Shame, Shame, Shame

Judge Ted Poe's shame-based punishments have brought him fame and the D.A.'s job...if he wants it

Ted Poe, the judge who deals every day with junkies who can't kick their habit, is not given to doubt. At least publicly.

But maybe, just maybe, at three in the morning sometimes, a terrible dream comes to him.

He stands penitently in a dark courtroom. There are no reporters present. There are no TV cameras.

Lights, camera, action: A Poe probationer apologizes.
Michael Hogue
Lights, camera, action: A Poe probationer apologizes.

He is in front of a judge. The judge does not wear cowboy boots. He does not emphasize his Texas twang, because there are no crews from the BBC or French television here to impress.

"Son," he says gently to Poe, "you have a problem. An addiction. Do you understand that?"

"Yes, sir," Poe says.

"You can't stay away from the spotlight, can you? You can't go a month without making sure you're in the papers or on TV, isn't that right?"

"Yes, sir. But I don't do it for myself, I do it for the betterment of the justice system -- "

"Son, I don't want to hear a speech," the judge interrupts. (Here the night sweats break across the dreaming Poe's brow.) "I have people in this courtroom every day blaming their addiction on anyone but themselves. Some crack addict will say his father never loved him. A heroin junkie will say he only does it so he can get through work. And now you're not addicted to publicity, you're only trying to help society."

"But Judge -- "

"Do you think that when you call every newsroom in town to tip them off that you've sentenced some poor shlub to carry a sign saying, 'I robbed this Kmart' that you're serving society?"

"Well, Judge -- "

"What's next? Forcing someone to make a public apology at City Hall in front of you, the press and bored bystanders?"

"Actually, Judge, I did that a couple of years ago."

"Well, Mr. Poe, your problem is more severe than I realized. I hereby sentence you to probation for ten years. During that time you are not to go on Oprah -- "

"But Judge -- "

"You are not to ostentatiously wear cowboy boots -- "

"Judge -- "

"You are to take down the 'I Don't Really Care How You Did It Up North' sign placed so prominently in your office for visiting reporters to see, and finally, Mr. Poe -- "

"What else, Judge? What else could you possibly do?"

"You are forbidden from casually tossing in the phrase 'Poetic Justice' in any interview with an out-of-town journalist."


At this point, with a start, Poe wakes up wide-eyed. He looks in the corner and sees his cowboy boots, he remembers the clippings that still adorn his office, and he realizes it has only been a nightmare.

There are 59 district judges in Harris County, whose names show up on the ballot every four years. The typical Houstonian would be hard-pressed to name any of them. But if there is one name he or she could come up with, it would be Ted Poe.

He's only 51, but in this day of younger and younger judges, he has served on the district bench longer than any other current jurist.

It's not his longevity that has made him a name, though. It is his own tireless efforts at publicity.

He has, indeed, appeared on Oprah, not to mention 60 Minutes, 20/20, and the British, French and German television networks. He has appeared in countless newspapers.

At first the media attention centered on Poe's penchant for such gimmicky sentencing as forcing a baggage handler who stole pistols from the guy who played the Lone Ranger to clean out the stables at HPD.

But in the past three years Poe has become the leading spokesman for what he calls "public punishment" and what others call "shame-based sentencing." Across the nation, shoppers these days may happen to walk by a glum guy parading in front of a store with an "I robbed this store and I'm sorry" sign. Other people convicted of crimes have to put up signs in their yards or on their cars or take out ads in the paper flagellating themselves.

There's a debate as to how effective all this is -- no real studies have been done -- but one sure result is that it gets a judge's name in the papers.

Poe is a fanatical believer that such publicity serves as both a deterrent to others and an effective rehabilitation tool to the offender. If the spotlight also happens to shine on the guy in the robe, well, Poe is ready to do his part.

"I'm not saying you sentence to please people, but people ought to see that the system works and that justice has occurred," he says.

And if that takes an Oprah appearance, so be it. If that means that Ann Landers writes a glowing column about you, it's part of the job.

And now Poe is considering a jump to a bigger stage. Legendary Harris County District Attorney John Holmes Jr. is not running for re-election in 2000; there is no doubt that the job is Poe's if he wants it.

"He wouldn't be so much elected as anointed," says one politically savvy lawyer.

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