In the capital of capital punishment

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.

When asked why Harris County produces more death-penalty inmates, officials often point to the population of Houston, which at 3 million and growing, is the nation's fourth-largest city. They also hint at high crime, even though the murder rate, at 10.4 per 100,000 inhabitants is relatively low for urban areas.

Legal experts point to other numbers. Dallas County is comparable in size to Houston. But Harris County has 142 convicts on death row, Dallas has 37.

"We reserve the death penalty for cases where there is generally no question about the facts of the crime or the mental state and criminal history of the defendant," says Mike Carnes, a Dallas County district attorney. But he adds, Harris County is doing a "good job."

Doriece Otto, a juror on a 1995 Harris County capital-murder case, also gives Holmes's prosecutors high marks. "They did their homework," says Mrs. Otto, adding "the whole process scared the dickens out of me."

But while she says the prosecutors were passionate in arguing for the death penalty for the defendant, Erica Sheppard, Otto says she and her fellow jurors made their decisions based on the facts of the case.

"Erica showed no remorse," recalls Otto, who along her fellow jurors reached a death-penalty sentence in an hour and 20 minutes. "I just don't think that girl could ever be rehabilitated."

FROM his position in the glare of near-constant publicity, Holmes says the decision to seek the death penalty is not a personal choice - it's determined by the law and the facts of the case. And besides, he adds, the final decision is not his.

"No person receives the death penalty but for 12 folks saying they get it," says Holmes, who has been a prosecutor in Harris County for 30 years, 20 of them as the district attorney. Holmes says he would "prefer that we have no death-penalty cases."

For the time being, though, Holmes says Harris County has "a real good track record in only seeking cases where the jury subsequently agrees with it."

This track record may be part of the reason Holmes has been continually reelected for the past 20 years, but it also draws more than a few calls from the national news media. The calls are rarely returned.

Critics concede the point that Holmes's approach seems popular, and that Americans in general seem to favor the death penalty, but they say the advantages of Harris County's death-penalty expertise make it difficult for anyone but rich defendants to get a fair trial.

"They have 100 attorneys who ... are experts at seeking the death penalty," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, an anti-capital-punishment group.

By contrast, defendants who can't afford their own defense team must rely on attorneys chosen by trial judges, many of whom Mr. Dieter says are "incompetent" or "cooperative with the state system."

For her part, Doriece Otto feels that justice was served. "I don't have any regrets, and Lord knows, I've thought about it enough," she laughs. "I feel like I did my duty, and they can leave me alone now."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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