Shaka's Last Supper

He wouldn't eat it, so they did!

If you couldn't make the media and protester circus at Huntsville, Tony's Ballroom on Post Oak seemed the next hottest ticket for the Gary Graham/Shaka Sankofa execution last Thursday. Showing the traditional trial attorneys' flair for the dramatic, the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association slated a veritable death penalty jamboree for its annual dinner and awards ceremony.

"A charged, emotional evening," HCLA incoming president Richard Frankoff promised earlier in the week. It sounded a bit like a criminal justice Super Bowl-watching party, with food for thought and Tony's for the tummy.

Unfortunately organizers neglected to order a big-screen television to monitor the death watch. Certainly the group's speeches about capital punishment would have taken a backseat to the talking heads of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, the Ku Klux Klan, Bianca Jagger and KTRK's hyperfrenetic Wayne Dolcefino.

Bright urged attorneys to volunteer to take more death penalty cases.
Troy Fields
Bright urged attorneys to volunteer to take more death penalty cases.

As it was, new arrivals bore fresh bulletins from the outside world in bits and pieces. It was all stop-and-go. First the Supreme Court delayed the needle, then the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to let the affair go forward. In sports terms, first a rain delay, then a one-run victory margin for the death penalty.

All that was missing was a cameo appearance by Ron Mock, the attorney who belatedly won national fame for his hapless representation of Texas death row inmates. He has also redefined legal terminology. Instead of a staged exercise by law students, Mock Trial now means a court confrontation where the defense attorney cross-examines no one, calls no witnesses and puts his client on the next express shuttle to death row.

Alas, Mock had not been included on the guest list, and he was elsewhere, likely hunkered down in his favorite bar to ride out the heavy weather.

Someone else who couldn't appear was veteran defense attorney Donald Davis, a beloved HCCLA veteran whose suicide earlier in the week added a crosscurrent of grief to what shaped up as a rather conflicted annual get-together.

Several judges and at least one prosecutor were present. "Some lawyers use this organization as a schmoozing ground to buddy up to judges who give appointments," said one HCCLA member. Just then, a man's voice timely intoned, "Honey, I want you to meet the judge!"

"See," hissed our confidant with a knowing nod of the head.

It works the other way as well. During the program, one speaker alluded to the paltry representation of judges at the dinner, calling it "shameful." There were actually a handful of judges there, including bar poll bottom-feeder District Judge Jim Wallace and the last living Democrat jurist in Harris County, appeals Justice Eric Andell. He's running for his life this November, and drew a good laugh from the crowd by describing himself as "extinct because I have no one to mate with." Defrocked judge Jim Barr came with spouse District Judge Jeannine Barr and received a hearty round of applause.

A speaker helpfully suggested that members reward attending judges by contributing to their next fund-raiser. One of the main complaints about the Texas criminal justice system is the incestuous relationship between jurists and court-appointed attorneys who contribute to their campaigns, so this seemed to be self-serving advice at best.

Mike Charlton, Scott Atlas and the Texas Defender Service's Jim Marcus, three Houston attorneys committed to the representation of indigent death row inmates, made stirring appeals to the crowd, which by turns applauded and then continued dinner. There were no wails. The only gnashing of teeth came when biting into Tony's lemon-sauce chicken. About the time the waitstaff began ladling out the decaf java, the hearse carrying the permanently pacified Graham wheeled away from the prison. A dinner organizer scurried around the tables whispering sotto voce to upcoming speakers that Gary had indeed left the building.

The wake-up call finally sounded from Stephen Bright, a ramrod-thin, erudite attorney and educator who directs the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. His successful Supreme Court arguments overturned a death penalty conviction because of racial discrimination. As Bright spoke, the feeling settled over the crowd that something worth defending had died.

"Tonight is an immensely discouraging night and an immensely bad reflection on our legal and political system," declared Bright. "When the history is written of when the United States of America joined the rest of the civilized world and abandoned capital punishment, the case of Gary Graham will feature very prominently in that history."

Bright challenged attorneys to take more death penalty cases pro bono, and to work with the Texas Defender project, the main safety net for death row inmates. It has shouldered that burden after the federal government pulled the plug five years ago on funding for the system of resource centers that served the same purpose.

Bright brought up federal judge David Hittner's reversal of Calvin Burdine's capital murder conviction on the grounds that Burdine attorney Joe Cannon had slept in that Houston trial.

Choking with laughter, Bright paraphrased the appellate argument of the Texas solicitor general: "A sleeping lawyer is no different than a lawyer under the influence of alcohol, a lawyer under the influence of drugs, a lawyer with Alzheimer's disease, or a lawyer having a psychotic break. If that's okay, then it's okay to sleep during a trial."

Governor George W. Bush's high profile as the Republican standard-bearer gives Houston death penalty opponents a rare opportunity, opined Bright. With international attention focused for the next five months on executions, he advised activists to work for reforms, including state legislation to create public-defender systems free from the influence of judges and prosecutors.

After the speech, Bright said he was disappointed by Democratic contender Al Gore's tepid response to the Graham execution. The vice president earlier dodged questions from reporters by saying he had not briefed himself on the details of Graham's case, putting himself in the same category with Mock.

"I think Gore's taking the tack that he's going to let whatever happens [on the death penalty] happen to Bush, and he's not going to be involved in it at all," Bright said. "But I think it's too big an issue, with too many people being killed for it not to be an issue."

On the other hand, Gore could just make like Cannon and sleep through the whole damn thing.

This Old House

When you pose like Harris County Judge Robert Eckels as a poster boy for ethics reform, you better not live in a glass house. Or a teardown, for that matter.

Last September, Eckels and wife Jet went looking for more living space. Rodriguez Investment Company paid $227,000 for their home at 4014 Piping Rock near River Oaks. In the same time frame, the company was bidding and winning a chunk of prime north Montrose land owned by the county and occupied by the Juvenile Probation Department. Eckels voted to ratify that deal when it came before Commissioners Court.

Rodriguez, as it turns out, is also the investment buyer for Stature Construction, owned by Jorge Casimiro, an influential Republican supporter of Eckels and an appointee of Eckels and county commissioners to the Hospital District board. After buying the Eckels home, Rodriguez quickly transferred the title to Stature, which demolished the house and is replacing it with a new house valued at more than $1 million.

Casimiro says the deal is squeaky-clean, and that the judge got no preferential treatment or inflated purchase price. When he learned the house was available, Casimiro offered to buy it. Eckels was interested because he needed a quick sale in order to buy a new home at the Woods of Wimbledon, in the Champions area north of town. Both deals were handled through Southwest Bank of Texas, the depository for county funds.

Like he said regarding a similar chain of connections involving his campaign headquarters on Woodway (see Insider, June 8), Eckels says he did not realize any financial gain by using Casimiro for the sale. He says he was unaware that Rodriguez Investment had a pending purchase of county land and that he would have recused himself from voting on the matter had he known.

Eckels also confesses that since he moved to Woods of Wimbledon (which has no tennis court), commuting times have eaten up the precious early-evening time he used to spend with his daughter Kirby Rae.

Now it can be told: Living on the outskirts of Harris County can be damaging to the family life of its officials.

Don't make the Insider commute long distances for his news items. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.

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