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Naked City

Death Takes a Holiday

By Robert Bryce, October 15, 1999, News

Death Takes a Holiday

Now that four suspects have been arrested for the yogurt shop murders, Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle must decide if he will seek the death penalty for Robert Burns Springsteen Jr. and Michael James Scott.

The other two suspects, Forrest Welborn and Maurice Earl Pierce, were too young at the time of the crime to be given a death sentence. And while the law allows Earle to seek death in the yogurt shop case, it's not clear if he will. Records show that Earle has sent very few murderers to death row, particularly when compared to other prosecutors in Texas.

Travis County has far fewer inmates on death row than Harris, Dallas, Bexar, or Tarrant counties. This reflects, in part, Travis County's smaller population and lower murder rate. But it also appears to reflect a greater reluctance on Earle's part to seek the death penalty. Indeed, several counties that are smaller than Travis County have far more inmates on death row. Nueces County, with half as many residents as Travis, has 12 inmates on death row. Travis County has five. Similarly, Jefferson County has just 250,000 residents, but it currently has 11 inmates awaiting their dates in Huntsville.

Clearly, Earle, who has been in office since 1976, won't be supplanting Harris County D.A. John B. Holmes Jr. any time soon for the title of Toughest Prosecutor in Texas. Holmes' district alone accounts for 141 death row inmates -- or about one third of all the inmates now on death row. If Harris County were a state, it would rank third behind Texas and Virginia in the number of murderers executed under Holmes' watch. Why has Holmes sent so many more people to death row than Earle? Part of the reason lies in personality. Holmes (who announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election when his term expires in December 2000) is as straight-laced as they come, and he sees himself as an enforcer of the public will when it comes to death penalty cases. "There's nothing worse than having a law and not enforcing it," Holmes told me earlier this year. "That promotes disrespect for the law."

Some observers claim that Travis Co. juries are more liberal than those in other parts of the state, and thus are less likely to give the death penalty. But a recent jury verdict contradicts that claim. Last month, a Travis County jury deliberated for just six hours before deciding that Louis Castro Perez should die for the 1998 murder of three Austinites.

Earle said a committee in his office examines the information in murder cases to decide if the death penalty is warranted. That committee then makes a recommendation to Earle, who said he agrees with them "almost all the time." Earle said, that "the big issue is the future danger posed by the offender. The law says the jury has to consider if the person is a continuing threat." And, he added, "I approach these issues cautiously."

Joe James Sawyer, a criminal defense attorney who represented Perez and will represent Springsteen in the yogurt shop case, admires the way Earle handles death penalty cases. "This county is very, very, very deliberate before it seeks the death penalty," said Sawyer, who ran against Earle in 1996. "And that's one of the things I like about Ronnie's office. I think Ronnie is more painstaking in examining, in analyzing his cases. The one thing that can be said for Ronnie Earle is that he seeks the death penalty only when he feels he must."

Sawyer said that Springsteen, who is fighting extradition from West Virginia, will likely be back in Austin by mid-November. And he added that it will likely be several more months before any decision is made about whether his client will face the death penalty.

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