Harris County has long been synonymous with being the "Death Penalty Capital of the World" and it has always been pretty much the center of every debate on capital punishment since the 1970s. Couple that in with the fact that Mr. Kathryn Kase (AKA Jeff Cohen) is the Editor of the very anti-death penalty Houston Chronicle, and it seems like the District Attorney's Office will always be destined to be portrayed as more blood-thirsty than those it puts on Death Row.
This piece isn't about whether or not the Death Penalty should exist. Former District Attorney Johnny Holmes once told me that there was no point in ever debating the death penalty, because it is too much of a part of a person's moral and religious values to ever change a mind. If you believe in it, then you will, most likely, always believe in it. If you oppose it, you will always oppose it.
But have you ever wondered what goes into the decision-making process behind a capital murder case in Harris County, Texas?
Like almost all other cases, a capital murder is first presented at D.A. Intake. Homicide investigators come in and present the case to a District Court Chief or above for acceptance. Only a person who has attained the rank of District Court Chief or higher has the authority (according to the Operations Manual) to even file a charge of Capital Murder.
And when they do so at Intake, they are simply deciding whether or not the elements of the offense of Capital Murder have been met, and whether or not the case can be proven.
For those of you who don't know, not every murder is a Capital Murder. To be a Capital Murder, it must be one or more of the following:
1. A murder in the course of committing another enumerated felony (such as burglary, robbery, sexual assault, kidnapping, etc.)
2. A murder of a police officer or fireman in the line of duty.
3. A murder of a child under 6 years of age.
4. A murder of another for money.
5. A multiple murder
There are a couple of others, but those are the main ones.
When a Capital Murder is filed at Intake, there is no decision made at that time about the appropriate punishment that should be sought. The case is simply filed and it lands in a court. Once it is there, the Chief Prosecutor of the Court will handle it in most cases (sometimes a "higher up" may actually be the one handling the case).
The Chief Prosecutor will spend the next 90 days working on the case, and will go over it with a fine-toothed comb. The offense report is read multiple times over. The scene photos and videos are reviewed. The autopsy report and photos are reviewed. All statements are read and noted.
If a Defendant has priors, the prosecutor won't just order the Judgment and Sentence reflecting the conviction. They will order the offense report, the old file, and everything else that they possibly can to understand what happened on the prior offense. They often pull the Defendant's school records if he is young. They will talk to the victim's family members and discuss their feelings about the case. They will look at the offense itself and decide how bad the facts of the case-in-chief are. Sadly, in this day and age, a capital murder during a convenience store robbery doesn't really "shock the conscience" like it used to.
The Chief will also talk with the defense attorneys about things that might mitigate, or lessen the Defendant's personal blame-worthiness in the case. Was the Defendant abused as a child? Did the Defendant have a low IQ? Are there any mental issues that might tend to explain what is going on? Was there some form of provocation behind the murder?
Once all of this information has been gathered by the Chief Prosecutor, it becomes his or her duty to write up a "Capital Murder Report", which details the offense. It will contain a detailed narrative of the offense. It will also have a list of "aggravating" factors that might make the case more egregious. It also has a list of the mitigating factors that should be considered as reasons why death should not be sought.
When the Chief has finished the Capital Murder Report, he or she will write a recommendation as to how the charge should be presented to the Grand Jury. Perhaps it shouldn't be a capital. Maybe it should be indicted as a regular murder or even an Aggravated Robbery. Whatever the case may be, they hand-write their recommendation. Although I have heard other Divisions may do it differently, I always included whether or not I thought it should be a non-death or death case at that time. Some say the decision is made a little further down the road.
Once the Chief Prosecutor has made their recommendation, they take the form to their Division Chief, who is usually a prosecutor that has been at the Office over 15 years and has a good feel for what cases are worthy of seeking the death penalty on versus those that are not. They write down their recommendation as well. The Chief Prosecutor and his or her Division Chief then travel to the 6th Floor where they meet with the Bureau Chief of the Trial Division (currently, that would be Lyn McClellan). They review the case with him, and he writes his recommendation.
The Chief, the Division Chief, and the Bureau Chief (this is starting to sound like the Wizard of Oz, now, isn't it?) then travel down the hall to meet with the District Attorney. He reviews the summary and sometimes there is discussion and sometimes the summary is enough. Obviously, the District Attorney has the final say-so in how the charge is filed, and whether or not to seek death.
So, for those out there who believe that prosecutors at the Harris County District Attorney's Office yell out: "Yee haw! Get the gurney ready!" every time a capital murder charge is filed, please rest assured that there is a lot more to it than that.
Mr. Holmes once told me that in making the decision whether or not to seek death on a Defendant charged with Capital Murder, he asked himself the question "would 12 reasonable minds agree that a Defendant deserved to die for what he had done". If you look at how many people were sent to death row during the Holmes administration, it would appear that the man's assessment of those 12 "reasonable minds" was usually pretty accurate.
A senior prosecutor told me that in his mind, the standards at the Office are whether or not the Defendant's actions "shock the conscience". Perhaps the facts of the case-in-chief shock the conscience, or perhaps a Defendant's violent criminal history does. The more the Defendant "shocks the conscience", the more likely the State will seek death.
One last note before I turn this over to the commenters to blast me.
Although the Chronicle likes to make a big deal out of how many people Harris County sends to death row, they seem to pay very little attention to those capital murders where the State does not seek the death penalty. Now, I know that Mr. Kase, uh, Mr. Cohen has his agenda, and portraying the D.A.'s Office as being the slightest bit reasonable would not help his agenda, but the vast majority of Capital Murders are "non-deaths". They get tried with little to no fanfare on an almost weekly basis.
For those who oppose the death penalty, I know that there is no such thing as a case that would change your mind. However, for those who do agree with it, or are, at least, willing to consider it the Conscience Shockers are going to be the only ones on the table for consideration of lethal injection.
Those cases where death is sought are truly the ones that "shock the conscience".