Kelly Siegler, a 21-year veteran of the Harris County district attorney’s office, was as dogged and passionate about her job as any prosecutor in recent memory, securing convictions in all 68 of the murder cases she took to trial. (And she was known for her theatrical bent in the courtroom: during the trial of Susan Wright for the murder of her husband, she had the bloodstained mattress on which he was slain dragged into the courtroom so she could reenact the murder.) Siegler left the DA’s office in 2008, after she lost the Republican primary runoff to replace ousted Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal.
But now, six years later, she’s lending her talents to prime time on a TNT television show on unsolved cases, Cold Justice, now in its second season. The show is produced by Dick Wolf, who, as the creator and producer of Law & Order, is no stranger to the police procedural. Except Cold Justice is real: on each episode Siegler and her sidekick, Yolanda McClary, a former crime scene investigator for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, show up in a small town, meet with detectives, comb through evidence and crime scene photos, and reinterview potential witnesses and associates, all in hopes of uncovering new nuggets of information that can move a case into the “solved” column. So far, the two seasons have included four episodes on Texas cases, in La Porte, Seagraves, Palacios, and Cuero.
Texas Monthly: How did the show come about?
Kelly Siegler: When I was at the Harris County DA’s office, I worked on cold cases for about ten years, and we’d get calls from all over. I was also on this committee based in Austin that reviewed cold cases that were presented by little law enforcement agencies from all over Texas. I realized that a lot of these agencies have cases that are really close to being solved; they either just don’t know it because they don’t see as many of them as we do or they needed a little help getting there. That’s where the idea started, and after I left the DA’s office, I tried to sell it to a couple of people out in the L.A. world, and one day I got hooked up with Dick Wolf, and in our phone conversation he immediately loved the idea.
TM: How do you hear about these cold cases?
KS: We have a team of people in L.A. who call around to little agencies all around the country looking for more cases. So they put out the word, and then they sort through the ones they hear about. There are some parameters that make a case doable on the show. For cases that look promising, the offense report comes to me and I, along with two other people, try and decide not just whether we can solve it but whether we can solve it in eight days. That’s kind of the real complication.
TM: What is the process from there?
KS: A case then has to be approved by TNT, of course, by Magical Elves [the production company]. Then we schedule filming, with an eye on where the cases are geographically so we can travel from one town to the next in a way that makes sense. Before we arrive, we decide which detectives will work on the case, and the offense reports are mailed out to them. Any evidence that needs to be tested obviously needs to be sent off before we get there or else we would never get it back in time. But any discussion about the suspect and what’s the plan has to wait until we get to town. It all really is real. We first talk about it when we meet everybody that first day. I think the thing that people don’t understand is that we just have to do it fast.
TM: What are some common threads in the cases you tackle in the show? What do these cases tend to hinge upon?
KS: What I want to scream from the rooftops is that these cases are always gonna be circumstantial evidence cases. We’re hardly ever gonna get DNA results back because that’s already been tested. So it’s a matter of starting from the beginning, talking to everybody all over again, hoping that time has changed their voices, their opinions, their memories, and then putting the pieces back together.
What’s so good for us—but also what’s so heartbreaking—is that a lot of these cases are almost solved now, it’s just that for whatever reason these agencies don’t have the time and the ability to focus on them long enough and hard enough to get them to the point where they’re solved. We make them do that when we go into a town. We start work at five in the morning and get through about ten o’clock every night, and the only day off is Sunday. So for those designated eight days, they’re stuck having to do work because we’re there. And when you have that much effort and time, expertise, and focus, you get things to happen. When you’re a detective working in a small town, you don’t have time to focus on only one case that many solid hours in a row—you just don’t. So that’s what’s making it happen.
TM: You’re originally from Blessing, in Matagorda County. What was it like going back there to work on the 1982 murder of Charlene Corporon?
KS: It was the most stressful one for me for personal reasons, because I was going back home and having my people meet these new people, thinking, like, “What are they gonna think of each other?” Because my L.A. people are a whole lot different than everyone from my Blessing, Texas, country world. I was just worried about that, which was stupid. Working on the case was wonderful, everybody there was great. Everybody was friendly. Everybody was cooperative. It was just the stress of the new world meets the old world.
TM: Have you had any cases that you weren’t able to solve and so you had to scuttle the episode?
KS: Well, if we go to the town for eight days, even if we don’t solve it, that’s the story we tell. It makes the show. That’s real. And those ones were the most depressing cases of all because we have to go tell the family members that we couldn’t do anything. We made some progress, but we didn’t get far enough. You know, these families, they don’t care if we solve three in a row, they just want us to solve their case. That’s why I pick the ones where we think we can get somewhere because I don’t wanna break somebody’s heart again.
TM: You spent more than twenty years with the Harris County DA’s office, winning all 68 murder cases you tried. How has the transition to television been?
KS: I think that being a prosecutor for my whole life and working in a county that knows what it’s doing when it comes to prosecution helped me more than anybody or anything could have. I never thought I would leave. I never wanted to leave—everything came crashing down and I left. But the show has been a dream come true. I mean, how in the world could I know that one day I would have a TV show working on cold cases, which was my thing. And when I left the DA’s office I was pretty down, I was pretty beaten, and to think that this could happen is just unbelievable.