Never Steal a Turkey in Lubbock, and Other Tales of Texas Justice

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Molly Ivins is the author, most recently, of "Who Let the Dogs In? Incredible Political Animals I Have Known" (Random House, 2004).

The U.S. Supreme Court rules yet again that another Texas case was wrongfully decided -- this time because 19 of 20 blacks had been knocked off the jury pool -- and I’m asked to explain what’s wrong with criminal justice in Texas, in 750 words. Sure, no problem.

I don’t like to be cynical, but one can get a little tired after a long time watching justice meted out in this state. The story doesn’t change much, and nothing seems to get better. But for what it’s worth, here’s what’s at the bottom of it.

(1) Racism. In 1998, James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death behind a pickup truck for being black in Jasper. Two of the three men responsible got the death penalty. This was not first time in Texas a white man was given the death penalty for killing a black man. It was the second.


(2) More racism. In 1999, about one-fifth of the adult black citizens of Tulia, population 5,000, were arrested and accused of cocaine dealing on the uncorroborated testimony of a bent narc and notorious liar. No one even stopped to ask how a town that size could support 46 cocaine dealers until a reporter from the Texas Observer showed up.

(3) We elect our prosecutors. There are 254 counties in Texas, nearly every one with its own elected district attorney. The way to get elected is to be “Tuff on Crime.” The way to lose is to be “Soft on Crime.” In the big cities -- Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, among the 10 largest in the nation -- we get the usual plead-out mill: perp’s public defender advises him to cop to reduced charges, anything to avoid a trial.

But in the small towns and rural areas where heavy crime is rare, a D.A. has to whup on whoever gets caught. Sometime in the ‘80s, a guy in Lubbock stole 12 frozen turkeys. They were recovered, still frozen. Not only no damage, but no defrost. The guy bought 75 years, which works out to 6.3 years per bird. Don’t steal a turkey in Lubbock.

(4) We elect our judges. Only way to get elected is to be Tuff on Crime. Only way to lose is to be Soft on Crime. In the Case of the Sleeping Lawyer, a guy on death row appealed on grounds his lawyer had slept through his trial, thus providing him with less than adequate counsel. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that even though the lawyer slept through much of the trial, he didn’t sleep during the important parts, so the conviction stood.

(5) An appeal process that isn’t worth squat. If you’re in, you can’t get out. If you draw the death penalty in Texas, you effectively have 30 days to present new evidence. After that, you’re toast. Doesn’t matter if someone else confesses on Day 31. Doesn’t even matter if you could provide DNA evidence proving it wasn’t you. (The Legislature is still trying to fix that one.) Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are of the opinion that actual innocence is not necessarily a bar to execution (Herrera vs. Collins). It took a near-miracle to get the Tulia drug defendants out.

(6) Gutless politicians. Texas runs the largest prison system on Earth. Texas executes the retarded, the insane and people who were children when they committed their crimes, until the Supreme Court stopped that only three months ago. Texas executes foreigners without notifying their home countries. Every poll shows Texans do not want to execute people in these categories. Politicians are afraid to stop it for fear someone will say they’re Soft on Crime.


You’ve met Labrador retrievers brighter than some of the people we execute. We had a guy on the row who thought he was going to die because he couldn’t read. He spent hours on his bunk trying to memorize the ABCs. Never could do it. We execute people easily as crazy as the one in Florida who spent years crawling around on all fours, barking, under the impression that he was a black dog in the seventh circle of hell. But I’m sure they understand right from wrong, and know why they’re being punished. Arf.

(7) A bent system. For years Texas used an expert witness most people called “Dr. Death.” Never saw a perp he couldn’t guarantee would be a mortal menace for the rest of his days. Only one solution: Kill him. Just one little hitch: In many of those cases, Dr. Death never examined the accused, never talked to the accused, never got near the accused. He was reprimanded twice in the 1980s by the American Psychiatric Assn., then expelled from the group in 1995 because his evidence was found unethical and untrustworthy.

In another case, the Supremes threw out the death sentence because the psychologist said the perp was a danger on account of being Latino. Then there was the Houston police lab, so unbelievably sorry, sloppy and just plain maliciously wrong that the courts had to throw out a bunch of those cases too.

But please don’t get the idea that just because a few of these errors were caught on long-shot appeals, justice actually works here. We know about so many more miscarriages it would make you vomit, and can’t even guess at how many we don’t know about.

I’m at 932 words and I haven’t even gotten to the 5th Circuit, the parole board, why you can spend months in jail without ever seeing a lawyer ...