Hanging the Judge

Lupe Salinas made a lot of friends on his journey from a Rio Grande Valley childhood to becoming a dogged prosecutor and respected state district judge. Until he was tapped for a federal judgeship, he never knew how many enemies he had.

When times got better the family returned to Texas and fell into the agricultural migrant worker stream. Guadeloupe Salinas was born in McAllen in 1948. "My early recollection was picking cotton in Bryan, Texas, in 1955," laughs Salinas, picking at a plate of eggs and chorizo at a strip center tacqueria on Bellaire. "I went on strike. My oldest sister, Gloria, was in the same bracket with me. We were protesting work conditions. It was too hot and we'd spend most of the day under a huge truck that would load up the cotton."

Within a year Arnulfo Salinas moved the family to Galveston. "He had a desire to keep from disrupting the kids' education," explains Salinas. "He got a job at a cotton warehouse, left the migrant stream and settled in." The family took up residence at the Magnolia Homes housing project, nicknamed "Tortilla Flats" for its horizontal roofs and ever-present aroma of hot flour tortillas. "No air conditioning, and everybody's windows were open, so you could smell the wonderful tortillas. That housing, intended for poor people, was the best housing we had ever had," remembers Salinas. "That was the beginning of a new life."

The six Salinas children enrolled in public school, and Lupe quickly displayed an aptitude for math and reading. He was subsequently singled out by teachers for the somewhat condescending role that would be continually thrust on him until the indictments: that of the determined member of an ethnic minority who rises to great heights despite the odds.

"In the second grade I remember a teacher at San Jacinto Elementary taking me to another classroom to sit in front of the students to read," says Salinas. "That was to show off that she was able to teach somebody that wasn't supposed to know how to read. And trying to set an example to other kids that it can be done if they'd only work a little bit harder."

Because of his math skills, Salinas considered aiming for the space program, but a natural affinity for government and sharpening social views drew him into law. He graduated cum laude in political science from UH and earned his law degree at the school in 1972. By then he had married Orie Alvarado, with whom he had been close friends since their early teens.

Two years spent representing indigent Hispanics for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and three years with the Harris County District Attorney's appellate division positioned Salinas for an assignment in the newly created Civil Rights Division under Carter-appointed U.S. Attorney Tony Canales. The case that would give Salinas statewide recognition had already occurred: the fatal shooting of teenager Randy Webster by a Houston policeman. While Salinas was not directly involved in the investigation at the D.A.'s office, he says the autopsy reports and eyewitnesses indicated the police account was inaccurate -- that Webster, after a high-speed chase with police, had emerged unarmed from his stolen van and was shot down in cold blood.

His first assignment upon joining the U.S. Attorney's office in 1977 was the Webster case. He recalls being handed the case file by a superior, who told him: "There's a 'throw down' in this case. Find it. If you do, you'll get a medal." Embarking on a search for a sales receipt on the pistol, Salinas combed through the files of local gun dealers. Through the combination of tenacity and incredible luck, he traced the handgun to its original owner.

"We called the only name left in the phone book," recalls Salinas, with a tone of amazement that has survived thousands of tellings of the story. "A woman came on the line, and when asked about the weapon, exclaimed, 'Don't tell me that gun has caused more trouble.'" The weapon, it turned out, had been used in a 1964 suicide and from that scene had gone to the Houston Police Department's evidence room, from which it was taken by officer Danny Mays for use as a "throw down," a backup weapon that could be planted on a suspect if questions arose about the justification for a police shooting.

"Obviously, it was the most rewarding professional accomplishment for me as a lawyer," says Salinas. "Not only did it open the eyes of the public that some individuals do violate the law when they are sworn to uphold it, but too, it helped encourage the internal affairs type activities in police departments and make them more acceptable."

Salinas' career continued on an upward curve, with Governor Mark White appointing him to a state district court judgeship in 1983, a post he lost in the following year's Republican landslide. He made another unsuccessful run for judge in 1986 and finally, in 1988, bucked that year's Republican tide by unseating the GOP's Albert Pruitt, an incumbent who Salinas claimed had made a series of lenient rulings favorable to defendants accused of child molesting.

In 1992 Salinas ran unopposed, and by then he was beginning to explore options for advancement to the next judicial level. He had acquired a reputation at the courthouse as a fair if somewhat pro-prosecutor judge. A lawyer who practiced in his court recalls Salinas actually issuing an apology to the family of a crime victim because a jury in his court had acquitted the defendant. On the other hand, Salinas went out of his way to try to blunt the sting of a jury which convicted a Houston police officer of raping a woman prisoner at Memorial Park but refused to sentence the officer to prison, accepting the defense argument that his life would be in danger. "In punishment they convinced the jury that sending him to prison would be tantamount to the death penalty," says Salinas. The officer received 10 years probation. "When it got to me I leveled every possible condition, because I had heard the problem and he got away with murder. I gave him the maximum number of community hours, maximum days in custody."

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