Shame, Shame, Shame

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

"I made him carry it on Christmas Eve, and he'll probably be carrying it somewhere this Thanksgiving, because the accident happened on a Thanksgiving Eve," Poe says.

Harrington wonders where all the shame-based sentencing is going. Even if Poe isn't motivated by publicity, other judges may be, and they'll have to think up more and more eye-popping sentences to get attention.

"These guys are all politicians," he says. "They run for election. They love it when there's a paragraph in The New York Times or something saying a guy has to put up a picture of a wrecked car in front of his house because of his crime."

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

Judges going too far in creative sentencing "is always a danger," Poe says. "It's always a problem if you go too far in any kind of sentencing. But some judges are too afraid to do something different."

He notes all his sentences have withstood challenges in the appeals courts.

There's no telling, of course, if Poe would, or even could, implement similar policies if he were the D.A. Judges, after all, are the ones who set the conditions for probation, although many simply sign off on whatever deal the prosecutors and defense attorneys work out.

Poe says simply that "a D.A. can do what he wants," whether that's trying the occasional high-profile case or serving mostly as an administrator. He's not saying much more about his possible run.

In fact, for someone so often in the media, Poe doesn't have a whole lot to say. Take him away from the Texas shtick and the public-punishment arguments and he clams up. He doesn't talk about his family. He doesn't expound at length on subjects he views as irrelevant.

Get an hour into an interview with him and he'll start drumming his fingers impatiently on the desk, saying, "You sure ask a lot of questions" and wondering where a questioner "is going" with talk about how judges seem obsessively docket-driven these days.

"He doesn't really have any confidantes that I know of; he always plays things very close to the vest," says Schaffer, the defense attorney who has been appointed to cases by Poe.

One thing Poe does want you to know, however: He does not care what people think about him. He says so four or five times. "What people think about me, I just don't care. If they like what I do, fine. If they don't, I don't care," he says.

Some attorneys and others raised an eyebrow recently at Poe's handling of the high-profile case of a Hispanic truck driver who killed four members of a West University Place family while driving drunk.

The jury gave the driver four 15-year prison terms; Poe, saying from the bench that the man had killed "an all-American family," stacked the terms instead of making them concurrent, in effect creating a 60-year sentence.

For some, the "all-American family" language made them wonder if the sentence would have been different if the driver had killed four Third Ward residents.

"The whole culture of sentencing based on the victim rather than the defendant is wrong," defense attorney Jones says.

You can ask Poe about the case and mention that it was the driver's first offense of any kind. "First four offenses," he'll growl.

A motion for rehearing is still pending, limiting what Poe can say about the case, but it's clear he feels he did nothing wrong. " 'All-American family' is something that can have many definitions," he says. "I know my motives were good....Not every first offender ought to be released back into the community. The jury first sent him to prison, not me. They gave him 15 years in each case, and they know the terms could be served consecutively. That was my call."

It's not the first time that Poe's sensitivity to minorities has been questioned. When he was in the hunt for a federal bench in the 1980s, FBI agents doing background checks asked about Poe's record on the matter, says one lawyer who was interviewed by agents.

Nothing solid ever emerged, though. Poe didn't get the federal seat, but that was because the big-firm civil lawyers, the ones who donate prodigiously to the politicians who choose the judges, always prefer that one of their own get the post rather than a criminal judge.

The drunk trucker was one of three high-profile cases Poe has presided over this year, including the Hindu priest accused of sexually abusing his followers and a cop-killer trial that was broadcast nationwide on Court TV.

For years there has been grumbling that Poe finesses the system to get these cases, or puts the squeeze on other judges to transfer such trials to him, but all judges lust after the big-publicity trials and wouldn't put up with much tampering with the random-assignment system.

For now the only question Poe is facing is where does he want to go from here. He can remain a judge and continue to be a proponent of his philosophy of deterring crime, or he can take to the bigger stage being vacated by Holmes.

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