Texas has the nation's busiest executioner's chamber, and Harris County sends more convicted murderers to Huntsville's gurney than any other. Fighting this state-sanctioned killing machine are a handful of idealistic lawyers and the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of legal representation afforded to poor Texans charged with a capital crime or sentenced to death. The Defender Service became the main safety net for indigent inmates seven years ago after the federal government pulled the plug on funding for a system of legal resource centers that served the same purpose. In addition to representing defendants, the group, headed by University of Houston Law Center graduate Jim Marcus, churns out studies documenting how innocent people are being pulled into capital punishment's widening maw. "We are running full tilt at the edge of a cliff, the execution of the innocent," concludes a recent survey titled "Lethal Indifference." The study also notes that although two out of three capital cases nationwide are overturned for error, since 1995 the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals has reversed only eight of 270 decisions, the lowest reversal rate in the nation. That's about as underdog as it gets.

Nobody was surprised when former assistant district attorney Caprice Cosper ran for, and narrowly won, her court bench in 1992. But the dynamo from Louisiana has surprised most of the courthouse crowd since then. Cosper has a charming way of never taking herself too seriously -- while taking her job very seriously. Her knowledge of the law was honed by experience in the D.A.'s appellate division, and her dedication is obvious in the way she's championed the novel drug courts that target rehabilitation rather than revolving-door incarceration for addicts.

In 1988, voters narrowly elected a former tax master named Mark Davidson to the bench. And the rest is history -- years, decades, even centuries of it, as Davidson continues his studies of the rich legacy of law and justice in Harris County. Of course, Davidson has more than earned his robe in the regular work of ruling on civil cases through the years. But his dedication to the courts, and county, really comes alive in his never-ending fascination with the foundations of law in Houston. In this era of ever-changing judges and utter lack of regard for the past, it's more than a little refreshing to see that kind of reverence for what was. As for his standing among his peers, Davidson was elected chief administrative judge for the county -- the historian becoming part of the rich heritage he treasures.

Waiting at a red light, a Press editor hears honking coming from a truck in the next lane. The news type looks over and sees the face of the prosecutor he'd written about only days earlier. Kelly Siegler leans out her window and grins. "Pull over," she says. "Pull over and I'll kick your ass."

"Didn't you like the story?" he asks.

"Yes," she says, laughing. "Now pull over and I'll kick your ass."

At least he can leave when the light changes -- death row is the typical destination for most of Siegler's targets. In 16 years the diminutive assistant district attorney has become the most feared opponent of even the finest of the defense bar. She dominates the courtroom with a presence that defies anyone -- lawyers, witnesses, judges, jurors -- to challenge her. With equal parts moral outrage, all-encompassing trial preparation and plain-talking sensibility, she sways the toughest of critics. She credits her success to her childhood spent in her daddy's barbershop -- he was a justice of the peace in tiny Blessing -- as he conducted court with the regulars. With that mudflats bond to the common folk, this Mensan has mastered the not-so-simple art of motivating 12 citizens to decide to kill a defendant. When Siegler says she'll kick your ass, you better believe it.

Joe Jamail is an attorney with ethics. Former Texas attorney general Dan Morales tried to lure the Houston civil icon into a scheme involving the most lucrative of cases, a suit against tobacco companies. But Jamail blew the whistle when Morales attempted to shake him and others down for $1 million. Now Morales is heading off to prison, a vindication of sorts for Jamail's virtue. While legions of greedy upstart lawyers try to lay claim to Jamail's long-standing title of the "king of torts," they'd do better to take a lesson from this brash and brilliant attorney. Jamail's made his many millions, but he's done it with immense compassion for those who need his help most: the little as well as big guys. There may be another tort king some day, but there'll never be another Joe Jamail.
Maybe we're being a little optimistic -- as of this writing, new columnist Rick Casey has not yet filed a story for the Houston Chronicle. But hey, who's his competition? Leon Hale and Thom Marshall? Seriously, though, if you've read Casey in the San Antonio Express-News, you know that his unique feel for the pulse of the city coupled with his ability to turn a clever phrase makes for lively reading. Will he be able to get to the heart of Houston? And will he continue the city government coverage that's made him famous in S.A.? We're keeping our fingers crossed.

Sure, he's a Republican, an Oklahoman and a Sooners and Cowboys fan, but in spite of all that we are drawn to Kevin Whited's weblog almost daily. Maybe it's the fact that he has a lot to say about Texas country music and is not shy about expressing what he thinks. Neither does he back away from commentary on the local media. And it probably doesn't hurt that he often -- though certainly not always -- compares that daily rag he calls the Comical to the Press most unfavorably. Maybe it's his trenchant views on the Astros that keep him in our bookmarks. Whatever it is, we return to his site more than any other.

Ever since Tropical Storm Allison, many Houstonians have found themselves a lot more interested in severe weather than they used to be. Houston weather has always been about extremes, of course, but when one of those extremes causes $5 billion in damage, people start to pay attention. TV stations know this and flog a threatening-weather situation for every last viewer they can scare into watching; tropical depressions anywhere in the western hemisphere always seem to have potential projections taking them right up the Ship Channel. So a voice of reason and sanity is well appreciated, and Channel 2's Frank Billingsley provides it. He won't hype a storm that doesn't deserve it, but he'll let you know when you should be concerned. And when a severe storm hits, he's more willing than most to say when the worst is about to be over, as opposed to telling folks to "stay tuned" to see just how long this thing will last.
Currently syndicated on ten stations across Texas, Tom Tynan began broadcasting the Home Improvement Hotline on KTRH in 1987. Kind of like Car Talk for home owners, Hotline tackles listeners' queries on a myriad of subjects. From plumbing problems to structural questions to energy efficiency issues, it's likely Tom will have a quick, thorough answer for you. He has a degree in architecture from the University of Miami, and is the owner and president of the Galveston-based Tynan Construction Inc. He's written or contributed to six books, and he publishes a bimonthly home improvement newsletter called The Right Angle. Whether you've got a trailer in Lubbock or a condo in Houston, Tom can help you get that sucker shipshape. Listen every Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. till noon.

Every weekday at 4:20 p.m., Houston's listener-sponsored community radio station KPFT gives you some news you can use. Dean Becker wants his pot-smokin' buddies to stay out of jail, and to do that they have to be informed. Becker monitors the drug war like Fox News monitors the war on terrorism, and he isn't afraid to call a spade a spade. In his eyes, the war on drugs is a failure and should be stopped immediately. And he's got no problem getting folks to co-sign that notion. Some of the nation's "highest"-ranking hemp activists have appeared on his show, including former Dallas Cowboy and president of Texas NORML Mark Stepnoski.

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