After enrolling at Texas A&M University, Robert Newton “Bobby” Bland IV went from being a shy and lonely freshman to a sophomore confident in his speaking and leadership abilities and determined to be a career prosecutor.
Bland had gone to College Station with an eye toward veterinary school, but his lack of enthusiasm for organic chemistry re-routed him to history and speech and eventually Texas Tech Law School and his 2006 appointment and election as Ector County district attorney.
“I was afraid and lonely,” he said. “I went to fish camp (freshman orientation), where they brainwashed you into being an Aggie, was a leader at the dorm and gave tours (for prospective students and their parents).”
Later called on to don spiked boots and hang swings for students stacking lumber on the school’s enormous autumn bonfire, Bland said the responsibilities gave him a new perspective. “It was the first time I was in a leadership position,” he said.
“I found a knack for expressing myself that I had never used because I was too shy. A&M meant everything to me. It was where I learned to be a leader.”
Born in Houston, Bland arrived in Odessa with his family at age 3 and attended Gonzales and Dowling elementary schools, Nimitz Junior High and Permian High School until moving to San Antonio and graduating from Taft High School. Bland and his wife Heather, a gifted and talented teacher, have a daughter and two sons.
His dad, a mechanical engineer who was a manager at El Paso Natural Gas and the Rexene Corp., lives near Sulphur Springs. His mom Valerie Harger, a former registered nurse, is at Belton. He has two brothers.
Graduating from A&M in 1991 and Tech Law in 1994, Bland joined the Smith County District Attorney’s Office in Tyler and was encouraged to return here six months later by attorney Adrian Chavez. “Our parents dropped Adrian and me off in front of Gonzales Elementary when we were 10 years old,” said Bland, 48.
“We were the new kids at school and were all by ourselves that morning. We’ve been best friends ever since and went to law school together. Adrian was always defense-oriented, and I was more state- or prosecutor-oriented. I liked my criminal law classes.”
Rebuffed by Ector County DA John Smith because he lacked experience, Bland worked in family law, did defense work and handled worker’s compensation cases for a year in an office with Tom Hirsch, Allen Stroder and Lonnie Hobbs until Smith offered him a job in 1996.
He was an assistant DA until 2001, running for county attorney in 2000. He bought Rhett Hoestenbach’s practice and worked privately for five years before his appointment as DA when Smith left office in 2006 to become 161st Judicial District Judge. Bland was unopposed in the special election that year and in 2008, 2012 and last year. He’s president of the Texas District and County Attorneys Foundation.
“I gave up a $50,000 case to become an assistant DA and work for $35,000,” he said. “District attorneys are the only lawyers who have a duty given to us by the law other than the canon of ethics. The code of criminal procedure says our duty is to seek justice. To me, that means every time we do something, we try to do the right thing even if it’s not popular or makes people mad.
“I’ve never taken it lightly. When we prosecute somebody, we can be taking away their freedom or even their life. When we determine that this person did something bad, we go vigorously, as hard as we can, to hold them accountable. Sometimes, that means you put people in prison for the rest of their lives.”
Bland’s dedication was put to the test in 1997 when Smith asked him to be special prosecutor for sexual assaults. “I had been doing drug cases,” he recalled.
“I said, ‘I truly appreciate the opportunity you’re giving me,’ and John said, ‘You’re the only one dumb enough to take the job.’ I spent two years doing it. You have to be willing to dive in and deal with the harshest things done to human beings, most of them children. It was one of the toughest jobs I ever had. I had to look at child porn for a case, and there is nothing I have seen that is more disturbing than that.
“Going back to a couple of murders, I got 10 life sentences in a row during that period.”
Asked if, like many district attorneys in big counties, he is more an administrator, Bland said, “No, I’d rather be in trial than anything.
“I love to go to court and try cases. It’s important for the person whom the public has elected to walk into court and ask for a conviction and the sentence that the case deserves.”
He said one of his greatest disappointments is that Larry Neil White, charged in the murders of three city policemen in 2007, died of cancer before he could face a jury.
Defense lawyer Michael McLeaish says Bland “is as good as any” of the DA’s who have served Ector County in the past half-century, including John Green, Eric Augeson, Gary Garrison, Mike Holmes and Smith. “I’ve known Bobby since he was an assistant for Smith,” said McLeaish.
“He is extremely aggressive and very effective. He is a nice, pleasant guy, as amiable as anyone in the courthouse. He just gets very serious when he gets into court, as we all should. DA’s have their pick of the litter as far as cases, and if they’re smart they go to court on cases where they can’t lose. Bobby takes cases, in my opinion, that he is relatively sure of getting a conviction on, and so would I.”
Chiropractor Mark Mehaffey said Bland is devoted to his family, often taking his children camping near Fort Davis and in the Big Bend. “I have known him since he got out of law school,” Mehaffey said.
“We play golf once a week at Odessa Country Club with (attorney) Robert White and Drs. Carl Brown, Shanti Neerukonda and John Molland. He won’t play on Sunday. He goes to church.
“I trust Bobby completely because he always does his best to do the right thing. We don’t agree on everything, but he has good arguments for his opinions. He will talk with anyone about anything. Robert is a UT man, and they argue back and forth.”
Bland has upped his number of assistant DA’s from seven to 14 by persuading county commissioners of the need, citing the doubling of his annual caseload of felonies from 1,800 to 3,600 in 11 years. “It’s been a slow process,” he said.
“If we hadn’t increased, we’d really be in trouble. We have some of the best lawyers Ector County has ever had, including my first assistant, Justin Cunningham, who was an assistant U.S. attorney, and Clay George, who graduated from Harvard, Stanford and Yale.”
Bland and Smith had tried a lot of cases together and that influence was plain when Bland became DA and was on his own. “I always admired John’s integrity and the way he was in court,” he said.
“Kind of like Tom Hirsch, he could walk into a courtroom and take it over. I was halfway through picking a jury one time when I thought, this isn’t right, I’m acting like somebody else. I realized I had to be myself. I think my strengths, when I’m talking to a jury, are that they understand what I’m talking about and know I’m being honest and sincere.”
While watching Smith’s persuasiveness, Bland also learned from the other man’s mistakes. “Some of the things John stepped into, he didn’t know they would be problems, and they just blew up on him,” he said.
“So I thought, I’ll try not to do that. Then you make your own mistakes. You never know what’s going to happen.”
He said people think defense lawyers have the harder job, but it’s the opposite as prosecutors assume the burdens of establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and of getting a unanimous verdict. “Picking a jury, you have to find people who don’t think outside the law,” Bland said.
“I have explained when I had problems with a case so they’d know I was being up front with them and know what I was presenting was the truth and they could trust it. You have to hold the case together while the defense tries to poke holes in it.”
Bland said he “went 16 years without a verdict going against me, including as a defense lawyer,” until Jason Leach bested him in 2014, adding that other stout opponents have been Bob Garcia, Chavez and McLeaish. He takes six weeks to two months to prepare for a trial.
“I once had a defense attorney bring up Jesus and forgiveness, so I pulled up Mark 12:17, where Jesus says, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,’” Bland said. “I’m a Christian, and my faith informs the way I treat people. But Christ has a job to do and the government has a separate job. There is God’s law, and there is man’s law.
“Jesus told the thief on the cross next to Him, ‘Today, you will be with me in Heaven.’ What he didn’t do was pull him off the cross, which He could have done. You can forgive someone personally, but there is accountability that doesn’t have anything to do with the soul. My job is to make sure the person can’t harm anyone again.”
However, Bland recommends probation in appropriate instances. “Most people who commit a crime deserve a second chance to do something with their lives,” he said.
“I don’t know what makes somebody a criminal, but very few people are truly evil. I once defended a person who gave me a look that scared me, and it was a young girl. I’ve seen horrific things. The worst are things done to children. My most haunting case involved a man who had tortured and killed a child. The thought of it makes me cry every time. I can’t imagine the pain that child went through.”
Bland’s favorite charity is the Boys and Girls Club of Odessa, of which he has twice been president while serving on the board of directors for 20 years. “They walk in there, and their problems melt away,” he said.
“They get to be kids. We give them a hot meal, help with their homework and teach about manners and life. So we feed their bodies, minds and souls. It changes their lives. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.”