William Lee Hon
I’m writing this President’s Column on May 24, 2012. It just occurred to me that 10 years ago, I was right in the middle of what will probably be the defining case of my career as a prosecutor.
From April 1 to July 3, 2002, I helped prosecute the third capital murder trial of Johnny Paul Penry—probably the most notable case to ever come out of Polk County. My co-counsel on that case was Joe Price. At the time, Joe was serving as the District Attorney of the 258th Judicial District. At the time of the 1979 murder, Polk County was included in that district. By 2002, the district included only Trinity County, which borders Polk to the northwest.
Joe Price was my friend. He was tragically killed in a car wreck on February 21, 2003—less than a year after the jury returned its verdict in Penry III. To this day, Joe remains one of the most profound influences on my career as a prosecutor. The memories I have of working with him on that case remain just as vivid as if we were in court yesterday. As it’s been 10 years since the trial, I thought this might be a good time to write a tribute to Joe Price.
For those of you who didn’t know Joe, he was kind of a wiry little guy. He was probably around 5-foot-5 and might have weighed 150 pounds. In earlier lives, he had been a rodeo cowboy and the owner of the legendary Rising Sun dancehall just outside of Trinity. I still chuckle remembering the story Joe told about the time he recovered a rather sizeable appearance fee he paid to country music star George Jones after George got drunk and lost to Joe in a poker game.
I suspect several members of our association would agree with me when I say that Joe had the personality of a pit bull on steroids. He certainly had that demeanor in court. He lived large. He had been twice married—and divorced. And I think he had pretty much settled into the lifestyle of a confirmed bachelor during the latter years of his life. And for someone who hailed from such a small, rural, East Texas county, Joe enjoyed the finer things in life. He dated beautiful younger women. He enjoyed nice restaurants and expensive liquor. He had a sports car and a tanning bed. He had one of the coolest Schnauzers I’ve ever met—named Bubba. And I’m pretty sure his favorite entertainer was Cher, of all people.
His office in Groveton was a one-man show. He had one loyal investigator, Ronnie Dunnahoe, and the lifeblood of his office, secretary Deana Bell. Joe wasn’t under the Professional Prosecutor’s Act so he got to have a private practice on the side. He did extremely well for himself financially in his civil practice.
We tried Penry III on a change of venue to Montgomery County. We lived in a Conroe hotel for about four months during the trial proceedings. We had about 20 banker’s boxes with our file materials that my investigator and I had to lug back and forth from the hotel to court on a daily basis. We spent many a late night brainstorming, interviewing witnesses, going over records, and getting ready for the next day. Joe’s motto was, “The more you sweat in preparation, the less you’ll bleed in battle.” Getting Joe ready for court in the morning was another matter. The time it took for him to get his hair fixed just right and become immaculately dressed became a running joke. We finally stopped waiting on him and made him take his own car to the Montgomery County Courthouse.
To give you a sense of how tenacious Joe was in the courtroom, I recall one instance which happened in the middle of Penry’s two-week competency trial. We had to get competency out of the way before we started the trial on the merits. The defense had called a psychologist during its case-in-chief, and Joe had already worked her over pretty good on cross-examination. We were continually doing opposition research on the defense experts throughout the trial proceedings. After this particular expert testified and while we were presenting our own case-in-chief, one of our own experts brought to our attention some pretty damning impeachment evidence concerning the aforementioned defense expert. When it came time for the defense to present its rebuttal witnesses, the judge invited the attorneys into her chambers to get a sense of how many more witnesses might be called. When the defense attorney mentioned that they were considering recalling the expert in question, Joe put our cards on the table and told them, “Here’s what we’ve got. It’s your decision as to whether you want to put her back on the stand but if you do, I’m going to cut her throat on cross-examination and you’ll get to watch her bleed out all over the courtroom.”
They didn’t call her.
Joe was a master at the art of cross-examination. I think his country background and demeanor really disarmed a lot of very sophisticated expert witnesses. By 2002, he had been involved in the Penry prosecution for 23 years. He knew the record and exhibits like the back of his hand. I think he had a photographic memory when it came to all of the documentation of Penry’s mental health history. He was well-versed in psychological terminology and could find his way around the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders with ease. If the testifying defense expert had not thoroughly prepared by reviewing every single piece of paper ever written about Johnny Paul Penry, he or she was in big trouble. Joe knew the case far better than any defense expert ever could, and it showed. Joe had actually come to the crime scene on the day of the murder. He told investigators which photos he wanted taken and from which angle. His knowledge of every significant (and insignificant) detail of that case was unbelievable.
I usually enjoy trying cases by myself. Maybe it’s a control thing or just how my personality works. Joe was the same way. In Penry III, however, there were just way too many witnesses and too much information for one prosecutor to manage by himself. If memory serves, there were more than 20 experts who testified throughout the entirety of the proceedings. Joe and I worked very well together, but I still laugh about how many sticky notes we must have gone through during that trial. When one of us was handling the witness on the stand, it was impossible for the other to sit still without passing notes saying, “You need to ask this” or “Ask the witness about that.” I suppose in some cases it might be difficult for two Type-A personalities to sit at the same counsel table for three months, but it really did work well for us in that trial.
I noted earlier how culturally refined Joe was for a country prosecutor. I remember one Friday night during the trial when we didn’t get to go home because we had expert witnesses to meet with over the weekend. That night Joe took me and my investigator out to eat at a really nice seafood restaurant down in The Woodlands. After a fine meal and dessert, Joe mentioned on the way back to the hotel that he had a bottle of Middleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey that he wanted to share with us—on one condition: that we were not going drink fine whiskey out of plastic hotel cups. To The Mall of the Woodlands we went in search of old-fashioned crystal drinking glasses. After finding a set, we lounged in Joe’s hotel suite and enjoyed some of the finest and smoothest whiskey I’ve ever consumed. It was going for about $118 a bottle at that time.
Joe Price was about six months shy of his 60th birthday at the time of his death. He was serving on the TDCAA Board of Directors. While in law school at Baylor, he received the Phi Delta Phi outstanding freshman award in 1968. During his career as a prosecutor, he obtained death sentences against three different defendants. If you count the three competency trials Penry had, Joe actually tried Penry six times, and he won each time. He was recognized twice by the Association of Government Attorneys in Capital Litigation (AGACL) for his work on the Penry case. He testified multiple times in legislative committee hearings on matters related to the death penalty. He was an avid supporter of Kalin’s House Child Advocacy Center and multiple other benevolent causes in Trinity County. He served as District Attorney for the 258th Judicial District from 1977 until his death. He never had an opponent for re-election.
For a little guy, he certainly left some mighty big footprints. I know a lot of people still miss him very much. I certainly do.