Toward the end of June in a dimly lit county courtroom, Arthur Lee Burton was fighting for his life. He was accused of strangling a jogger with her own shoelaces. He didn’t do it, he insisted.
In another courtroom around that time, Coy Wayne Wesbrook took the stand in a rumpled suit and ashen face. He massacred five people, among them his ex-wife. Wesbrook claimed he never meant to.
Both men wept. But no tears or pleas could stop the mighty force that is the death penalty in Harris County, Texas. Juries decided they were guilty and deserved to die.
At a time when the death penalty is on the rise again, endorsed by most Americans, this place does it best.
Since capital punishment was reinstated in Texas in 1976, Harris County convictions have led to 53 of the state’s 155 executions. In the same period, the county has killed as many killers as Virginia, which has more than twice the population. And Virginia’s is the busiest death chamber after Texas’.
Among the reasons are a hawkish district attorney, his army of prosecutors, a weak system of court-appointed defense lawyers, state law that bars juries from learning that a life sentence really means decades in Texas--plus lots of practice.
This is where pickax murderer Karla Faye Tucker was sentenced to die. On Feb. 3 she became the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War.
It’s the ‘Eye-for-an-Eye, Tooth-for-a-Tooth Thing’
Executions, which peaked nationwide at 199 in 1935, had become rare by 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty as “cruel and unusual punishment” because states used it in arbitrary and capricious ways. Executions were allowed again in 1976 when the high court approved new, narrower laws in Texas, Florida and Georgia, paving the way for reinstatement nationwide. At the same time, Texas was among the first to trade its electric chair for the cleaner and quieter lethal injection.
Today, 38 states, the federal government and the military have the death penalty. The overall death row population is approaching 3,500. Of these, Texas had 452 inmates in August, second only to California’s 510.
But Texas, the second most populous state, leads them all in executions. It sends so many people to its death house in Huntsville, 80 miles north of Houston, that the customary hour of executions was rolled back from midnight to the more convenient 6 p.m.
Even for Texas, Harris County sets an awesome pace. A pulsing urban giant with Houston at its hub, this county the size of Delaware has 3.1 million people--one-sixth of Texas’ population. But it accounts for one-third of the executions, and nearly one-third of death row.
The murder rate--last year it was 10.4 per 100,000 population--is lower than comparable urban counties’.
The county’s ethnic mix--54% Anglo, 22% Hispanic and 18% black--is typical for a lot of urban America. Here, immigrants and cross-country transplants jostle with the heirs of founding wildcatters for their piece of the Texas dream. And there is plenty to share where shipping, high-tech industries and huge gas refineries have squeezed the rice farms and ranches to the rural fringe.
Few in the county call the death penalty a deterrent. It’s more a matter of being fed up with violent crime, said Tanya Linn, an alternate juror in Wesbrook’s trial. It’s “the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-tooth thing,” she said.
Four years ago, the Scripps Howard Texas Poll found 83% in this part of the state favored the death penalty. In June that number was 71%. The results are in line with similar national polls.
At the wrong end of downtown Houston, long steamy blocks from glittering office towers and amid an asphalt sea of parking lots, stands the Harris County Courthouse. Behind tan brick walls, its eight floors swarm with tense jurors, sweating defendants, furious victims and opposing hordes of lawyers. They lean against grimy walls murmuring confidences and crowd wooden benches that line the narrow corridors.
This is where Burton, a 28-year-old cement finisher with four children, was tried for last year’s slaying of Nancy Adleman, a 48-year-old mother of three.
Burton said his interrogators slapped and browbeat him into making a false confession.
Wesbrook, a onetime security guard, was tried in the same week in the same place. The defendant, who is 40 and has a daughter, admitted the crime. He said he had gone to patch things up with Gloria Jean Coons, his 32-year-old former wife, and found her giving a party where she had sex with two guests. He went to his truck intending to leave, he said, but someone took his keys so he returned with a high-powered rifle.
“He didn’t mean to kill anybody,” Robert Loper, one of two defense attorneys, told the jury.
“This is evidence of coldblooded murder,” countered prosecutor Hans Nielsen, lifting the killer’s gun above his head. “He knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it.”
Burton’s fate was decided in seven days, Wesbrook’s in 11.
Both requested new trials, a routine move before appeals begin. Wesbrook’s bid was denied. A Sept. 9 hearing was set for Burton.
People ascribe Harris County’s extraordinary numbers to Dist. Atty. John B. Holmes Jr. Named 19 years ago to fill his boss’ unexpired term, Holmes has won every election since. Voters evidently like the way he runs his team of 200-plus prosecutors.
The blunt-talking 57-year-old Republican, a familiar face in Texas with his handlebar mustache, is acutely aware of being a media attraction and declined a face-to-face interview, agreeing only to talk by telephone.
He’s never seen an execution and doesn’t want to, he said, although “there are some I would be tickled to death to do myself.”
But seeking the death penalty is nothing personal, he said. “I’m a lawyer. I follow the law.”
