The District Attorney is the most powerful law enforcement official in any county. He or she is king or queen of the realm, speaking for the people in the courts, enforcing the law, going after the bad guys, deciding who will and won’t be subject to the death penalty. You hear all kinds of people complain about the power of DAs—the discretion they have to charge whomever they want; the abuses of power they sometimes engage in to nail the criminals they are sworn to protect us from.
A QUARTER CENTURY AGO the word “impeachment” called to mind a different presidential Pinocchio. Richard Nixon, claiming executive privilege, steadfastly refused to turn over certain White House audiotapes to Watergate investigators. He was thwarted, however, by the special prosecutor, a man of his own choosing. Leon Jaworski was a storied Houston lawyer who had tried Nazi war criminals and represented the likes of Lyndon Baines Johnson and John Connally.
When he answers the door of his mansion—and, let’s face it, there’s no other way to describe a 9,742-square-foot palazzo in the swanky River Oaks section of Houston—the state’s best-known, least-loved, and most-feared plaintiffs lawyer greets me warmly. He extends a hand, ushers me inside, and after offering me a cold drink, pours his long, lean frame into a comfy chair. We make polite chitchat as if we’ve known each other for years, and I begin to wonder if I’ve come to the right place.
John O’Quinn wanted to be the best lawyer who ever lived. And for a while, it looked as if that was going to happen. He certainly was one of the most successful—and one of the richest. But the power he wielded and the money he spent didn’t lead to happiness. That changed when the Houston trial lawyer began seeing Darla Lexington, who friends say transformed his life for the better.
Darla Lexington sleeps in a very dark room in a very large bed, alone. Like a particular kind of Houston woman, the fact that she lives on the top floor of a luxury apartment building is a sign of reduced circumstances, though in her case the loss of an impressive River Oaks home resulted from a death instead of a divorce. The bedspread and curtains are black, giving the room the gloom of mourning.
FEW PLACES IN TEXAS ARE more humble than Daingerfield, a town of 2,655 residents hidden away in the rolling hills of Northeast Texas. Many of the downtown storefronts are abandoned. The parking lot at the bank is usually empty, and the movie theater tries to stir up business with 99-cent admission. Each day, a couple of Kansas City Southern trains pass through the middle of town. They never stop.
The first thing you notice is the eyes—they all have the same look in them, the look of men accustomed to waking up every morning in a prison cell. These 37 men spent years, and in some cases decades, staring through bars at a world that believed they were guilty of terrible crimes. But they weren’t. Each was convicted of doing something he did not do. It’s hard to characterize the look in their eyes. There’s anger, obviously, and pride at having survived hell, but there’s also hurt, and a question: “Why me?”
Ernest Willis has one vice left: smoking. He smokes in his purple Lincoln Town Car, driving around Midland. He smokes while chatting with his neighbor in his front yard. He smokes at the kitchen table in his condo, which he shares with his son Shawn, who sells cars at a dealership in Odessa. Willis spends a lot of time in the condo. He likes to get up early, usually about six-thirty, and make a pot of coffee. Then he smokes a cigarette and turns on the news.
You’re one of the only people to know what it’s like to be an innocent man on death row, but everybody else thinks you’re guilty. What did that feel like to you? When you had those two days left—we’re trying to put ourselves in the mind of [Cameron Todd Willingham] and what he was going through. What did that feel like?
Ken Starr became a household name in the late nineties, when his Starr Report led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Today the 64-year-old is the fourteenth president of Baylor University, in Waco, and he’s fully immersed in furthering the Christian mission of the private college and finding additional ways to provide scholarships for deserving students.