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
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
"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
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