“We’re good at it because we never let up on the pressure,” Holmes said. He is proud of his staff and what he’s built, including an entire division devoted to post-conviction appeals. If a case is overturned, he said, “that’s like eating leftovers that haven’t been refrigerated. So our effort is push, push, push. And it’s not because we’re bloodthirsty. . . .”
He complains that critics depict him as a “death penalty guru” with a “notch-in-your-belt mentality.” He gets hate mail, and worse. (“You probably never had people lined up outside your office, wearing T-shirts with your picture with a slash across it.”)
He couldn’t succeed without agreeable juries, he says. “You’ve got to have the support of the people who are really doing it--and that’s those 12 people in that box.”
Scales May Be Tipped in Favor of Death
Prosecutors in Harris County have won more than twice as many death sentences as those in Dallas County, the next biggest urban county in Texas, since the 1970s.
“Our standards may be different,” said Norman Kinne, Dallas first assistant district attorney. “I know Mr. Holmes runs a very efficient office. I have admiration. I’m not saying we’re better or worse. It’s a matter of philosophy.”
One critic is Richard Burr, a defense attorney in Houston. “The D.A.'s office in Harris County is answerable to no one,” he said. “It has no check on its own power.”
“We’re spending millions of dollars killing people,” said another critic, Harris County District Judge Douglas Shaver. He supports the death penalty but feels it’s pursued too often in his county and courtroom--"to the extent of being abusive.”
Another complaint is that the odds are unfairly stacked against murder suspects.
For one thing, Harris County has no public defender agency, so trial judges must find defense attorneys willing to work cheap. The county pays a lead attorney $20,000 at most per case, an assistant $15,000.
Wilford Anderson, a prosecutor-turned-criminal defense lawyer, was tapped to represent Arthur Burton. He takes maybe two capital murders a year, he said, and sometimes digs into his own pocket for the defense. “The time that’s involved, the preparation, the actual trial itself--it can be substantial,” Anderson said.
Because of stories of incompetent defense lawyers, the county now requires attorneys appointed for death penalty cases to pass a special exam.
Better lawyers might save some people from conviction, but they also give the condemned fewer grounds on which to make their appeals.
Until 1995, Texas appellants had no automatic right to a lawyer. Now they do, and the state provides money, but not much: $15,000 for the lawyer and about $5,500 for an investigator and expert witnesses. Appeals to federal courts pay better, up to $125 an hour for the lawyer and no cap. But by then it’s usually too late.
Texas capital murder trials come in two parts. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, a second trial is held to choose between death and life imprisonment.
Critics object that juries go for the death penalty because state law forbids judges to tell them that a life sentence means at least 40 years in prison.
“The Texas rule unquestionably tips the scales in favor of a death sentence that a fully informed jury might not impose,” four U.S. Supreme Court justices wrote in an opinion last year, even as the full court let a Texas death sentence stand. Harris County judges are taking note, and legislators may change the law.
At the same time, the high court is getting tougher on appeals, as are Congress, Texas and other states where new laws seek to shorten the time between sentence and death. In Texas the average time on death row approaches 10 years. New limits on Texas appeals should cut that lag by two or three years.
Race is also presumed by some to figure in Harris County’s high death row count. Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities are 46% of the population. But they make up 75% of Harris County convicts now on death row.
Is that because they commit more murders, or because they are more likely to be targeted for a capital trial? “I think . . . if you’re a defendant of color, that you’re more likely to be tried in a capital case,” said Anderson, Burton’s attorney.
No known research on this has been done in Harris County, but a recent study of black inmates in Philadelphia found they were nearly four times as likely to get a death sentence as others convicted of similar crimes.
Holmes, who is white, insists justice in his office is colorblind. “I have a rule here,” he said. “When prosecutors come in here to talk to me about whether there should be death . . . I don’t want to know the color of anybody. If I don’t know, there’s no way I can be accused of being racially biased.”
Wesbrook, his attorneys and prosecutors are white. Anderson and Burton are black, as is the prosecutor who won Burton’s conviction.
As other states move to exercise and broaden capital punishment, Texas and Harris County could lose their lead.
Last year, Texas executed half the 74 people put to death nationwide. Of 42 men and women executed through Aug. 24 this year, just 11 were in Texas--two of them Harris County convicts.
In this decade, Kansas and New York reinstated the death penalty and Delaware added “hate crime” to its capital offenses. In Florida, the death penalty now applies in murders of abused children under 12 and against drug traffickers whose trade could cause death.
Connecticut’s capital crimes now include murder of a prison worker. In Tennessee, death penalty cases go to the head of the court docket. The federal Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 cut both the time and grounds for appeal in federal courts.
Still, executions could slow again, said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group critical of how capital punishment is applied.
That’s because most death penalty states have added the option of life without parole, he said. And even in Texas some lawmakers are considering such a change.
“Juries are squeamish about the death penalty,” Dieter said, “and when they’re told this person will never get out, that seems to make a difference.”