Susan Reed, the first woman elected district attorney in the history of Bexar County, repeatedly has been ready to jump on difficult cases in a flash. Impossible ones may take her a little bit longer but not much.
An example of the latter is a case that dates back to the early days of her 30-year career. As a fledgling assistant district attorney, Reed shrugged off the advice of more experienced — and more cautious — colleagues and successfully prosecuted a man accused of dousing his wife with gasoline, and while he was taunting her with a flare, fatally setting her on fire.
It was a difficult case to prove because there were only two people in the room. The woman died a terrible death, Reed says.
Those who think this merely is an illustration of an eager beaver rushing in where angels fear to tread would be in error. Those who know Reed know that she is not given to rash behavior. She is always very well prepared.
I’m a Leo (astrologically), if you put any stock in that sort of thing. I do like to structure. And I love to argue. It helps you decide opinions, she points out.
In 2001, Reed again went against conventional wisdom. She brought manslaughter charges against a woman accused of alerting her son to the fact that his wife was about to leave him, throwing him into a rage that ultimately caused him to shoot to death his wife as well as the police officer who responded to the domestic disturbance call. The meddling mother-in-law pleaded no contest to criminal negligence.
I was so mad at her. She caused all of this tragedy. Lots of DAs wouldn’t have had the guts to prosecute this woman. This was a case where a district attorney has the ability to shape community awareness of the domestic violence that goes on. My point was not to put the woman in prison for a long time. It was about the standard set in a community, says Reed, who is a member of the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women.
Another of Reed’s one-for-the-books cases involved justice for elderly people who were bilked of their savings by a confidence man. He sold the seniors certificates of deposit, then promptly took out bank loans against those same CDs. Much to the consternation of bank officials, Reed seized the certificates to reimburse the too-trusting seniors, leaving the bank to try to collect their $9.1 million from the con man.
Reed earned a reputation for being tough but fair when, prior to her election as District Attorney, she served as judge of the 144th District Court for 12 years. I am fierce about following the law. If you break the law, you have to pay the consequences, she says.
Despite the long-shot and sometimes controversial cases she unhesitatingly takes on, she adds: I’m proud of being considered fair. That’s important for a judge. But I’m always surprised at how tough people perceive me to be. I do have a temper. I attribute that to the fact that I’m part Irish. And I’m not free of emotion. People are very emotional. I’m just like everyone else. I have deep feelings and a strong point of view, and I’m in a position where I can do something about it.
She also has a keen sense of humor that has been fine-tuned by the human comedy she observes in the courtroom. She says, I don’t like to make silly banter. The things that amuse me are the things that make you say, ‘How weird is this?’Her sense of humor comes in handy when first assistant DA Michael Bernard teases her about being a force of nature. He says I move the molecules in the air wherever I walk, she explains.
She is like a tornado that sucks up everything around you, Bernard says. When she takes a minivacation, things gradually kind of quiet down in the office until the minute she gets back.
Bernard was a criminal defense attorney for 11 years before Reed persuaded him to change sides. She is terribly difficult to say no to, he points out. Actually, I had tried cases in her court when she was on the bench, and we got on very well. When she asked me to join her staff, it was a terrific opportunity for me.
Although Reed is a meticulous organizer, she is not given to sitting down and planning out her life. You’ve got to be willing to adapt. In an elected position you could put your political career on the line every day. You can’t be so structured that you can’t take life a day at a time and just enjoy it. And I believe in fate. I’m open to see where life takes me. I have faith that whatever happens, there’s a reason for it. There’s a grand plan that is greater than me, she says.
Taking up the legal profession was not her lifelong ambition.
A native San Antonian who graduated from Alamo Heights High School, Reed earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin majoring in economics. I thought of being a stockbroker or going into Foreign Service, she recalls.
However, a distaste for statistics deterred her from that path. Memories of the pleasurable give-and-take of the lively discussions Reed, an only child, shared with her father and mother, Bernard and Loretta Nolan, may have nudged her in the direction of law school.
I treasure those political debates. They influenced me, and not in a negative way, she says.Once she set her sights on a law career, Reed approached it with the same vigor that prompts Bernard to call her a human tornado. Forgoing summer vacations, she earned her degree from the UT School of Law in two years instead of three.
She did take time to make the acquaintance of fellow law student Robert Reed, whom she married right after she passed the bar in 1974. Their marriage lasted 29 years, until his death last year.
In 1974, Reed went directly from law school into the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office, where she served for eight years. She was chief prosecutor in the 144th District and 187th District courts.
Fate brought me into the DA’s office, she says.
In 1982, she began four years of valuable civil law experience in private practice, concentrating in business litigation at the firm of Soules and Reed. She left private practice in 1986 and ascended to the bench of the 144th District Court.
In 1996 and 1997 she served as administrative judge for the District Courts of Bexar County, spearheading the development of the gang unit within the Adult Probation Department. She counts this as one of her proudest achievements. She was honored for her efforts with the Judge of the Year Award by the Texas Gang Investigators Association.
Reed has served her state in many capacities. She is co-chair of the Anti-Crime Commission formed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2002 to enhance state response to drug trafficking and organized crime.
The Reeds had one child, 19-year-old Travis, who attends college in Fort Worth. His photographs from infancy to the present have a place of prominence on the top shelf of the bookcase in Reed’s office, where she can see them every day.
We are very close, Reed says of Travis. He is the most wonderful son in the entire world. He and I are good friends. He’s got the best heart. He’s got a lot of his dad in him.
The year 2002 began a rocky time for Reed. Her parents died within seven months of each other, and while she was taking some time off, she suffered a head injury from a nearly fatal moped accident. Then a sudden heart attack took her husband in 2003.
You’ve got to take life a day at a time, she says. I look at my husband’s death as life changing. We had a wonderful marriage, but his death is exactly that to me: life changing. I won’t sit back and feel sorry for myself.
Reed loves to cook. And surprisingly, she says if she hadn’t wound up dedicating her considerable energy to the law, she would have liked being an interior decorator.
I have a good eye for colors, and I enjoy creating a comfortable environment, she says. In fact, Reed used to be known to her friends as the Martha Stewart of Bexar County. That, of course, was when Martha was enjoying better days. Now, since Robert’s death, I don’t do much of that, she says.
God has blessed me with being in San Antonio and putting people who are my friends in my life. I don’t know how I got so lucky, she concludes.
Author: Loydean Thomas
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams