Joe Harris County spends his days in court, keeping score on the trials he watches

Court Watcher

The courtrooms on the 20th floor of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center are larger than others in the building, and so, in an effort to accommodate spectators, the more sensational cases are usually tried there.

On the morning of the fourth Monday in June, Project Court #1 was occupied by the mother of the victim and by the mother of the accused, who sat apart, as though for a wedding; by a lot of young people dressed in different shades of black, who turned out to be prosecutors in training; and, on the far right, by an old man leaning on a cane and wearing a cap from some invitational fishing tournament. The man had a large, bulbous nose and eyebrows that rose and fell as he spoke. When I asked his name, he would only say, in a voice too loud, "Joe Harris County. I'm a citizen and a person who watches trials. Sure — I've watched a lot of trials. Sure — hundreds!"

For Joe Harris County, the best cases have the most gore.
Scott Gilbert
For Joe Harris County, the best cases have the most gore.

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He explained that he had been watching trials for about five years and that, typically, he has a few drinks before coming out. "Makes it more enjoyable," he said. He used to come out five days a week until the booze got out of control. As much respect as he has for a court of law, he began to worry then about contempt charges, and so Joe Harris County comes out now only for the very best cases, which, as a retired "mortuary science" worker, he seems to gauge mainly by the gore.

The trial getting underway that day, "State of Texas vs. Steven See," concerned a crime more brutal than anything he'd seen. In 1986, a 19-year-old waitress and her one-year-old son had been found dead in a west Houston apartment. The only suspect had been a former boyfriend — a pool cleaner named Steven See — but it had taken 22 years to get him into this room. Now the accused villain sat there, bald and portly in an immaculate dark suit, scarcely distinguishable from his lawyers.

Assessing the players, Joe Harris County saw with satisfaction that "three experienced DAs" would be representing the interests of the dead and that the case would be overseen by the Honorable Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, whom Joe considered "a pretty good judge." If the lawyers for the defense seemed no better than "middle-of-the-road" ("they're all right, but they're not [Houston attorney Dick] DeGuerin"), this suited Joe Harris County just fine. Such lawyers would keep it interesting without actually prevailing, Joe said, and with this knowledge, he settled in to watch "who can pin the tail on the donkey, and which donkey can move his ass and keep from getting pinned."

The first work of the first day was to establish that a long time ago, the victims had lived on this earth and been loved. 

For this purpose, prosecutor Lance Long called to the stand Maria Watson, a retired legal secretary who under questioning revealed that she had lived in many places during her life and had borne four children by three husbands. Annette Watson had been her second child, "a very smart, very independent" girl who had moved out as a teenager and gotten pregnant at the age of 17. She came to love her own son, Austin Lee Timmerman, "to pieces," and Maria Watson last saw them together in April 1986, when Annette came to visit her in Dallas with a new boyfriend. Steven See was constantly photographing Annette and her son, Maria Watson remembers, and even then, Annette seemed annoyed by him. She also seemed afraid, her mother recalls now, for See had "a lot of muscles" then. "It would have been very difficult to overpower him."

This was the only time that Maria Watson met Steven See, she told the defense attorney, Jerald Graber. Afterward, Annette called "and said she had broken up with him, and then she was dead." Graber wanted to know whether Maria Watson happened to notice how attentive and caring the accused killer was toward Annette and her child? "I did notice the bruises on [the child's] body," she replied, which caused Graber to become hostile. "Did I ask you that?" he demanded. "I asked you if See seemed attentive and caring." But no, he did not, the victim's mother insisted, and to Graber's further questions, she answered that no, she did not tell police that he had been. No, she had never done that, even if police had written it in their reports.

Joe Harris County, in his seat, relished this exchange: "She was the perfect witness!" he declared. "Here's a sweet little lady, the grieving mother, and that lawyer should have let her off the stand, but he was so determined to get his little shitass point across. He kept coming at her, and she kept knocking him back. You saw it — pow! He was stupid, and she knocked him out in the first round."

Joe afterward began referring to the defense as "the worm brothers," while during the lunch break, loudly complimenting the prosecution on their suits: "Hey, matching blue — I like that!"

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