of that case. Just kind of sapped me. Very glad it’s over, really.

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH: And having had that experience, what will you take into future—both murder and capital murder cases? If anything?

     
  •  

    PRYOR: Yeah, I don’t know if I’ll ever have another case like that because to have such an old case with no biological evidence just isn’t going to happen very often.  Working with the guy who was my second chair who is just a – I had great respect for him before, but working with him on that case, just phenomenal. I shouldn’t say this on camera but I don’t think we would have won without him. I learned a lot from him just on, we had some, you know, the defense witness that I mentioned to you that we helped look for, his evidence was bad for us.

     
  •  

    The witness had seen somebody that morning outside the apartments where the murder was who didn’t fit the description of the defendant and so that was bad for us or so it seemed but then, you know, talking to Efraim, he was like, we need to think about this, and then we realized that there is a huge problem with eyewitness identification.

     
  •  

    It’s something defense lawyers always bring up. And we contacted an expert, eyewitness expert, and talked to him for, for a while, and after doing that we realized, holy cow, the only information we can really rely on from this witness is the fact that the guy was carrying a bat and wearing a particular t-shirt.

     
  •  

    Height, weight stuff that we’d been so worried about, this expert was telling us he may have got that wrong, so Efraim’s telling us to look at this differently, which made me realize not to take everything at face value, think about new science, how does that play in because when we can’t— You know, we used that expert at trial.

     
  •  

    Afterwards the jury said he was great, really helped them understand that the guy that this witness had seen outside these apartments probably was the defendant even though he didn’t match the description. You know, he was known to carry a bat and had access to that same, exact same t-shirt. 

     
  •  

    So, when you go into a case, just ‘cause, not to take everything at face value. That was really important. And also I think theme is real important too, working to a theme. We had, you don’t just have one, you have several.

     
  •  

    The other one of our themes that came through towards the end was taking a jury back to the crime scene because, you think about a witness who’s testifying after twenty-five years, I mean, you can always argue they’re subject to all kinds of biases or faulty memories or whatever but if you take the jury back to the actual crime scene, show them pictures of the actual crime scene, and tell them, look, what do you see, do you see a break-in, no, do you see anything stolen, no, that’s a—and we did the same thing in the drive-by.

     
  •  

    We had 911 calls made by one of the guys who was shot and we played that at closing. It’s like, go back to the crime scene, and that’s again, I tried that case with Efraim and that was again his advice is just, take the jury back, forget the fancy staff, don’t try and charm them into guilty. Take ‘em back to what matters, the crime scene.

     
  •  

    And, and, in those two cases I think that’s a valuable lesson and that’s, it’s real encouraging to me because it’s also, we’ve brought you all this evidence but go and look yourselves. Take what you can, as far as, as much as you can, go back to the crime scene. Check it out for yourself. Do you see a break-in?

     
  •  

    Do you see anything missing, do you see, do you see evidence of a struggle? What does that tell you? Here’s the medical examiner’s report. He doesn’t have a dog in this fight. What do you see? Defensive wounds? Do you see any sexual assault? And these things, they rule out a whole world of possibilities.

     
  •  

    I’m sure from this case I can take that into future cases. You know, of course that’s in a case where someone’s saying it wasn’t me. If it’s a self-defense case it’s a little different. And I’ve got some of those coming up too.

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH: And what will be different in those? I mean—

     
  •  

    PRYOR: Self-defense cases are a little bit more he said-she said. I mean, a crime scene I don’t know is going to tell us quite so much about, you know, was there really a fight or was somebody just stabbed. If there’s no witnesses.

     
  •  

    I don’t know, maybe you can look at pictures the same, was there a disturbance? It’s the funny thing about this job, every, every case is different. I mean, as many cases as we have. Every time you get a case you think is the same as the last one, little drug case, there’s always some little twist to it. I guess that’s what keeps it interesting.

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH: And how do you, you know, you mentioned how you, how you talk about it to your kids. I obviously am experiencing how you talk about it now in this context but what about with writing the blog? I mean, I know that there were, you know, you were worried about confidentiality. It’s in the title. But--

     
  •  

    PRYOR: Well, yeah, that was a, that was more, when I came up with the blog I just wanted a cool title for it and I couldn’t think of one, and then a friend of my wife’s is like, how about, you know that “L.A. Confidential,” why not “D.A. Confidential”?

     
  •  

    So, it sounded cool. But then I, of course, if I call it that, I have to hide my name, but how do I publish it, publicize it without my name, so—it was more of a name than a disguise.

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH: But how do you go about considering, what is your sort of, your process as you write those posts about your obligations to various readers or the office?

     
  •  

    PRYOR: I’m really, I’m really careful because when I mentioned it, I obviously got permission to do it. Well, I talked to Rose about doing it and she said, look, you don’t give up your First Amendment rights when you walk in the door, and I said I understand that but you’re my boss, I’m not going to do something to violate that trust or just put my job in jeopardy.

     
  •  

    And so basically I have some kind of informal rules that I, that I apply to myself. I don’t discuss ongoing cases. I link to them if they’re in the paper because that’s public record. I might mention something that happens during a pre-trial hearing but only if it-- but I won’t identify who said the stupid thing or probably not even the case,

     
  •  

    ‘cause it’s usually something funny that, that makes it in, and I don’t address, I’m often asked to talk about, what’s your opinion on the death penalty, what’s your opinion on the War on Drugs. I don’t do any of that because I don’t want anybody to think that what I say is representing the office and that was something Rose was always very clear about.

