People Issue

Teresa Hawthorne: The Decider

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Mark Graham. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

State District Judge Teresa Hawthorne had been on the bench for less than a year when she received her first case in which District Attorney Craig Watkins' office was seeking the death penalty. The judge disagreed, and the dispute quickly went public.

Roderick Harris was charged with killing two brothers, Alfredo and Carlos Gallardo, as he robbed them of $2 at a southeast Dallas mobile home in 2009. During pretrial motions in December, Hawthorne ruled that the state death penalty statute was unconstitutional, meted out in an "arbitrary" and "capricious" manner.

"I didn't make my decision on the spur of the moment," Hawthorne says. "I did a lot of research and studying. And it had nothing to do with my personal beliefs." Nonetheless, Watkins' office promptly asked for her to be removed from hearing Harris' case. An opinion writer at The Dallas Morning News, whose editorial board supposedly opposes the death penalty, called her ruling "goofy" and "a trick" that even the paper's board wouldn't "fall for."

Privately, she had some uncomfortable moments too. "I have some Republican friends, people I've known 30 and 40 years, who called me and said, 'Please tell me you're not legislating from the bench,'" Hawthorne says. But she believed she had a duty to review the case before her and the authority to decide as she saw fit. The death penalty statute struck her as simply unacceptable.

"There are no standards as to how you pick and choose" who gets the death penalty in a capital murder case, she says. "It should be specific. In my view, that doesn't comply with the U.S. Constitution."

Hawthorne knew, she says, "that in Texas this would be an unpopular decision." Nonetheless, she was shocked at the prosecution's motion to remove her, and even more shocked when it succeeded. The case was given to a different judge. In May, Harris was sentenced to die.

Nonetheless, Hawthorne says, she doesn't regret her decision and her relationship with the DA's office hasn't been strained. As a 20-year defense attorney, she was known as someone who didn't claim all her clients were not guilty, she says. As a judge, "I'm not soft on crime, but I'm very cautious about sending the right people to the penitentiary." She still believes the Texas justice system needs serious re-examination. "Just the exonerations alone that we've had are frightening."

Hawthorne's goal is to avoid being a "rubber stamp" judge. But what will she do the next time a death penalty case comes before her? She laughs a little. "We'll see," she says. "I can't worry about public clamor," she adds. "I've got to do what I think is right."

See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan