Joe Harris County spends his days in court, keeping score on the trials he watches
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!"
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!"
The prosecution then turned to the crime itself. Hub Mayer, the tall, gravelly-voiced old homicide detective, testified that he had never had dreams about a case, until this one. Usually, at homicide scenes, he had to contend with patrol officers tramping inside, getting a look at the dead body, and what was strange, Mayer remembers, was that when he arrived at 851 Threadneedle, on the afternoon of June 6, 1986, all the patrol officers were outside.
He found two bags of cookies at the door of Apartment 1007, but no sign of forced entry or robbery. It was just "a normal-type apartment," not the cleanest, but "it looked like everything was in its place, except the bodies." Mayer found them in the bedroom, and sat on the edge of the bed in contemplation. In 17 years as a detective, he saw bodies that had been shot, stabbed, even blown apart. But Annette lay nude on the floor with a deep gash across her throat and slashes to her breasts, and also a strange "slippage" to the skin of her face and vagina that police later determined to be the effect of muriatic acid. Mayer had never come across a corpse in such a pose, spread-eagled, as though "for everyone to see," nor before or since has he ever seen a one-year-old with his throat cut. Lifting the covers beside him, he "jumped up" at the view — and soon joined the officers outside.
Investigators immediately began looking for someone who might have been, as Mayer said, "really mad" at Annette Watson. It was said that after their breakup, Steven See had begun appearing at the restaurant where she worked and also outside her apartment. It seemed that his car was spotted in the parking lot around the time of the killing, though no one got the license number. Searching the car days after the crime, investigators found, among other things, a bottle of lithium for the treatment of See's bipolar disorder, and also a serrated diving knife.
Prosecutor Mia Magness was displaying a photo of this knife when Graber, the defense lawyer, rose to object. The jury was then sent out of the room as Graber asked the judge to remove the knife from evidence. Its only relevance, as he understood it, was that a serrated knife had been used in the murders, and here was a serrated knife. "But then," Graber pointed out, "probably the majority of knives are serrated." Judge Stricklin said she assumed the connection of this particular knife to the crime would soon be made clear. When Magness assured her that it was so, Graber could not be heard to ask what that connection might be, and so Stricklin quickly overruled his objection and allowed the knife.
In the stands, Joe Harris County again whispered affection for this judge and contempt for the defense. "DeGuerin would have had that shit thrown out from the start," said he. "But this guy was court-appointed. He's not forceful enough." And besides, Joe pointed out, Graber hadn't objected to the knife until the jury had already heard about it. "You can't make them forget, can you?"
Much was made of that knife. After the jury filed back in, Magness held the darkly stained, wicked-looking instrument before them, and the judge signaled the bailiff to move closer to See, lest he attempt to reclaim his old possession. James Kay, a retired crime scene investigator, then testified that the knife was "definitely sharp enough to cut human flesh." He also granted that the stains had been caused only by fingerprint powder, that no trace of blood had ever been found upon it. He had spotted only a small piece of hair, which, under questioning from Graber, he admitted could not be linked to the crime.
The knife nonetheless remained in evidence, with no more objections from Graber, and over the coming weeks, the prosecution planned to present "other circumstantial things," prosecutor Denise Bradley told me, such as the photographs of the scratches upon See's arm that looked as though caused by fingernails digging in. None of this had ever been enough to charge See. What had changed in the case was the emergence of a new witness. Over the years, See had engaged in a pattern of "stalking and assaultive behavior toward other women," Bradley said, and when he began having trouble with a particular girlfriend, she had come forth to say he had spoken to her about the murders.
Graber would insist that the new witness was not credible, but it seemed as impossible after the first day of the trial to believe in See's innocence as it was to know his guilt, beyond the shadow of a doubt. See sat through it with his head down, staring at a legal pad, his right hand poised to write but rarely moving. Among those already prepared to convict him was Joe Harris County, who admitted he had gotten "tired of watching these criminals on television get away with every damn thing," and said that "once in a while, it does my heart some good to see them sent away to death or whatever."
Picking up his cane, hobbling out of the courtroom, Joe leaned down in the hallway to tell the mother of the dead that "it's going great for you. It couldn't be better for you!" he said. "They're hanging him with a long rope in there. They're hanging him slowly!"
For the first time that day, Maria Watson smiled and even cackled. "Ha!" she said. "He's got a way with words, don't he?"
Postscript: On the fifth day of trial, Steven See pled guilty to the murders of Annette Watson and Austin Timmerman, in exchange for a sentence of 50 years in prison. Joe Harris County by then had been thrown out of court.
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