By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
"If Poe doesn't run, I'm thinking about running," says prominent criminal defense attorney Randy Schaffer. "But it's a waste of time to do anything about it until he decides, because if he runs, he clears the decks of everybody else."
Poe says he's thinking about it, and he doesn't have to decide until January 3. Being district attorney gives him a bigger shot at the spotlight, of course, but it also is a more bureaucratic position, with less freedom than that of a judge.
Poe at one point announced he was running for Congress but later backed out. He couldn't stand moving to Washington, he says; some grumble he couldn't take the idea of being a small fish in a big pond. But the D.A.'s office would require no such move, obviously, and after 18 years on the bench he might be getting restless.
What might surprise a lot of people is that the hordes of people urging him to run include a sizable contingent of defense attorneys, those who represent the people who get maxed out or pummeled in his court.
Under all the publicity-hungry, spotlight-grabbing antics, it seems, Poe -- much to the annoyance of those who sneer at his insatiable need for attention -- is a damn good judge.
In a criminal courthouse where just about every judge has come directly from the prosecutor's office, defense attorneys are constantly smarting from perceived bias against the defense.
Prosecutors get away with being unprepared, they say, they are allowed to present cases based on highly suspect searches, and the 100 judgment calls in any trial usually go their way.
Not in Poe's court. "He is one of the fairest judges down there in terms of the guilt/innocence stage," says appellate expert Brian Wice.
"He recently quashed two indictments for me and slammed the prosecutors for them," says defense attorney David Jones. "He really is a 'call it as I see it' guy."
"If it's a bad search, I'm going to throw it out," Poe says.
Once a defendant is found guilty, though, all bets are off. Poe revels in assessing the maximum penalties. Only the brain-dead defense lawyers choose to have Poe assess punishment rather than the jury.
"If you go to him for punishment, you're probably going to get a call from your malpractice representative," Wice says.
Poe's reputation for fairness, underscored by traditionally top-of-the-heap rankings in the local bar polls assessing judicial performance, was a surprise to many. He came to the bench in 1981 having already made a name for himself as a crusading prosecutor who never lost a jury trial in eight years and wasn't above grandstanding.
In one trial of a cop-killer, he read to the jury an imaginary Christmas card the dead officer might have written his young daughter. In the high-profile trial of two HPD officers convicted of negligent homicide in the drowning death of Joe Campos Torres, he loudly banged a police flashlight on the rail of the jury box to demonstrate the beating the cops had delivered.
He became famous for singing "Happy Trails" to defendants being escorted out of the courtroom to prison. He earned the nickname "Toothbrush" for his habit of tossing one to the guy he had just put behind bars.
And he earned the glowing press that would become another trademark. The headline on a 1981 Houston Postprofile, just before Governor Bill Clements appointed him to the bench: " 'Toothbrush' Helps the Good Guys."
The profiles since then have all touched on the same highlights: a strongly religious upbringing in the Church of Christ, a childhood in Central Texas and Houston, a political science degree from Abilene Christian University and becoming a judge at the then-unheard-of age of 32.
After holding on to his seat despite being a Republican in a Democratic year in 1982, Poe has never had an opponent in either a primary or general election.
It didn't take him long to make his mark on the bench. In the midst of the recession that saw Yankees coming south for jobs, Poe sentenced a man accused of bringing a gun into the Summit to leave Texas and return to Michigan. Reporters lapped it up, citing Poe's fierce Texas pride, his office adorned with Lone Star memorabilia, his stationery highlighting the "I will never surrender" quote from the Alamo's William B. Travis. And the ever-present cowboy boots, of course.
He ordered probationers to help restore the Battleship Texas. He forced a hairdresser convicted of vandalism to cut hair at centers for the blind and mentally handicapped. He made other first-time offenders spend months in his courtroom, watching the proceedings.
Somehow the media dug deep and found out about all these things, just as they discovered -- on a Friday, generally the slowest day at the courthouse -- that Poe had wanted to begin a trial but couldn't muster up a jury, so he sent deputies to a shopping mall to shanghai people.
His fame began to spread. In a courthouse where every judge seems to have an autographed photo of some obscure astronaut who was called for jury duty, Poe's astronaut autograph is that of the reclusive Neil Armstrong. The wall also features Texas heavyweights Willie Nelson, Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan and A.J. Foyt.