September-October 2013

Remembering Erwin “Ernie” Ernst

Carol Vance

Former District Attorney in Harris County

If you were to poll the prosecutors in the Harris County District Attorney’s office from the late ’50s through the ’70s, no doubt they would vote Erwin Ernst the most unforgettable character.

    Erwin “Ernie” Goree Ernst was of “the greatest generation.” He began his adulthood enlisting in the Army Air Force shortly after Pearl Harbor. He was 17 at the time. He claimed his only promotion was to PFC. He was part of the crew flying freight over the Pacific. Following the war the G.I. Bill put him through undergrad and law school.

    He begin his career as an assistant DA in West Texas and later was recruited to try felonies in the Harris County office where he moved up the ranks, including Chief Prosecutor, and was named the first Chief of the Trial Division with perhaps 100 lawyers under him.

    During his years in Harris County, Ernst prosecuted some notorious crimes including the murder case that was the subject of Tommy Thompson’s best-seller, Blood and Money. This book was the story of the death of Joan Hill followed up with the assassination of her husband, Dr. John Hill. Author Thompson nailed Ernst when he wrote:

“Ernst was a romantic, stocky, loquacious, philosophical lawyer with a voice from the cracker barrel. He was on intimate terms with Roman poets and Greek philosophers. He had prosecuted hundreds of murderers sending some to the chair. He was a practical joker and favorite of the courthouse on whom anecdotes hung around his neck like ornaments from a Christmas tree.”
I think Tommy could have added that Ernst was a cross between Jonathan Winters and Will Rogers.

     Ernst was known also for hanging nicknames around the neck of nearly every assistant DA and most of our criminal court judges. Names come to mind like Pig Eyes, Dealing Dan the Docket Man, the Fat Fluff, Deadbeat Twilley, Utah Carl, Big Fat and Lazy, Fun and Games, Little Dickie, Sambo Robertson, Machine Gun Hinton, The Meadowlark, Steelhead, Terrible Tommy, Fuddy Duddy, the Senator, Lacy Pants, the Shadow, Cutty Sark, Spot, the Biggest Bigot, Oil Wells, and Sammy Davis Sr., to name a few. When Ernst named you, that was what you were called. (Out of respect for the living, I will not disclose the identities of those mentioned.)

    Perhaps Ernst’s best contribution was being an on-site master teacher to eager assistants looking to be amused. Ernst would admit assistants into his office over the lunch hour each day until the room ran over. There they would laugh themselves sick as Ernst picked out a few to take on in lively banter. Ernst would then pull out a brown sack and take out his barbecue, an onion, and a jalapeno, which he would cut with an old rusty switchblade knife straight from one of his old murder cases.

    Ernst gathered a crowd every time word got out he was to make a final argument. In one, he told the jury, “If you acquit this man of murder, the dead of World War II will rise up from their graves.” After the defendant appealed his death sentence, the Court of Criminal Appeals declared the argument highly improper but harmless error as no juror would possibly listen to such an outlandish appeal. Of course the court was not in that jury box on that day. I was. It was a powerful argument.

    Ernst was arguably the most popular speaker on the TDCAA circuit. The audience particularly loved the Q-and-A time as Ernst would throw back questions in the face of the one who dared open his mouth.

    After a couple of decades at Harris County, Ernie began another long and distinguished career in criminal justice. He became the first general counsel for the Texas Department of Corrections. George Beto and Jim Estelle gave him solid marks. From there Ernie ran for and was elected DA for Walker County and served until he was elected district judge for the same area. There he spent 20 years on the bench, including his many years as a visiting judge. Lawyers have told me how much fun he was to try a case before. In fact he sat on the bench until he was 85.

    When he died last month a few days before his 89th birthday, some 50 or more ex-prosecutors traveled up to Huntsville to see him off. All of us were grateful for our friendship with Ernie the “World’s Greatest Living Trial Lawyer,” a title he reserved for himself. And we appreciated his mentorship. I recall the day I was promoted to district court in late 1959, when Ernie was acting chief in that court. That first day Ernie handed me an old, dog-eared murder file and said, “Go try this case.” With only a year’s experience I was scared. But Ernst got me through that case and many more. Every office should have an Ernie Ernst.

    Ernst could have worked for just about any law firm in town, made a fortune, and moved way up from his 10-acre Armadillo Ranch that housed a couple of neighbor’s cows; but from fighting in World War II through his prosecutor years until he heard his last case on the bench, he gave it all to public service. Along the way he challenged us all. His favorite question was, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” And to the beat-down defendant waiting to plead, “When the court asks you what you are going to do with the rest of your life, what are you going to say?”