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."
Settle into the wrought-iron chairs. They are spread on the grounds at the base of the seven-story, girder-crossed mural painted by Suzanne Sellers on the adjacent Houston Club Building. And savor this new oasis of what used to be nothing more than an unsightly few asphalt parking spaces wedged between forgettable urban barriers. There's elegance to be had in the basics here: a line of leafy cedar buffers from the sidewalk, four raised planters sprouting with shade trees and deep purple flowerbeds. Add to that the sound: water softly cascading down a polished stone fountain. Thankfully, one thing won't be heard here -- all the swaggering civic titans touting the next grand megabuck schemes to capture "world-class" acclaim for Houston. While the local politicians and entrepreneurs indulge in their collective fantasies (and let the city's infrastructure go to hell in the process), JP Morgan Chase Bank took a delightful down-to-earth approach. Since its opening last June, this small patch of central city has been transformed into a classy cosmopolitan respite. While boosters endlessly dash after elusive dreams of international envy, foreign travelers would welcome this simple, peaceful place of beauty in the most scenic sections of Paris or Rome. Chase Bank Park proves that "world class" doesn't have to mean big or bold or even billion-dollar budget.

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.

Ted Callaway is the kind of landlord who leaves flowers in the apartment on move-in day and drops off a bottle of wine for your housewarming party. But that's not why we're naming him Best Landlord. He gets the honor for the buildings he has bought and preserved: ramshackle old Victorians and beautiful brick retail centers from the 1920s. He'd probably make more money off his properties if he tore down the existing structures to make way for parking lots and town homes, but Callaway wouldn't dream of it. As developers try to turn Midtown into a faux French Quarter in the form of Calais at Cortlandt Square, Callaway is preserving the real history of the neighborhood.
When it comes to drinking, we prefer to imbibe free of industrial dance beats and blinding strobes. Of course, we don't mind the beautiful people who tend to gather at those high-tech nightclubs. That's the great thing about Grasshopper/Red Lights: Downstairs, you can sit at the Grasshopper's long, curved, glass-top bar, gulp down one of its funky cocktails and watch the parade of finely accessorized flesh march upstairs to the faux Victorian parlor known as Red Lights, an opulent discotheque where they spin the usual rhythmic pleasures underneath a lighting system designed by NASA or something like that. The bartenders on the first floor are courteous and accommodating; the folks upstairs do them one better: They're also discreet, as they serve customers in one of the handful of private rooms that you can rent for $75 and up. Downtown's latest playpen is housed in a former jewelry store, which may explain why you have the overwhelming desire to propose to half the people who walk through the door.

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.

Critic Ann Holmes once called Jones Plaza the single most hostile block in Houston. It was stark and forbidding, built so high off the street that passersby couldn't see its top. It sat essentially unused except for events like Party on the Plaza. That's all changing now. Architect Mark Wamble, formerly of Bricker & Cannady, and his team have created a much more inviting public space for downtown. The lowered plaza will have a grand entrance ramp next to a waterfall and a bamboo grove. Five canopied steel pergolas flanking the plaza will be covered with vines to provide shaded seating below. Corner gardens will feature Mexican sycamores with leaves that actually change color in the fall. The stage will have state-of-the-art sound and light equipment, and the bathrooms will include air-conditioning and attendants. All for the relatively inexpensive cost to the city of around $6 million. The Jones Plaza renovation is scheduled for completion in October.

There was a time several decades ago when Houstonians bore their city's brute industrialism with pride rather than shame. We bragged about the black gold we refined. On the stench of this process, we just told sneering outsiders, "That's the smell of money, buddy." Those days are long gone, as the forlorn observation deck at the highest navigable point on the Houston Ship Channel attests. No more do we take our children to watch the action on the wharves, as the massive cranes unload the produce of America's breadbasket onto freighters destined for God knows where. Seven out of ten westside Houstonians, to hazard a wild guess, probably couldn't even find the headwaters of that bayou-on-'roids we call the Ship Channel without navigational aids, and that's a pity. As conventionally unpretty as it is, since 1914 it's been the very soul of our city, and it's so ugly it takes on a kind of fearsome beauty all its own.
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.

Dating is like ordering tapas: You try a whole bunch of different things and you hope you get something you like that agrees with you and doesn't make you sick. Mi Luna is a fun "first date" -- it's like a fancy mall food court, because you each can get whatever you want, from baby clams and poached salmon to stuffed zucchini and veal tongue. (We recommend the B'Stilla, a Moroccan chicken pie with cinnamon almonds wrapped in crisp phyllo dough. It sounds like a bad idea, but you'll like it.) You can tell a lot about someone from what they order. Do you want to date a guy who gets a bowl of goat cheese and mushrooms as his main meal? What about a girl who eats oxtail? Can you kiss her goodnight? If you decide that you can't, Mi Luna is located smack in the middle of Rice Village, right next to Urban Outfitters. If you hate your date, you can go shop away the irritation, pick up a novel at Half Price Books and head home. Or if you're feeling brave, walk a block to The Ginger Man and meet a new person. Maybe he or she will be that special someone who orders something you want to share.

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