Justice, Texas-style

The district attorney of Harris County keeps putting 'em on death row.

By Robert Bryce

Published June 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Last spring, John William King was sentenced to death for the racially motivated
murder of James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Texas, a small town 110 miles northeast of Houston. And while the national media has given lots of attention to the death penalty
sentencing in the Byrd case, the Harris County district attorney, John Holmes,
views the case as just another victory as he efficiently carries out what he
believes to be his mandate.

Even in Texas, a state that has executed 13 people this year alone, Holmes is a
standout. If Holmes were his own state, he would rank third behind Texas and
Virginia in the number of murderers executed. The longtime Harris County
district attorney has officially sent more people to their deaths than any other person in
America, earning him the title of toughest prosecutor in the land.

Nearly one-third of the 448 men, as well as three of the eight women, now on Texas' death
row were convicted in Harris County. Every decision to seek the death penalty
must be personally approved by Holmes, who oversees a staff of more than 200

It was Holmes, a 57-year-old Republican, who chose to seek death for
Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer who was executed last year. Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War, earned
international attention, vowing in her appeal that she had become a born-again
Christian and apologizing for her crime. Her case even brought a personal appeal
for clemency from Pope John Paul II, a plea that Gov. George W. Bush declined.
Holmes says the governor made the right decision.

"I'll show them what she did. What she did was awful," says Holmes indignantly.
"This guy who she killed was pinned to the mattress. He couldn't be moved. She
put a pickax right through that man."

Holmes gets riled when he starts talking about the death penalty. Of course he
knows the numbers. Sure, he knows that he has sent more people to their deaths
than several other states combined. That's part of his job. And when it comes to
the actual execution, there are some cases where Holmes wishes that "I could have
done it myself."

For Holmes, the law is sacrosanct, and he goes out of his way to uphold it.
"There's nothing worse than having a law and not enforcing it," he says. "That
promotes disrespect for the law." In 1996, Holmes saw a man pilfering lumber from
a construction site near his home. While his wife called 911, Holmes grabbed his
shotgun and ordered the man to surrender. When told it seemed a rather remarkable
thing to do, Holmes replied, "Wouldn't you do the same thing if somebody is
stealing your neighbor's lumber? Are you going to sit there with your finger up
your ass and watch him steal it?"

Holmes has also proven that for him, respect
for the law runs deeper than family ties. He once turned in his own uncle to the
Internal Revenue Service.

Known for his handlebar mustache, Holmes talks, looks and acts like
someone straight out of central casting. Give him chaps, spurs, a six-shooter (or
a shotgun) and a cowboy hat and he'd be an obvious choice to play Wyatt Earp.
Holmes' penchant for seeking the death penalty certainly puts him in the same
league as other old West lawmen like Isaac Parker, the legendary hanging judge
from Fort Smith who once strung up three men in a single afternoon.

Harris County voters seem to like Holmes' tough stance. He has been reelected four times since taking office in 1979. He ran unopposed in 1996. In 1992, he got more than 60
percent of the vote.

But Holmes' penchant for seeking the death penalty is out of step with the rest
of the United States and even with his fellow prosecutors in Texas. Alan Levy, an
assistant district attorney in Fort Worth, calls Holmes "very, very aggressive.
Obviously, the people of Harris County agree with him, but it's not the position
that we have. We think the death penalty ought to be reserved for cases where
there is no other alternative."

Clearly, there are alternatives to the death penalty. But Holmes and his
prosecutors prefer to seek death, and he says his tough stance has contributed to
the fact that the murder rate in Houston is lower than comparable cities in the

According to the latest Federal Bureau of Investigation crime statistics,
the murder rate in Dallas County -- Texas' second largest county -- is slightly
higher than that in Harris County. Yet, according to figures published
late last year, Dallas County has 37 inmates on death row while Harris County has 137. In fact, the state's death row has become so crowded with convicts from
Harris County that the state recently announced an expansion of its death row

Dick DeGuerin, a Houston criminal defense attorney, believes Holmes'
fervent pursuit of the death penalty is misguided. DeGuerin, who gained fame for
defending David Koresh during the siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco,
says death "ought to be reserved for the most brutal and vicious cases. But I've
seen that in every case where there's a possibility that the death penalty can be
sought, it is sought."

Despite his differences with Holmes, DeGuerin, who is currently defending a
Houston man facing the death penalty, cannot dispute Holmes' popularity. "He'll
be reelected until he's in his dotage. He's very, very popular," he said.

Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a
Washington group that opposes the death penalty, charges that Holmes
uses the death penalty for political purposes. "He uses the death penalty as part
of his platform," says Dieter. "And it has worked in the sense of his being
reelected each term."

Holmes claims to care little about his critics, and thinks much of the criticism
that comes his way should be directed at people who make the laws. "It's your
business if you criticize the death penalty. But I think you are out of line if
you are being critical of me." Instead, Holmes says death penalty opponents
should focus their fire on legislators. "I have never stumped for or against the
death penalty," he explains. "That's a legislative issue. It's a personal issue
that's wrapped up in morality and religion. I've looked at all the issues that
are important to me. And I've resolved it in my heart and mind. I've resolved
that I'm doing what I'm supposed to do."

Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."

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