Queen of the Good Ol' Boys

The macho world of trial law is ruled by tough, hard-driving men -- and by Katherine Scardino, a tough, hard-driving woman

Katherine Scardino usually looks good -- at 54, she can pass for a decade younger -- but today in court the overall effect was particularly striking: Her blond hair streamed obediently to the shoulders of her brown Anne Klein suit, her makeup was subtle but not too subtle, her tortoiseshell glasses hung just so by a gold chain around her neck. She'd achieved the groomed perfection of one of those semifamous talking heads on a Court TV chat show -- and in fact, Scardino had recently made those rounds, had begun to make herself a celebrity lawyer. But today, as she mounted her closing arguments, her good looks were harnessed for a different, more serious reason: to save the life of Calvin McGee, a 22-year-old black man, the latest target of Harris County's death machine.

In October 1997 McGee and some friends went searching southeast Houston for a car to hijack. They set their sights on a white Cadillac in a Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-thru lane. As the driver, 61-year-old Irma Malloy, ordered her food, McGee told her to get out of the car. Malloy screamed. McGee shot her in the head.

The case appeared open-and-shut. Three of McGee's accomplices stood ready to finger him as the trigger man, and prosecutors described him as a "natural-born killer." The only thing going for him -- the only thing that might save him from death row -- was Scardino, his court-appointed attorney.

"Court-appointed attorney": It's not a phrase that inspires confidence. In the United States, it's often said, you get the justice you pay for, and usually the appointment hustlers anxious to defend indigents aren't the type to make prosecutors tremble. But Scardino is different: Two years ago she was the first attorney in 23 years to have a Harris County client acquitted of the charge of capital murder.

In some ways, the McGee case was a rematch for Scardino. The lead prosecutor was Craig Goodhart, the assistant district attorney she'd also faced for a while in the Joe Durrett case, the case where she won an acquittal. For that trial, Scardino found a credible witness who accused Goodhart of attempting to distort the medical examiner's findings, and Scardino herself told a jury that the prosecution "has treated you like idiots." Obviously, winning Durrett's freedom did not endear her to Goodhart or anyone else in the D.A.'s office.

But with the McGee case, Scardino had far less to work with. There was no doubt that McGee pulled the trigger; there were no unanswered questions. Scardino didn't hope to get McGee acquitted, only to save him from a death sentence. She and her co-counsel, Robert Morrow, called only one witness: a firearms expert who testified that the gun used to kill Malloy had an unusually sensitive trigger. In her closing argument, Scardino argued that McGee hadn't intended to pull the trigger, hadn't intended to kill anyone, had pulled the trigger by accident. She pointed out that had he intended to kill Malloy for her car, he'd have driven away in the Cadillac instead of fleeing on foot. Scardino asked the jury to find McGee not guilty of capital murder -- and hoped they might find him guilty of the lesser crime, murder, a crime not punishable by death.

The eight-man, four-woman jury was out for only two hours. Then they returned the verdict Scardino had dreaded: guilty of capital murder.

She wasn't surprised. Neither, obviously, was she pleased. But she and Morrow didn't have time to dwell on the jury's decision. McGee's life was still at stake. The next stage of the trial -- the punishment phase -- marked a second chance for the defense to save McGee. It was the attorneys' chance to tell the jury the extenuating circumstances: McGee's low IQ, the poverty and abuse of his childhood.

Scardino, who made a compelling closing argument though she had little to work with, shied away from this phase, though it offered more fodder for a lawyer. She wanted Morrow to take over. Poverty and abuse make her emotional -- maybe too emotional -- because they hit a little too close to home.

Scardino was born Katherine Jenkins and grew up rock-bottom-poor in Gallatin; she describes it as "the sticks of East Texas." Her dad, Alton, was 60 years old when she was born. He scratched out an existence by farming, combining his $54-a-month Social Security check with proceeds from the sale of tomatoes and watermelons.

The family of four lived hand-to-mouth. Dinner was usually a pan of corn bread and a pitcher of buttermilk, and Katherine grew up with an outdoor toilet. Her first pair of glasses was bought by the Kiwanis Club. When her friends' mothers made dresses for their daughters, they made an extra one for her.

When she was small, one of her dad's mules kicked her; her forehead still bears the scar. She bears other scars, too. Without being specific, she says that she was sexually abused by someone other than her father. For that she blames her mother, Vassie, who was 24 years younger than Alton. If Vassie didn't know what was happening, says Katherine, she should have.

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