     
  •  

    You can do your thing but you can’t speak for the D.A.’s office and to me, to her, that’s obvious, to most people that’s probably pretty obvious but there are a lot of critics out there waiting to jump all over the D.A.’s office, the cops, law enforcement and so I could imagine that if, the situation where I could say something that was just my opinion and it would be taken and run with, maybe misrepresented,

     
  •  

    and so I’m just-- a lot of my time, a lot of the time my blog is probably pretty boring because I can’t talk about a lot of the good stuff, at least until afterwards. And even then I’ve not really said that much about the cold case, which I would love to because I know that the defense lawyer is probably having a harder time. I don’t want to be seen as gloating and I’m not.

     
  •  

    As I say, if someone goes to prison, he got a thirty-six-year sentence, it’s just not appropriate to come and gloat about that and I don’t feel like I want to, so there are so many things that kind of narrow the world that I can write about that it makes it hard sometimes to, to think of things to—

     
  •  

    You know, I try and let people know how we do our job, the kind of job that we do, the kind of cases we handle, how many cases we handle, but there’s only so many times you can write about that. So, yeah, even, sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s difficult and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a post and then thought, I probably better not.

     
  •  

    It probably would have been fine but to date—I don’t know how long the blog’s been going on, probably a year and a half—I’ve never once bumped heads with Rose or anybody higher up for doing anything inappropriate and I want to keep it that way. And, and hopefully keep it interesting. I don’t know. Things, things once or twice a week tend to pop up, now and again. Osama bin Laden getting killed was helpful. 

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH: Big news.

     
  •  

    PRYOR: Yeah. Yeah. Although I didn’t have that much to do with it, it’s still fun to write about.

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH:  For sure. And I’m sure with the royal wedding—

     
  •  

    PRYOR: Well, yeah—

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH: —because of your accent.

     
  •  

    PRYOR: Yeah, yeah, the royal wedding. I didn’t post about that I don’t think until bin Laden was shot and then I saw some similarities and put them together. But I’m not much of an expert on the royal wedding, I’m afraid. But it was nice. I watched it.

     
  •  

    CHAMMAH: Yeah. I mean, it is sort of just a fun topic. What other—I guess there’s two questions, one is more generally, you know you said that there’s a lot of critics who are ready to jump all over the D.A.’s office and that in the public sphere you’re often kind of careful about that. Have you had any more experiences with that, with people who are not so friendly to what you do, or—?

     
  •  

    PRYOR: No. No, actually I’ve had people, complete strangers come up to me and shake my hand and say thank you for convicting Tom DeLay, actually is the one that springs to mind, but I didn’t do that, I was just, worked for the same office. I find generally people out on the street are just, they really, they love what I do, they’re really interested in it, and so, no, but I think that a lot of the most active people are bloggers and writers and I link to some of those in my blog

     
  •  

    because I think they’re smart people with a lot of interesting things to say, but, boy, sometimes I just get tired of the highlighting the bad stuff, the one case where a prosecutor does something, drinks and drives in Portland, Oregon, and it’s ascribed to us.

     
  •  

    You know, there’s never any mention of the serial rapist that we catch and put away or the guy today who I had in court who was facing a felony charge, misdemeanor charge, he has a very responsible job for the City of Austin and worked out a deal where he pleads to a misdemeanor, doesn’t take a felony, and afterwards he was almost in tears he was so grateful and I know for a fact, guarantee, I will never see that guy again in the courtroom.

     
  •  

    And that’s what we should be doing, I mean, that’s a good thing, but find me where that is in the newspaper or in someone’s blog. It’s not. So, I get, you know, I get—but then I want to post about that but what, am I tooting my own horn or gloating or something again. It’s immodest.

     
  •  

    Sometimes I just wish some of these people who are critics knew a bit more about how justice actually works sometimes, how we do things, because a lot of the people who don’t are either criminal defense lawyers who are very invested in us as the bad guys, I guess, or people who, academics who just don’t—

     
 
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Metadata

Title:Interview with Mark Pryor
Abstract:Mark Pryor has worked for the D.A.’s office as a prosecutor in Travis County since 2005 and he has a special interest in capital punishment. In Video 1 Pryor discusses his background and how he became interested in death penalty cases as well as the professional relationship and mutual sharing of information between prosecutors and defense lawyers. Pryor also detailed the importance of a lawyer’s discretion in going forward with capital cases in addition to his specific style of trial lawyering including how he picks jurors and how he carries out cross-examination. He described what he has learned on the job and how he plans to use that in his future cases, as well as his blog where he writes about news that take place both inside and outside the courtroom. In Video 2 Pryor discussed how Travis County’s criminal justice system differed from the rest of Texas and other states, and lawyer’s strategy of playing to their strengths in the courtroom. This interview took place on May 3, 2011 at the Texas After Violence Project office in Austin, Texas.
Sequence:1 of 2
Creators:
  • Mark PryorRole: Narrator
  • Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
Contributors:
  • Maurice ChammahRole: Interviewer
  • Emily SmithRole: Videographer
  • Role: Transcriber
  • Role: Proofreader
Publishers:Texas After Violence Project
University of Texas Libraries
Languages:eng
Geographic Focus:North America--United States--Texas
Geographic Base:North America--United States--Texas--Austin
Type of Resource:Moving image
Genre:Interview
Identifier:av00053_vid1
Rights:
    This electronic resource is made available by the University of Texas Libraries solely for the purposes of research, teaching and private study. All intellectual property rights are retained by the legal copyright holders. The University of Texas does not hold the copyright to the content of this file. Formal permission to reuse or republish this content must be obtained from the copyright holder.

Source Metadata

Analog/Digital Flag:physDigital
Carrier Number:1 of 2
Generation:original
Signal Format:NTSC

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