Last Saturday my wife and I were enjoying a greasy hamburger at a local restaurant when an old friend and his wife joined us at the table. The conversation soon turned to crime in the county, and my buddy reminisced about his grand jury service from 20 years ago. He remembered one case in particular involving child abuse and recalled wanting to leap over the table after hearing the suspect’s excuse for the assault. After telling the story, he said that he was amazed at how long that single experience stayed with him and how he often thought about it. He wondered how prosecutors keep their sanity when dealing with these kinds of cases.
From assault to child pornography to homicide cases, they all include disturbing images that remain with prosecutors. There are also cases that profoundly affect how we do our job in the future. They are all cases that leave a mark. I called a few prosecutors to ask about the cases that have stayed with them. They had no trouble identifying specifics. The only problem was trimming their stories to just a few cases. Here is what they had to say.
Martha Warner, DA in Bee, Live Oak, and McMullen Counties
A number of cases stay with me, but one of the most significant was the first one I tried as a special prosecutor. A young man and his brother were driving in a caravan with their family. They were returning to San Antonio after enjoying a fishing trip on the coast. The defendant had been drinking at a concert all day and drove up on the two cars from behind. The collision flipped the Jeep the two brothers were in. They were ejected, and one brother died from head injuries. The defendant fled the scene, but a truck driver gave chase and eventually blocked his path. We tried the case to the court, and the defendant was sentenced to 20 years.
It was dealing with the family that left an impact. The enormity of what we do as prosecutors hit me as I was talking with the surviving brother and his parents. After working on that case, I felt like I was called to be a prosecutor, so I hung up my civil practice and started making about one-third as much money as a prosecutor. I did it because I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do. I was making a difference in people’s lives.
As I have matured as a prosecutor, the significance of our work recently hit home when I tried several gang members that carried out a hit on a fellow gang member. The victim had just been released from the pen and was trying to quit the gang. It was my position, and the jury agreed, that every life is important and nobody deserves to be murdered.
Randall Sims, DA in Potter and Armstrong Counties
The case I will never forget happened in Collingsworth County in 1997. It was the first homicide in that county in over 50 years, and it happened to a family I knew well. My friend’s mom was found flat on her back in her bedroom with a number of knife and fork wounds. At the crime scene there was a disagreement as to whether the body and underlying carpet should be transported to the pathologist or if a crime scene unit should come to the house before the body was removed. I am glad I stood my ground and insisted on the crime scene investigation because it yielded a hair from the victim’s leg that DNA experts matched to the defendant.
I was allowed to speak to the young man who said he found the body, and after we talked I told the police he was our suspect. A search of the suspect’s house recovered shoes with the victim’s blood on them—evidence that destroyed the defendant’s claim that he never entered the room.
In preparing for trial I spent a lot of time with crime scene experts, and that proved invaluable. The defendant took the stand and lied about how he rolled the body over to check on her. On cross-examination I laid on the floor and had him roll me over three different times. Then I abruptly ended my cross. A lot of the onlookers were upset with me for not doing more, but they did not know the rest of the story. The next day I recalled the crime scene expert. As he took the stand, I heard the defendant’s investigator tell the defense attorney: “I think he is just about to prove he didn’t roll that body over.” It ended up being the most important part of the trial.
The case stays with me for a number of reasons. First, it taught me to trust my instincts and stand my ground when I am on a crime scene. Second, it taught me how critical it is to meticulously prepare and then carry out that plan. Finally, and maybe most importantly, it taught me what crime victims really go through. I was so close to this family that they came to me with all their questions. It was the most pressure I have ever been under because I was so attached to the family but knew how detached I had to remain to do my job effectively. I hope no family ever has to go through that again, but this case taught me a greater appreciation for the day-to-day impact a homicide has on the victim’s family.
Joe Ned Dean, DA in Trinity County
The most significant case I have ever handled was when I was a judge. The case was John Paul Penry, and it changed the law of capital murder. But as far as cases that leave their mark, there are a couple that come to mind from when I was a prosecutor.
The first case involved a murder that was based on a previous fight. I knew the victim because earlier I had sent him to TYC. The problem started when my victim whipped the defendant. Later, the defendant returned with a gun, killed the victim, and threw the gun in the Trinity River. There wasn’t much evidence, but the defendant talked to an inmate in jail and we were able to convince a jury to convict him. The sentence was 50 years. After the trial, I realized how relieved the community was because the defendant was a dope dealer who had been terrorizing the neighborhood.
The second case started at the courthouse square where a motorist came to report that a drunk driver had almost run him off the road. The intoxicated driver followed the motorist to the square where there would have been a pretty good fight, but police intervened. Four officers drew their weapons but when one of them saw that the driver had a snake charmer shotgun in his truck, he busted through the line of other officers and tackled the driver. After the driver was handcuffed, the officer was walking him to the jail when they came upon the officer’s hat lying on the ground. When the driver got to the hat, he stomped on it. The officer grabbed him by his handcuffed hands and ran him into the door of the jail so hard it knocked the hinges loose. The officer claimed the injuries came from the original tackle and that he did not use excessive force.
We tried the officer twice for official oppression, but both cases ended in a mistrial. I think that part of the problem was that the victim was a bull. His family told me that when he was a kid, he would run his head into light posts for fun. Eventually the officer agreed to give up his badge, and we dropped the charges. The case has made it hard to get along with law enforcement. After it was over the victim told me: “I may be a drunk, but I am not a liar.” I told him I believed him.
Rene Guerra, DA in Hidalgo County
Back in the 1980s, my wife and I went to Chicago to visit some friends and go on a golf outing. We stayed with a family who showed us around and had a barbecue for us. When we got back home to Texas, I was told about a capital murder that happened at a liquor store. The defendant was the nephew of the family who had just hosted us.
I tried to show the family our evidence, but they wanted to believe a cousin was responsible for the crime. I offered the young man a life sentence, but he turned it down. The jury returned a death sentence in 45 minutes. I lost a friendship after that.
I learned that if you believe your oath and follow your oath, some people may not believe you have the public’s interest at heart. But we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.
Prosecutors have up-close exposure to the human condition. We see people at their worst and at their best. As eye witnesses to suffering, we often see people endure the most trying times of their lives, putting us in a unique position to make an impact. Most people think prosecutors are about convictions and sentences, and while those results are a significant part of our work, the cases that seem to stay with us are the ones that leave us recognizing the mark we have made on someone’s life.