UPDATE: Lehmberg Trial Day Two: We're All Drunks
State pursues implication that Lehmberg is an "alcoholic"
By Michael King and Jordan Smith, 6:38PM, Tue. Dec. 10, 2013
UPDATE: Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg choked up on the stand Tuesday afternoon while testifying about her DWI arrest and its aftermath. "Man, I hate it when I do that," she said, blinking back tears.
Lehmberg testified that she had been dealing, and not well, with a variety of stressors on April 12, the night she was popped for drunken driving while driving home after seeing a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse at Lakeline. Five of nine longtime D.A. office division directors were leaving the office, a good friend (and longtime D.A. investigator) had just died in a tragic wreck the weekend before, and she was suffering with chronic pain attributable to a congenital back problem. In short, she said, she was not coping well and had been using alcohol to self-medicate.
She knows that her behavior upon arrest, and at the jail, was deplorable, and said she feels bad about it – but wouldn't blame the sheriff's deputies and correctional officers if they didn't forgive her for her behavior. And after her release from jail the following day she wasted no time in beginning to atone for her sins, she said: She called County Attorney David Escamilla to alert him to her arrest (and the fact that she or her attorney would be in touch soon to address the matter), and she wrote a series of emails taking responsibility for her actions and apologizing for them, she said, choking up again and unable to read through the entire text of an apology she penned on April 14.
But she still doesn't think that she should resign her post. That would've been the easy way out, she told her attorney Dan Richards, during questioning late Tuesday – though she said she did think about it. "I didn't think it was the right thing for the community who elected me, for the office, or for me," she said.
Still, Jim Collins, an assistant county attorney who is part of the two-man attorney team trying the current case which asks visiting Judge David Peeples to oust her from office pursuant to an obscure state law that allows certain public officials to be removed from office for a single instance of drunkenness, spent much of Tuesday trying to suggest that Lehmberg is a drunk and one who lies about her problem.
Practically speaking, that meant Collins spent an inordinate amount of time during his questioning of Lehmberg trying to demonstrate, first, that she was drunk on April 12 (something we all know), and that she's tried to downplay or hide a drinking problem that blew up in public with her arrest. To do so he spent much time asking and re-asking questions about why she was belligerent with deputies and why she said certain things that were not true when questioned by them – why had she said she'd only had two glasses of wine when now she admits she'd had multiple drinks? Why had she said she'd been at a friend's house off Enfield Road for dinner that night when she'd actually been at the movies alone? Why had she said she left the movies and headed home via Ranch Road 620 when she first went down Hwy 183 to a liquor store where she bought a bottle of vodka? Collins asked.
Because she was intoxicated, Lehmberg repeatedly said.
Other than reminding Peeples, ad nauseam, that Lehmberg was popped for DWI and was a pain in the ass that night, however, its hard to see how the questioning on Tuesday got the state closer to having her removed from office. Indeed, during questioning of addiction specialist Dr. Herbert C. Munden on Tuesday morning about his diagnosing Lehmberg as a person suffering from alcohol dependency, Munden seemed to undermine the county's position by testifying (in response to questions from Richards) that Lehmberg is not incompetent nor is she a danger to the public.
Ultimately, Lehmberg said that because of her stay in treatment at Sierra Tucson she learned coping skills to deal with stress, has not had a drink since entering treatment (she had her last two glasses of wine on the plane on the way to the facility), and now knows how to "ride the wave" to "cope with urges" to drink. She's attending weekly therapy sessions and has engaged with the Smart Recovery system (an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous). She's not excusing her behavior the night of her arrest, she said, but wants to finish out her elected term of office in a job she knows how to do. "I've been fair" as D.A., she said. "And I think it's fair to me to give me another chance" and to allow her to serve out her current term, which began in January.
Testimony in the case resumes at 9 am Wednesday morning.
EARLIER: As we break for lunch at noon, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has finally begun her testimony in State vs. Lehmberg, as an "adverse witness" called by the State. But most of the morning was medical testimony by an addiction doctor on the nature and treatment of "chemical dependency."
As Asst. Travis County Attorney James Collins interrogated Lehmberg this morning, his questions have concerned two categories: (1) the structure and responsibilities of the Office of the District Attorney, and (2) recounting in complete detail Lehmberg's actions on the evening and night of April 12, when she was arrested for DWI. On the latter score, Lehmberg has mostly concurred with his recount, and agreed that she was "very intoxicated" and shouldn't have been driving. Indeed, she said she looked for a place to stop when she realized she was disoriented and driving erratically. The questions have since moved to her "inappropriate and unacceptable" behavior at the jail -- had just begun that testimony when court recessed at noon, until 1:30pm.
The first witness this morning was Dr. Herbert C. Munden, hired by the defense to assess Lehmberg's condition while she was still in jail. In sum, he concluded she was "chemically dependent" on alcohol while "not physiologically dependent." The State -- this time Asst. Travis County Attorney Tim Labadie -- pressed Munden to classify Lehmberg as "an alcoholic." But he resisted what he called "a pejorative term," and preferred to say she has a disease of alcohol dependency that can be controlled with treatment of various kinds, and that he judged her prognosis "excellent" (just as had the Sierra Tucson doctor who testified yesterday via video deposition).
Labadie also pressed Munden to conclude -- over repeated objections about "leading" questions by the defense, mostly overruled -- that Lehmberg was "lying" about her drinking, either to him or to the doctors at Sierra Tucson (Munden had recommended the clinic to Lehmberg). Munden resisted, saying that "denial" is normal with chemical dependency (even a symptom), but that's not the same thing as "lying." (Indeed, he pointed out that virtually everybody engages in denial of one kind or another.)
His testimony was elongated by detailed questions from Labadie about the nature and treatment of addiction, as he sees it, including the defining point of "alcohol abuse." Munden said the official standard for women is seven or more drinks a week; for men, 14 or more drinks a week, but that he doesn't place much emphasis on amount, because he considers it irrelevant to the disease. There was a murmur in the not-quite-full audience rows (maybe 30 people in all) suggesting that by those standards, many Austinites would be walking drunks. In any case, Lehmberg told Munden she had been having "two or three" drinks most nights, and he concluded that she needed to seek treatment for potentially growing chemical dependency.
On cross, Lehmberg attorney Daniel Richards ran through quickly most of the State's categories of questions, mostly to reject the implication that Lehmberg has not sought and continued treatment, and introducing the information that she has "abstained" from drinking, is in regular care with both a psychiatrist and "Smart Recovery," as recommended by her Tucson doctors. The State's attorney's objected that this is news to them and not in evidence; Richards said it would be.
Munden's testimony ended on a peroration about chemical dependency as a disease, that it is certainly possible to overcome it in various ways, and that people should not be stigmatized because of the disease or because a DWI might have sent them to recovery.
The trial resumes at 1:30pm, but @PointAustin needs to return to the Chronicle office and other assignments, so @chronic_jordan (Jordan Smith) will be stepping into the courtroom for continuing coverage, and tweeting at #LehmbergTrial.