Defending the Indefensible

Do court-appointed attorneys serve their clients or the courts?

Behind the wood-paneled courtrooms of judges Ted Poe and Joe Kegans, like most other Harris County felony courtrooms, is a dark, nasty place called a holdover area. Above one of the two barred cells, which smell like the large urinals they basically are, read the words "Maximum Occupancy: 4." Inside the dank cell, eleven men in bright orange coveralls try to find a place to sit or stand as they wait to meet with their attorneys -- most of them court-appointed -- and learn what sort of deal their counselors may have cut with the district attorney's office. To the right, in another crowded cell, about a dozen other inmates also wait to hear from their attorneys.

"Three years!" exclaims a young black prisoner accused of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle -- car theft. After getting the news from his lawyer -- a thin, white man about 50 years old -- he presses his face between the bars and repeats his outrage over the offer of prison time. "Man, ain't no way I do three years for this. Tell them this was a misdemeanor and I ain't doing three years!"

"Look here!" replies the attorney, who seems equally agitated by his client. "Do you see any keys in my hand? Did I put you in here? You did this to yourself."

The two men, separated by jail bars, and by a more impregnable wall of experience and culture, trade expletives. Finally, the attorney walks back out to the free world to do more business.

It's a scene that is repeated hundreds of times every week in the Harris County judicial system -- one of the few of its size in the country that does not have a public defenders' office to represent indigents. Critics of the Harris County system -- a system that costs taxpayers millions of dollars annually -- also say many court-appointed attorneys often put the needs and desires of the court ahead of the interests of their nominal clients.

On the fourth floor of the Harris County Criminal Courthouse, two men squeeze through the crowded corridor and into an empty elevator. One, a stocky black man in a gray suit and ostrich-skin cowboy boots, pushes the button for the eighth floor. As the elevator begins its ascent, the black man, unprompted, suddenly speaks.

"Hell, I just found out I got a case set for trial today," says the man, attorney Ron Mock, seemingly amused by the surprise. He pauses and then continues after a few seconds of thought. "But, hell, they ain't even paid me."

Over the past 15 years, Ron Mock has consistently been one of the highest-paid court-appointed attorneys in Harris County. According to the Harris County auditor's office, in 1993 Mock garnered $54,341.81 for court-appointed work. Since 1985, his annual take from the coffers of Harris County has averaged $73,873.

Mock is best known in town for representing defendants accused of capital murder. Probably most notorious among his former clients is convicted murderer Gary Graham, whose case has received national attention, and who claims that Mock failed to call alibi witnesses on his behalf. But in addition to Graham, Mock has represented, on either the trial or appellate level, approximately 10 percent of the 100 or so inmates from Harris County now on Texas' death row.

Mock's critics -- and there are many -- say that what they describe as Mock's cavalier attitude toward his indigent clients is one of the most glaring examples of the court-appointed attorney system gone wrong in Harris County. His friends and supporters, and Mock himself, say those criticisms are unfair because, in reality, he is a good trial attorney who often gets less-than-good results in court only because he consistently represents the worst of the worst.

At 11 o'clock on a Saturday morning Mock opens Buster's Drinkery, the downtown bar he owns, to discuss his controversial reputation. Dressed in a tan shirt, slacks and pull-over sweater, Mock carries his glass of beer over to a well-worn booth inside Buster's. It's a dive located two blocks south of the criminal courts building on the northeast side of downtown Houston, where on weekdays the streets are filled with winos and attorneys. Mock, a relaxed and likable man, says he starts off each workday at his small tavern, where he can think and have breakfast before going to court. In his own estimation, Mock believes that he has probably tried more capital murder cases than any other defense attorney in Texas. And he likens himself to a trauma doctor.

"When the son of a bitch comes in there shot, you do what you have to do to do it, and that's what I do in the legal system," says Mock. "I never cheat. Never have, never will. I've never lied for a client. But I will represent them to the best of my ability and fight like shit for them. I will. I don't care what they've done.

"The worst was a son of a bitch who killed a six-year-old girl," Mock reflects. "Beat her to death with a board. Bit her arm. That was years ago, when we first got into forensic dentistry. And I hated that motherfucker. I hated him with a passion. But I fought like hell for him every step of the way. But I just couldn't look at that motherfucker without thinking, "You know, if that had been my daughter, you'd be a dead motherfucker. You'd be dead."

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