blogadmin | 13 January, 2009 21:56
By Jim Skelton
Legal Analyst, EXECUTION WATCH
Everyone involved in the death penalty debate says Harris County is the death penalty capital of the United States. There is no need to rehash all the statistics. The issue reared its head in the race for Harris County District Attorney. As Kelly Siegler, the old-guard DA candidate, said with her defiant jaw jutted out, "This ain't California or New York City. This is Houston, Texas."
But is Houston that much different than California or New York? Are people in Houston more bloodthirsty than people in other parts of the United States? In our attempts to be politically correct and to appear fair, we ignore the fact that people in different regions have different characteristics. People on the East Coast tend to run their mouths more and yell and say terrible things to each other. Down here, we spend more time shooting each other than shooting off our mouths. We have "fighting words," and when they are uttered someone is going to bleed. On the other hand, you can insult a New Yorker's mother, his family, his priest and his family dog and probably walk away with most of your body parts intact. Down here, this isn't so.
We tend to resolve our conflicts with our fists and guns. This translates into a culture where we sugarcoat the concepts of revenge and retribution with the idea that people should be held accountable for their conduct. This is the Texas way to justify the death penalty. What we call "closure," "justice" and "accountability" are code words for revenge and retribution, even though an additional death closes nothing but another person's life.
But why Harris County? Why does Harris County send more people to death row than Dallas-Fort Worth, or San Antonio? Truth is, the most "Texas" of Texans are the people around Fort Worth and Jacksboro, and Mineral Wells. This where they will open a can of "whup-ass" and lay you out, but they still lag behind Harris County when it comes to executing people.
The answer is not complicated. Harris County’s high rate of execution comes from its District Attorney’s office, which files more death penalty cases than all the other counties combined. This take-no-prisoners approach has its roots in 1980, when Johnny Holmes took over from Carol Vance as district attorney.
When Vance held the office, prosecutors and their ersatz adversaries, defense lawyers, were more or less a club. They all hung out together. There were three favorite watering holes. One was the Old Capitol Club at the Rice Hotel. This was the second office of defense attorney Percy Foreman. The old-time criminal lawyers – prosecutors and defense lawyers alike – were there almost every afternoon and evening, drinking, playing gin and laughing about what was happening at the courthouse. Others hung out at the club at the Houston Bar Center, and many went to a strip club down the street from the old criminal courts building called the Club Galore. The Greeks who ran the place provided courthouse people with 25-cent beer. This attracted a crowd and kept the club from being raided.
Back then, there was no us-against-them mentality between the defense bar and the DA's office. The war was between the lawyers and the judges, not the prosecutors and the defense lawyers. This club-like association tended to make all the lawyers a bit more moderate, and there was a bond between both sides of the bar.
When Johnny Holmes became the DA, things began to change. He was more of a cop than a lawyer. Legend had it that Holmes kept a police scanner in his car when he was a student at the University of Texas, and rumor had it that he had served some time as a reserve
officer. None of this may be true, but there was no doubt that Holmes was more at home and had more in common with the police than with defense lawyers.
With Holmes in office, a shift occurred in the courthouse fraternity. Defense lawyers were squeezed out, to be replaced by police officers. The end result was that the DA's office became the law firm for the police department, and the tail began wagging the dog. That old camaraderie between the defense bar and the DA's office began to dissipate when the DA's began doing "the Lord's work," and the defense lawyers were considered to be vermin defending the netherworld.
It is an accepted fact that defense lawyers should not become involved with their clients. There is a difference in defending a person and
lying down with them, and the same truism applies to prosecutors. They should be no more embedded with the police than defense lawyers should be embedded with their clients. It is impossible to be objective and fair when people share the same bed.
This wedding between the police department and the DA's office meant that the DA's office became more attuned to a police concept of justice. It goes without saying that a system unduly influenced by law enforcement favors more prison time, more death penalties, and more punishment. This is why such systems are called police states. And this is why there is a greater likelihood that such an organization would file more death penalty cases and end up with a district attorney like Chuck Rosenthal who was more of a wannabe cop than a lawyer.
It also, as is evidenced by Harris County, leads to an unbalanced System, where the DA's office becomes an extension of the police
department and the judiciary becomes an extension of the DA's office. The only difference is the dress. Cops wear uniforms, DA's wear ugly shoes, and judges wear black robes. But beneath the clothing they are all pretty much the same. This is one of the reasons Harris County leads the nation in the number of people sitting on death row.
The remedy to this imbalance is to reestablish the bond between prosecutors and defense lawyers. This can be done by selecting judges who have worked on both sides of the bar and turning out any judicial candidate whose only claim to fame is that they put a person on death row. We should support joint training and seminar sessions and discourage the foolish notion that being a prosecutor is more noble and honorable than defending the rights of fellow citizens. The DA's office should be as cautious in dealing with the police as a defense lawyer is as cautious as getting involved with their clients.
We all want Houston to be a better city. We want to be safe and to live where people are all treated fairly and with respect. It's too soon to tell what impact the new DA, Pat Lykos, will have. A goal should be to have a system that balances the interests of security and freedom. Who, pray tell, wants to live in a place where we say with pride, "This ain't New York City or California. This is Houston, Texas, the death penalty capital of the United States."
Jim Skelton is a legal educator who has been a prosecutor and a defense attorney in capital cases. He lives in Houston.
Elizabeth Ann Stein produces EXECUTION WATCH on KPFT FM Houston 90.1, HD-2 and www.executionwatch.org. The program, hosted by Ray Hill, airs at 6 p.m. Central Time any day Texas executes someone. It is designed to counteract the virtual news blackout in the mainstream media when prisoners are executed. She has worked as a political reporter for United Press International, police reporter at a daily newspaper, and an editor for PC Week.