Judge hang­ing up robe af­ter 20-year ten­ure

Mike Lynch as­pired to law as a teacher, when he couldn’t an­swer stu­dents’ ques­tions.

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - pbeach@states­man.com

By Pa­trick Beach

Mike Lynch was teach­ing high school his­tory and government in the small North­east Texas town of Clarksville in the 1969-70 school year, years af­ter the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion de­ci­sion and the pas­sage of the vot­ing rights and civil rights bills a decade later.

And his stu­dents had ques­tions he couldn’t an­swer. Yes, the schools were in­te­grated, but why were other promised re­forms some­times slow in ar­riv­ing at their part of the world? Why, for in­stance, were mi­nori­ties in Clarksville some­times stopped and ques­tioned by po­lice for no ap­par­ent rea­son?

“Th­ese kids were fi­nally in school with white peo­ple and th­ese ques­tions started coming out that they’d had for years and never had any place to ex­press them,” Lynch re­called.

That got him think­ing. Maybe if he went to law school he could bet­ter an­swer their ques­tions. Maybe do a lit­tle good.

That mo­tive pro­pelled Lynch, now 60, to­ward a ca­reer as a crim­i­nal de­fense lawyer, to work in the Texas At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s of­fice, as the head of the Travis County District At­tor­ney’s pub­lic in­tegrity and white col­lar crime unit and, since his elec­tion in 1992, as the judge pre­sid­ing over the 167th District Court in Travis County. Now days away from re­tire­ment, Lynch ex­pects to wrap most of his obli­ga­tions Fri­day, though he’s on the county pay­roll through the last day of 2012.

He has presided over or had pieces of count­less high-pro­file cases dur­ing his time on the bench: The yo­gurt shop mur­ders. Christo­pher Dye, the MoPac rapist. He set the death date for David Lee Pow­ell, ex­e­cuted in 2010 for the killing of Austin po­lice of­fi­cer Ralph Ablanedo 32 years ear­lier.

His view on the ul­ti­mate penalty is de­cid­edly mixed. And he has a cer­tain sym­pa­thy for young, un­der­priv­i­leged of­fend­ers. “What makes me feel ter­ri­ble is sen­tenc­ing a 17to 25-year old kid who never had a shot to a felony sen­tence.”

He’s also taken a lead­ing role in the county’s pre­trial di­ver­sion pro­gram, which aims to help non­vi­o­lent

of­fend­ers avoid a con­vic­tion if they stick to the rules of the pro­gram.

Now, ex­cept for plans to act as a vis­it­ing judge a few days a month so he can wean him­self off the Black­well-Thur­man Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Cen­ter, he’s hang­ing up his robe. He also plans to be busy with com­mu­nity groups and char­i­ties, and to work on his ten­nis, golf, bird hunt­ing and fly fish­ing.

“For the first time in 60 years, I’m go­ing to fin­ish break­fast and not have to be any­place,” he said. “I didn’t want to feel use­less.”

Ul­ti­mately, it was the Viet­nam War that changed Lynch’s life. Af­ter fin­ish­ing un­der­grad­u­ate school in Amherst, Mass., he was cer­tain he never wanted to see the in­side of a class­room again. But his lo­cal draft board was show­ing an in­ter­est in him in his na­tive Arkansas, so he got his teach­ing cer­tifi­cate and headed to Red River County, a cou­ple hours from his home­town. Af­ter those stu­dents got him think­ing about what else he might do, he ap­plied to the Univer­sity of Texas Law School. Be­cause he was a res­i­dent, tuition was only a cou­ple hun­dred bucks a year.

He started what be­came a suc­cess­ful crim­i­nal de­fense firm with three UT Law class­mates. Nine years later, burned out, he sold his in­ter­est and bought and ran Neal’s Lodges on the banks of the Frio River in the Hill Coun­try town of Con­can, run­ning the pop­u­lar va­ca­tion spot for three sum­mers be­fore re­turn­ing to Austin and the law.

De­spite the fact that “Lynch” is a su­pe­rior (if dated, given to­day’s use of lethal in­jec­tion) name for a crim­i­nal judge in Texas, he says he never had any burn­ing ambi- tion to be one un­til fel­low lawyers in the com­mu­nity ap­proached him to run and he won.

“I never wanted to be in the po­si­tion of mak­ing those ul­ti­mate de­ci­sions,” he said.

None­the­less, Lynch’s de­meanor and breadth of ex­pe­ri­ence helped him es­tab­lish a rep­u­ta­tion as a judge who gave both sides a fair shot.

“He was very con­sci­en­tious, very hard­work­ing, very rea­son­able and very ap­proach­able, cour­te­ous to ev­ery­body who ap­peared be­fore him,” said de­fense lawyer Char­lie Baird, who him­self was a judge for a time with an of­fice next door to Lynch’s.

“He was and is really fair, not some­body who has an agenda or knows what he’s go­ing to do be­fore we even start,” said pros­e­cu­tor Al­li­son Wet­zel. “Judge Lynch was open to per­sua­sion.”

Pros­e­cu­tor Gail Van Win­kle’s es­ti­ma­tion was sim­i­larly glow­ing.

“He’s one of the smartest judges I’ve ever been in front of and al­ways tried to do what

LAURA SKELDING / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

District Judge Mike Lynch (left) talks with his suc­ces­sor, Judge David Wahlberg, at Lynch’s re­tire­ment party at Scholz Garten last week. Over a long ten­ure, Lynch han­dled many high-pro­file cases, in­clud­ing the yo­gurt shop mur­ders and the MoPac rapist.

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