Johnny Holmes and the Personal Moral Judgment


Thanks to Grits for Breakfast for calling my attention to this Houston Chronicle article about former Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes (Scott Henson calls it a “puff piece” and a “hagiography”).

In the article Houston criminal-defense lawyer George “Mac” Secrest gave Holmes a compliment, as much a shot at other elected DAs as praise of Holmes:

Former assistant district attorney George Secrest called Holmes “the antithesis of the typical district attorney.”
“He was a man of immense integrity,” said Secrest, now a criminal-defense lawyer.

Most notable to me, though, was the article’s parting section, a discussion of Holmes’s death penalty views:

Holmes rarely seeks to participate in debates on the death penalty, regarding beliefs on the matter as part of an individual’s private system of moral values.

Still, he personally believes there are “proper cases” where the death penalty is an appropriate sentence.

“Obviously,” he added, “what is a proper case is not ultimately up to the prosecutor, but to the fact-finders.”

Okay, bullshit. Beliefs on the matter are, and should be, a part of an individual’s private system of moral values. Like religious beliefs, they are not, and should not be, susceptible to logic or subject to argument.

But Holmes’s tack, passing the buck to juries, is disingenuous in the same way that this prosecutor’s claim that “All we ever wanted to do in this case is to let a jury decide” is disingenuous. It’s unbecoming of a man of such “immense integrity.”

But when a prosecutor tries a death penalty case he is not simply leaving the question up to the personal moral judgments of 12 people. Rather, he is coldbloodedly selecting 12 people whose “morals” most favor killing the accused, even to the extent of excluding anyone who is morally opposed to the death penalty. Then he is trying to convince those 12 people who favor the death penalty generally that the death penalty is the appropriate moral response in the particular case.
In Texas, we have the law of parties: “Each party to an offense may be charged with the commission of the offense. A person is criminally responsible for an offense committed by the conduct of another if, acting with intent to promote or assist the commission of the offense, he solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense.”

Just as they would bear legal responsibility for encouraging a murder, prosecutors bear whatever moral responsibility attaches to the deaths of the executed (including the innocents executed). They’d better be pretty confident that the Sixth Commandment (the Fifth, for the Lutherans and Roman Catholics) doesn’t apply to the situation.

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0 responses to “Johnny Holmes and the Personal Moral Judgment”

  1. Three things I remember about this moral man. All reported by local media. He wore a wire and met privately to try to con the County Judge into admitting something illegal. Not so bad I guess, but the articles went on to state that he was a leader of a racist movement, as a member of the UT football team, to keep minorities off the team. Additionally, he publicly said he would not support anyone for DA in the ensuing election after he decided to retire, “unless some dang fool ran.” He then supported Rosenthal, who we all know now is “beyond reproach,” when things got tight for him, even though no dang fool had entered the race and the deadline for announcing had long passed.

  2. John Holmes philosophy re: death penalty, as a prosecutor, is correct. I am in year twelve as a felony prosecutor in Louisiana, have tried three death penalty cases. In two, the juries returned life sentences, in one, death. As long as death is a penalty set by our legislature, the responsible prosecutor will present the case for the community to decide. It is my job to seek justice; it is your job to seek mercy. I do not have a problem with a defense lawyer doing just that. I am “pretty confident” about the Sixth Commandment, also Romans Ch. 13.

  3. Well, as a Christian, I’d say all believers are ministers of God. As a Southern Baptist, if I were a Christian dog catcher or a Christian garbage hauler; yep, I’d be a minister of God. I guess it all depends upon your meaning of “minister of God”, doesn’t it. kg

  4. Mark:

    You write: “They’d better be pretty confident that the Sixth Commandment (the Fifth, for the Lutherans and Roman Catholics) doesn’t apply to the situation.”

    Likely, they are, fully, confident, if educated. The bible is clear on the proper implementation of the death penalty and its moral application. One solid review, here (1).

    In any non theocratic state, we want prosecutors to follow the law. But, we all have moral guideposts, be they secular and/or religious.

    As detailed (1), Roman’s 13:4 does not require a pro death penalty context or application, but it, certainly, does not exclude it.

    Your cold blooded reference is common anti death penalty nonsense, in the sense that the proper term to use is the due process of law. With or without the death penalty, prosecutors choose to waive charges, go to trial or plea, depending upon all the case facts.

    I disagree with kg, that a defense atty job is to seek mercy. Their job is to challenge, in every way, the burden of proof, to defend those accused, to the fullest extent, which you do, very well.

    1) Please read Lloyd Bailey’s Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, It’s in the Houston library.

    • Romans is a suspect source, but you are clearly more confident than I of your or my or any human’s or group of humans’ ability to judge who deserves death and who does not. Still, I guess, the adjective “cold-blooded” to describe deliberate efforts to cause a homicide some time at in the future hits too close to home. Maybe look within on that one.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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