Crime: Leukemia sidelines prominent Austin criminal defense lawyer - - PressFrom - US
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Crime Leukemia sidelines prominent Austin criminal defense lawyer

01:35  11 november  2019
01:35  11 november  2019 Source:   statesman.com

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Following the most exhausting year imaginable for a criminal defense attorney, Ariel Payan had been hoping to decompress in 2019 and step away from the courthouse spotlight.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Defense attorneys Darla Davis, left, and Ariel Payan in their Austin law office in January. Davis, who regularly tries cases with Payan, said his health-related hiatus, © JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/Austin American-Statesman/TNS Defense attorneys Darla Davis, left, and Ariel Payan in their Austin law office in January. Davis, who regularly tries cases with Payan, said his health-related hiatus, "leaves a hole that's nearly impossible to fill." [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Weary-eyed from four trials involving three of Austin's most notable killers, Payan, the area's go-to appointed lawyer for some of the most heinous criminal cases, reflected on those 12 months with the American-Statesman in January and described it as "a perfect storm of bad."

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Yet this year produced an even tougher challenge for the 51-year-old married father of two: an ongoing battle with leukemia.

Taking a break from fighting for clients' lives, Payan now finds himself in a seventh-floor hospital room at Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin fighting for his own life. With a thinning goatee and the little hair he had on his head now gone, Payan put his law practice on hold in September to begin chemotherapy treatment. The second six-week round began last week.

Johnny Hunt et al. sitting in a chair: Ariel Payan talks to his wife, Beth, during his chemotherapy treatment at the Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin on Wednesday. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]© LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN/Austin American-Statesman/TNS Ariel Payan talks to his wife, Beth, during his chemotherapy treatment at the Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin on Wednesday. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

With doctors optimistic that he'll survive, Payan has set a goal of returning to work in March or April. Or sooner, perhaps, if the U.S. Supreme Court invites him to Washington for oral arguments on a pretrial writ Payan filed pertaining to the removal of the statute of limitation in a sexual assault case he's trying.

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The petition has been distributed for conference and Payan should have a better handle on his chances to appear in Washington by this week.

Motioning to the chemotherapy machine next to his bed, Payan, without a hint of exaggeration, asserted, "I'll take it with me. That happens once in a lifetime, if that."

Absence leaves 'big void'

Payan's absence could slow down the Travis County criminal courthouse. With him gone, the county's list of defense lawyers with the required training for appointed capital murder cases is down to eight — although only five appear to be taking any cases. Payan is the only lawyer on that list who also is qualified for capital murder conviction appeals.

a man in a blue shirt: Ariel Payan poses as he receives chemotherapy treatment at the Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin on Wednesday. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]© LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN/Austin American-Statesman/TNS Ariel Payan poses as he receives chemotherapy treatment at the Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin on Wednesday. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Known for displaying charisma to win over a jury and the brains to challenge a scientist's forensics testimony, Payan won't be picking up new cases anytime soon. Of his existing cases, he turned over two to other defense attorneys to tee up for trial and kept five that will be waiting for him when he returns.

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His involvement with the law has been reduced to the article he's writing for the Texas Bar Journal on DNA privacy concerns. His deadline is about a month away.

"We're hoping he comes back soon because not having him is a big void," said Travis County-based state District Judge Julie Kocurek.

Defense lawyer Darla Davis, who regularly tries cases with Payan, said his hiatus, "leaves a hole that's nearly impossible to fill."

Payan's illness derailed the political ambitions of his wife, Beth Payan, who announced on Sept. 26 that she had ended her campaign for district court judge to fight alongside her husband. Beth, a longtime prosecutor in the Travis County district attorney's office, had raised more than $40,000 in political contributions through the first half of the year. Her opponent in the Democratic primary, incumbent Judge Tamara Needles, had raised about $47,000.

Turning to his wife in the hospital room, Payan told the story about doctors diagnosing him with leukemia on Sept. 20. Beth, he said, immediately told him she'd be leaving the campaign.

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"It wasn't the first thing out of your mouth, but it was the first three sentences," Payan said, adding that he was "humbled" by her decision.

The couple has two children, ages 10 and 13.

Needles, who has a clear path to securing a second term on the bench in the 427th district court, is among many judges across Central Texas who the Payans said reached out to them when Ariel got sick.

"Ariel Payan is a well-respected and compassionate criminal defense attorney," Needles said. "I have been fortunate enough to work with him as a defense attorney and judge. All at the courthouse wish him a speedy recovery and look forward to his return to our courthouse family."

A year of challenges

The first sign something was wrong came on Sept. 11. Payan, after logging off of his computer, stood up in his home and began shaking. It continued for 40 minutes. Beth, who had been schmoozing on campus with the University Democrats, raced home.

Five days later, on Sept. 16, Payan started shaking again. This time, he went to the hospital and stayed for two days. He was released on Sept. 18 but returned the next day following more shaking. Then, on Sept. 20, doctors performed a bone marrow biopsy and identified his condition as acute leukemia. Payan began chemotherapy treatment the next day.

Speculation around the courthouse linked Payan's illness to the stress he was under in 2018. He began the year by securing a not guilty verdict for a man who a jury determined acted in self-defense when he fatally shot a man over a stolen necklace. Payan, along with Davis, his longtime courtroom sidekick, then dug in for four demanding trials that left them depleted by year's end.

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The first case, in April, was that of Shawn Gant-Benalcazar, accused of fatally stabbing choir director Kathy Blair. With a single juror refusing to convict Gant-Benalcazar at the end of the two-week trial, Payan and Davis tried the case for a second time in October and November. That time, the jury returned a guilty verdict.

In between the two trials, Payan and Davis in July represented Meechaiel Criner, who a jury convicted for the strangulation and sexual assault of University of Texas student Haruka Weiser. Payan and Davis, in a pretrial hearing, had gotten state District Judge David Wahlberg to toss out a portion of DNA evidence that the state planned to use in their case.

The final assignment of the year, in November, was the trial of Meagan Work over her role in the death and burial of her toddler son, Colton Turner. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

But the courthouse chatter was wrong: the leukemia popped up randomly, doctors told Payan, and may have originated with a cold. It was not, they said, triggered by too many late nights preparing for trial.

"I wish that were so," Payan cracked. "Because then I would know to not do this again."

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