Death Penalty Capital of the U.S.A.
by Dan Pens, December 1994
from the book
The Celling of America
edited by Daniel Burton-Rose
with editors of Prison Legal News
Dan Pens and Paul Wright
Common Courage Press, 1998
In one week of September 1994, six separate capital murder
cases were tried in Harris County, Texas. Some legal observers
consider this to be a national record.
Houston is the largest city in Harris County. "They may
have done this in the Old West, but there's been nothing like
this in modern times," said a law professor at the University
of Houston. The six capital murder cases tried in one week in
Houston were more than any other Texas county tried in an entire
year. Dallas County, which encompasses Dallas-Fort Worth, tried
only one capital murder case up to September of 1994. In Harris
County the number was over twenty.
District attorney John B. Holmes, Jr., who has been referred
to as the "killingest man" in America, vows to continue
his murderous ways: "I am not about to alter my rigid views
on capital justice, and if the public doesn't like it, they know
what they can do about it."
By the end of 1995, there were a total of 313 state sponsored
murders in the U.S. since the United States Supreme Court reinstated
the death penalty in 1976. In that same period of time the State
of Texas murdered 104 of its citizens. That's 33 percent of all
U.S. executions since 1976! (Texas didn't resume executions until
1982). Of the 104 put to death in Texas, Harris County proudly
claims 33. As of December, 1995, there were 404 people on death
row in Texas, at least 111 of whom were tried in Houston.
These figures clearly make Texas the leading state murderer
in the U.S., and Harris County has the distinction of leading
any other county in Texas. If you are put to death by the government
in this country, there is a better than one-in-ten chance that
your case was tried in Houston, Texas!
The practice will probably continue, or even accelerate in
the years to come. Former Texas governor, Ann Richards (D), never
issued a death row pardon. The new governor, George W. Bush (R),
son of the former president, is a staunch supporter of the death
penalty. Both candidates called for "speeding up" the
appeals process in death penalty cases, presumably so the state
can murder its citizens faster and with less "interference"
from federal courts.
Fast Food Style Death Penalty Defense
What better place than Harris County for a lawyer to develop
and market the same techniques that made fast food a commercial
success in this country? Joe Frank Cannon, acting as a court-appointed
attorney, has "defended" eight men who currently await
execution in Texas. Two other former clients have already been
put to death. His strategy for those capital punishment cases
is simple: work fast.
"Juries don't like a lot of questioning, all of these
jack-in-the-box objections, going into every little detail, so
I've never done it," explains the veteran lawyer. He openly
boasts of hurrying through trials like "greased lightening."
Harris County judges are elected by popular vote, rather than
being appointed to the bench. The judges have complete control
over appointing and supervising attorneys in death penalty cases.
Some judges, concerned about budgets and docket backlogs, appoint
attorneys who are known for trying cases rapidly rather than zealously.
District Judge Miron Love has said, "The number of death
penalty cases currently pending could cost taxpayers a minimum
of $60 million."
Mr. Cannon discovered that by working as fast as possible,
he could gain more appointments from those judges worried about
budgets and crowded dockets. He has explicitly marketed his fast
approach to trying murder cases.
Veryl Brown, a former Harris County prosecutor, swore in a
1988 affidavit filed in the Houston federal district court, about
a conversation he had witnessed between Cannon and then-Judge
Joseph Guarino four years earlier. In this conversation Cannon
asked to be appointed to the capital murder trial of Jeffrey Modey.
"Mr. Cannon represented to the judge that if he was appointed
he could have the case completely tried within two weeks,"
Mr. Brown stated in his affidavit. Cannon was subsequently appointed
to the case, which was tried in 19 days, and resulted in a death
sentence for Modey.
Candelario Elizondo, a past president of the Harris County
Criminal Lawyers Association, swore in a 1988 federal court affidavit
that by his successors. How else can Harris County try capital
cases at such a record setting pace? Maybe they should put a sign
out front of the courthouse that says "33 Fried So Far."
But maybe their already strapped budget would not be able to support
the labor incurred changing the numbers on the sign every time
the executioner murders a new victim.