After Oprah

The audience of The Oprah Winfrey Show was incredulous. Barbara Davis was telling them about the judge who had just let her husband's killer out of jail -- and she was defending him.

Winfrey explained the background: Michael Hubacek Jr., 18, had slammed into the Davis family's minivan on the eve of Thanksgiving, 1996. The crash virtually bisected the van, killing Davis's husband and their nanny. It almost killed Davis, too, who was catapulted across four lanes of traffic.

Police estimated Hubacek had been driving his Mustang Cobra convertible nearly 100 miles per hour on Westheimer. He'd stashed a half-empty bottle of Stolichnaya in the backseat, along with two emptied Miller Lites and a bottle of Bacardi. Hubacek said he'd had only two beers, but his blood alcohol content was twice the legal limit. Experts say that's more like 11 beers, in two hours.

Hubacek pleaded no contest to intoxicated manslaughter the following May and was sentenced to ten years in prison. But after six months in jail, state District Judge Ted Poe granted Hubacek shock probation.

Even then, Poe was famous for his shame-based "creative sentences." He claimed they helped to rehabilitate offenders -- and they didn't hurt Poe in getting media coverage, either. The punishments made for great TV: A teenager who stole a Nintendo game was forced to ring bells for the Salvation Army. The guy who stole pistols from actor Clayton Moore, famous as TV's Lone Ranger, spent 600 hours cleaning the Houston Police Department stables.

Hubacek's probation terms were classic Poe: four months at boot camp. He had to keep the victims' pictures in his wallet and speak to students about the dangers of drunken driving. Poe also ordered him to carry a sign telling people what he'd done. And Hubacek would do no driving for ten years.

The idea, Poe told Winfrey during the December 1997 show, was to get Hubacek to show remorse. The Hubaceks seemed to blame everyone but themselves: The boy's mother said in her deposition that she thought the wreck was Davis's fault. After all, she'd been eating french fries as she drove. Gina Davis, who was 13 when her father was killed, recalls that when Michael Hubacek finally sent the family a letter of apology, it referred to "Richard Davis." Her father's name was Steven.

Winfrey had introduced Poe as a judge who was "trying to make a difference." Poe, dapper in a navy suit and striped tie, smiled. But, Winfrey added, "many people feel six months is not enough time to serve for taking two lives."

The audience agreed. "If this was my father who was killed, I'd be furious," one woman said. "I hate to think that Texas would even allow this!"

But Davis leaped to Poe's defense. A petite five feet, with serious dark eyes, she explained that she'd originally wanted Hubacek to do a full year in prison, to be forced to spend Thanksgiving without his family.

"I lost my best friend for 22 years," she said. "I cry every day. But I want his life and death to have some purpose…And this will have more impact on other youth." Also important, she explained, were the terms: "A big one was him not being allowed to drive for the full ten years."

One woman asked who would see that Hubacek lived up to the agreement. Poe said his court would. Another asked if Poe had been merciful just because Hubacek was young.

"It depends on the facts of the case," Poe said. "It depends on the input from the victim. In this case, unlike many other cases across the country, I got input from the victim's family." He would make the point about "victim's input" three times more before the show ended.

But that "input" would quickly fade.

Four years later, Davis was at a bridal shower when another guest casually voiced her surprise -- Hubacek was driving again. Davis hadn't known that.

She was shocked. "It was like somebody stabbed me in the back," she says.

In time, she learned the details.

In January 2000, Hubacek asked Poe to amend his probation. He wanted permission to drive to work. (According to court records, he was working at his dad's business, just two miles from his home.) He also wanted to drive to community college and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Poe never even contacted Davis.

He just said yes.

Three years after that, Hubacek asked Poe to let him remove the interlock device that prevented him from driving after drinking. He also asked to be allowed to travel outside Texas. If that was too much freedom, Hubacek suggested an alternative: permission to visit in-laws in Mississippi for one week.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske