Lethal Legacy

Yates isn't dying to prove the equity of Harris County executions

Michelle Oberman, a law professor at DePaul University and author of Mothers Who Kill Their Children, followed the Yates trial closely. "I think judges and juries are being harsher," she says. "What we see is a need to demonize the woman, as with Yates, to make her seem less human, so we can feel safer."

But the ACLU's Lamoreaux is quicker to blame state laws and aggressive Harris County prosecutors. "It's not the jury; once they are impaneled, they have to follow the law." She notes that the D.A. has complete discretion on whether to file capital charges. "You know why Dallas County doesn't pursue those cases? It's the money," she says. "In Texas, they're even more expensive because of our voir dire," or jury selection process.

Jury selection takes significantly longer in capital cases, because the state requires that prospective jurors be questioned individually rather than in groups. While that adds enormously to the expenses of trying a case, it also makes for juries that are more prosecution-oriented. That's because jurors must swear that they are able to return a death penalty verdict if they feel it is warranted -- opponents of capital punishment are stricken from juries.

Lamoreaux says other Texas counties could take advantage of such juries and gain more death sentences, but only Harris County chooses to do that.

The ACLU attorney also contends that the court-appointed-attorney system contributes to the capital conviction rate. "It's really because we don't have a public defender system," Lamoreaux says. "Frankly, judges don't look kindly on appointed attorneys who aggressively defend these cases." She argues that if Yates attorney George Parnham had been appointed to the case, he would never get another appointment again. "I mean, all that money on expert witnesses and a three-week trial?"

However, Parnham was originally appointed to represent Linda Carty. He got out of that case to defend Yates.

District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal inherited the hard-line capital murder approach from his predecessor of 21 years, Johnny Holmes. Rosenthal, a prosecutor for 26 years, campaigned on continuing Holmes's legacy -- and is not impressed by all the hoopla over the death penalty stats. Nor is he taken aback by the number of women his office is sending to death row.

"I'm hardly surprised by anything anymore," Rosenthal says. "I just wish Harris County citizens would quit killing each other."

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