The Last Word

Last week's decision by state District Judge Bill Harmon to allow a murdered child's father to verbally lash out at his daughter's killer after he was sentenced to death is not the first time the judge has been accused of a bonehead move by prosecutors, defense attorneys and fellow jurists -- in this instance, a bonehead move that may well cost Harris County taxpayers more money.

"Don't you mean Judge Roy Bean Incarnate?" attorney Phillip Scardino said when asked about his recollections of the November 1992 trial in which Scardino defended Carl Buntion. Buntion was eventually convicted of killing Houston police officer James Irby.

According to Scardino, Harmon had moved the Buntion trial to the Hill Country town of Fredericksburg on a change of venue. During the proceedings, Scardino says, Harmon received news that Senator Phil Gramm (to whom Scardino sarcastically refers as "another great statesman, just like Harmon") was coming to the small community.

"The sheriff came in," remembers Scardino. "There was no jury in the box because we were on a break, and [the sheriff] said, "Who wants to ride in the police car over to the Gillespie County Airport to pick up Senator Phil Gramm?"

"Then there were some comments about Phil Gramm, to which Judge Harmon stood up from the bench and replied, "I am going to go pick up Senator Gramm and tell him that we've been in here doing God's work, and to see that this man [Buntion] gets executed." He said it in front of the defendant, the district attorney, myself, and all the court personnel. And then he later said, 'Oh, just kidding!'"

Scardino adds that during jury selection, Harmon stuck a postcard of Judge Roy Bean on his bench.

"I don't recall if any of the jurors ever saw the Judge Roy Bean postcard, but it was kind of an improper thing to do," says the lawyer.

Scardino's peers apparently agreed, because Harmon was later publicly reprimanded by the State Bar of Texas for his antics in connection with the Buntion trial -- a trial in which Scardino believes the judge created ample grounds for appeal for a second trial, and may accordingly have wasted about $500,000 in tax money.

"When the Buntion case gets reversed [a potential outcome feared by both police and prosecutors], [Harmon] will have spent about a half-million dollars of the county's money for nothing," Scardino charges.

"This guy's [Buntion] a cop-killer. Harmon takes the trial out of town. Takes it to Fredericksburg. Screws it up on a case that should have been a lay-down."

Harmon's hard-headedness has also cost the county extra money in the most recent case in his court. Following the arrests of the five young suspects in the rape and murder of 14-year-old Jennifer Ertman and 16-year-old Elizabeth Pena, it was suggested that the defendants be tried together but with separate juries, thereby saving the county a nice chunk of change. All the judges involved in the proceedings apparently agreed -- all, that is, except Harmon, who insisted on a separate trial for 19-year-old defendant Peter Cantu (who was sentenced to death last week).

"It would have saved the county a ton of dough," says Scardino. "They would all get their day in court. And then, once the evidence was presented, then each jury would go and deliberate separately. That way, the families of the victims would not have to go through it multiple times. Well, the only judge that wouldn't do it is Judge Harmon."

Harmon himself could not be reached for comment. But defense attorney Will Gray, who this summer will represent one of the four other youths charged with capital murder in the case, disagrees with Scardino about the advantages of an all-inclusive trial.

"It would have been nonsense to have a separate jury for each defendant," reasons Gray. "It would have been a circus for one thing. And it shouldn't be cheap to kill a man or woman. Shouldn't have cut-rates for executions."

However, like many other attorneys, Gray is outraged that Harmon allowed Jennifer Ertman's father, Randy, to vent his outrage at her convicted killer in the courtroom following the sentencing of Cantu. Rob Morrow, Cantu's attorney, agrees.

"We're all supposed to follow the same rules when we're in the courtroom out of respect for the system, the process, the Constitution," says Morrow. "I can't act that way. The prosecutor can't act that way. The witness can't act that way. So, how come he gets to act that way?

"I understand that the calls that people have gotten down at the courthouse have been real positive for the victim's side," continues Morrow. "And there should be a system where that sort of thing can take place, because apparently it is very helpful in terms of [the family] dealing with the grief and the loss. And I think that's great, but it shouldn't happen in the courtroom."

According to Pam Lynchner, with the victims rights group Justice For All, it was Harmon who approached the families of Ertman and Pena about addressing Cantu. Only Randy Ertman took Harmon up on his offer. Lynchner says the grieving father is glad that he did.

"It did make him feel better," says Lynchner. "He had that urge. He had that right. He did feel better after the fact. Of course, nothing is ever going to make his pain go away. But he will always know that he did that. He will never have the regret of not doing it."

However, it may be prosecutors -- not to mention Harris County taxpayers -- who eventually will regret Harmon's decision the most. Not only did the judge allow Ertman to speak his mind, the judge also let television and newspaper photographers into the courtroom to capture the emotional (and sensational) moment. It was then splashed on the front page of both local dailies and was the lead story on the ten o'clock television news.

All that publicity could enhance a possible change-of-venue argument by attorneys for the four other defendants. A change of venue would make the prosecutors' jobs harder -- and cost considerably more money to try.


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