In the Capital of Capital Punishment

Article excerpt

Statistically speaking, texas' harris County isn't so different from Urban Anywhere. It's about the size of Delaware. Its murder rate is below the national average for big cities. Its ethnic makeup - 54 percent Anglo, 22 percent Hispanic, 18 percent black - is a portrait of the late 20th-century American melting pot.

Yet there's one stat that sets Harris County, which includes Houston, apart from the rest of the US. In a state that has executed more prisoners than all other states combined, nearly one-third of the death-row inmates come from Harris County. It's America's unofficial death-penalty capital.

The reasons behind this proclivity to use society's ultimate sanction range from what some see as an overzealous prosecutor to tough citizen attitudes toward crime. As a result, Harris County lies at the center of the national debate over capital punishment.

At issue: how to balance a community's desire for a well-oiled judicial process with the fundamental concept of a fair trial. Now, with prosecutors working on the case of accused railway killer Angel Maturino Resendez, the system is sure to get even closer scrutiny.

"In Harris County, they choose to seek more death penalties than other counties," says Jim Mattox, former state attorney general, who say he's pro-death penalty. "I doubt that Harris County is any more violent than any other county. It's just the DA they chose to have."

For the past 20 years, that district attorney has been John Holmes Jr., a tart-talking conservative Republican who openly admits to seeking the death penalty whenever the law allows. Although he denies any special taste for revenge, he once said capital punishment "scratches the retribution itch of society."

But while Mr. Holmes is quick to note that it is the juries and not prosecutors who sentence criminals, legal experts and critics say that the man who sets Harris County's tough tone is none other than Holmes himself.

"It's Johnny, there's no question about it," says Jay Jacobs, director of the Austin office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's his discretion on whether to seek a life sentence or the death penalty."

That is a process that death-penalty opponents describe as "scatter shot," a random selection that occasionally targets innocents as well as criminals. In a 1994 ruling, federal district judge Kenneth Hoyt of Houston wrote that Harris County's police and prosecutorial behavior "was designed and calculated to obtain another 'notch in their guns.' "

But experts say such occasional setbacks only prove the rule of Harris County's success. Everybody agrees that it has developed the nations' most efficient machine in prosecuting death-penalty cases.

In the drab brick halls of the Harris County Court House in downtown Houston, Ted Wilson heads up a special-crimes unit of attorneys and police officers who select those cases that qualify as capital-punishment cases. If cops need a search warrant, Mr. Wilson drafts it. If homicide detectives need some legal advice in interrogating a subject, Wilson is there to provide it.

But even with this high-powered system, Wilson says the ultimate decision rests with his boss. "We have the authority to file it as a capital case, but the decision to proceed lies with Johnny," says Wilson. …