Houston, Texas

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.

Celling of America