River Oaks accountant Bob Martin may make his living balancing other folks' books and tax accounts, but he has the soul of a reporter, albeit a conservative one. He hangs around KSEV radio and maintains a wide circle of media pals. He also may be the only person in Houston who has developed a time schedule to record all local TV news broadcasts every evening. Martin makes regular appearances on KHOU as a talking head on accounting themes, and feeds reporters a weekly stream of suggestions for stories. In the current mayoral cycle Martin is backing Michael Berry, and is not shy about recommending media strategy to the first-term councilman.

Veteran land broker and appraiser Tom Bazan first got involved in the municipal arena when he launched a lead paint detection business and fought city contractors who were all too eager to ram through deals without completing proper inspections. From there he ventured onto Houston's transit battlefield -- first producing a Web site that urged the recall of city appointees to the Metro Transit Authority Board, and then e-mailing a sometimes daily antirail bulletin to a list of government officials (mostly Republicans) and media members. He was among the first to call attention to Metro's growing financial problems resulting from slumping sales tax receipts. While some folks have complained about receiving his unauthorized e-mails, Bazan claims innocence, noting that some of his willing recipients often forward the messages on to others. It just goes to show how one man's spam is another's exercise in free speech.

When the Colombia-born Clara Suarez Harris ran her luxury car over husband David at the Nassau Bay Hilton last summer, she stepped from an innocuous life as one-half of a prosperous dentist couple with young twin boys into national tabloid legend as "The Mercedes-Benz Murderess." Although videotapes were never too clear on exactly how many times Clara rolled the Mercedes over David, the jury never bought her claims that it was all a big accident and she was really trying to smash her car into the vehicle of David's mistress, Gail Bridges. The panel did find she acted in "sudden passion," which translated to a maximum 20-year sentence with at least ten years to be served without possibility of parole. If fellow best baddie Andy Fastow has given his Southampton neighborhood unlikely infamy, Clara has joined bathwater baby killer Andrea Yates in the burgeoning category of "Madwomen of Clear Lake."
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.

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