Interview with Christopher Gunter

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Terms:
 
 
 
Places 
  •  Austin 
  •  Galveston 
  •  San Marcos 
  •  Texas Youth Commission, TYC 
  •   Waco 
 
People 
  •   Barrow, Leroy 
  •  "Big Mama" [no last name given] 
  •  Cross, James C. 
  •  Davis, James Carl Lee 
  •  Flowers, Wilford (Will); Hon. Wilford Flowers, Judge Will Flowers 
  •  Forsythe, Andrew (Andy) 
  •  Green, Roy Dale 
  •  [Gunter's wife, Gunter's Daughter, unnamed] 
  •  Johnson, Evet [sexually assaulted and murdered by James Carl Lee Davis, unnamed] 
  •  Johnson, Tom [murdered by James Carl Lee Davis, unnamed] 
  •  Johnson, Tyron [murdered by James Carl Lee Davis, unnamed] 
  •  Jones, Perry 
  •  McDuff, Kenneth 
  •  Minton, Roy 
  •  Nelson, Phillip A. Jr. (Phil Nelson) 
  •  Reed, Colleen 
  •  Salgado, Diana 
  •  [Sister of Colleen Reed, unnamed] 
  •  Solis, Gabriel (Gabe) 
  •  Sternburg, Lynn 
  •  Wisser, Jon; Hon. Jon Wisser, Judge Jon Wisser 
  •  [Witness, unnamed, across from car wash, saw Thunderbird and heard Colleen Reed scream] 
  •  Worley, Hank 
 
Topics  
 
Table of Contents 
  •  Featured Segment: Mitigation, Mental Health, and Future Dangerousness 
  •  Introduction and consent 
  •  Background of Christopher Gunter 
  •  Representation, at trial, of Kenneth McDuff for the capital murder of Colleen Reed 
  •  Appointment process to Davis and McDuff trials 
  •  Closing thoughts and thank yous 
 
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Transcript 
  •  RAYMOND: The voice speaking right now is Virginia Raymond and behind the camera is Gabriel Solis. Also in the room is Diana Salgado, an intern with the Texas After Violence Project. 
  •  RAYMOND: And Mr. Gunter has granted some time to us this afternoon to ask him about his— tell us about his experiences. Before we start, Mr. Gunter, you just read through our brochure, had an opportunity to ask questions— 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Yes. 
  •  RAYMOND: And consented to be interviewed today? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: I did. 
  •  RAYMOND: Okay, thank you very much. Before I— Can you just tell us where you are from, where you grew up and started practicing law? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: I sure can. I grew up here in Austin. I'm now fifty-three years old and I've lived here—I was born in San Marcos, Texas, but we moved here when I was six months old, and I've been in Austin ever since. 
  •  GUNTER: I went to high school here, and I got my undergraduate degree and law degree from the University of Texas. Got my law degree in 1980. 
  •  RAYMOND: And what did you do first when you got out of law school? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: My first job was with the Travis County Attorney's Office, and I worked there for about a year and a half, and then I went to work for the Travis County District Attorney's Office, and worked there just for six months, 
  •  GUNTER:   and in 1982 went into private practice and have been doing solely criminal defense work ever since 1982.  
  •  RAYMOND: Thank you. You have been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney on several capital murder cases. 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: I prosecuted one capital murder case to a verdict and got the death penalty for a young man and then I have defended two death penalty cases since leaving the DA's office.  
  •  RAYMOND: Can you tell us first about prosecuting the case? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, the defendant's name was Leroy Barrow. He was very young. He was only about, as I recall, maybe eighteen years old, seventeen or eighteen years old when he was indicted for capital murder. It was a terrible case. 
  •  GUNTER: He had been in the Texas Youth Commission for a few years for committing some bad offense. I don't even remember what it was. 
  •  GUNTER: But when he was released upon his seventeenth birthday he went to Galveston and was working down there and one day decided he wanted to come to Austin where he was from and he didn't have transportation so he just killed this security guard and stole his car 
  •  GUNTER: and drove to Austin and then went out to South Austin to this old man's house that he had known since he was a child, and this old man, Lynn Sternburg was his name, was in a wheelchair, confined to a wheelchair, 
  •  GUNTER: and Barrow beat him to death with a two-by-four and then stole a pistol and then went and held up a massage parlor, and then finally got caught. And that was the case that I prosecuted. 
  •  GUNTER: That would have been during my six months in the DA's office, and the jury gave him the death penalty. 
  •  GUNTER: The case ultimately was reversed on appeal, sent back for another trial, and the second time it was tried I didn't try it. I was in private practice by that time but he was given a life sentence the second time around and he's serving his life sentence as we speak. 
  •  RAYMOND: Can you tell us about preparing for that trial? You were a relatively young lawyer at that time— 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: I was a very young lawyer. Well it was exciting to say the least. You know it was a big case, and to be able to get to do that so early in my career was a real benefit, or I thought so at the time anyway. 
  •  GUNTER: I got to work with a really fine man, Phil Nelson, who just passed away here just a few months ago. Phil was kind of the senior prosecutor in the DA's office at the time. 
  •  GUNTER: And Phil was content to let me do everything in the case so I prepared the case and did the lion's share of the actual trial work so it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a young prosecutor.  
  •  RAYMOND: Not very many of us get to see that side of things. Can you talk a little bit about what that means as a prosecutor to prepare such a case? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, you of course become very intimate with the facts of the case. You become very close to all of the participants, the police that were involved, 
  •  GUNTER: and you forge relationships that I still have today with police officers that I worked with as a prosecutor and particularly in a high-stress case like a death penalty case. 
  •  GUNTER: And then of course the relationships that you form with the people that were related to Mr. Sternburg, 
  •  GUNTER: for instance his brother and his sister-in-law I remember were really neat people, and you get to see a side of these cases as a prosecutor that you don't see as a defense attorney. 
  •  GUNTER: You get to go into the victim's family's home and sit on their couch and you know see them go through the whole array of emotions and it's just really one heck of an experience. And then all the other attendant players. 
  •  GUNTER: I remember Barrow, the defendant, had a number of young friends here in Austin that at one point or another had some role in the case and some of those relationships carry forward even today. 
  •  GUNTER: It's funny you ask, one of my witnesses in that case was a young woman, and this, we're talking about 1982, we're talking about twenty-six years ago. 
  •  GUNTER: She was one of my witnesses in that case and she is one of my clients now, and I've represented her for years, I mean in the years to come she got in trouble, and came to me and I've had a long-term legal relationship with her. 
  •  GUNTER: So I think that's one of the things that kind of stands out when you're dealing with a case like that, that you really become close to so many of the players and those relationships last for years. 
  •  RAYMOND: Is that similar to other kinds of criminal cases you do, or—  
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, I mean I certainly experience this same thing in cases as a defense attorney, especially when we go to trial, because it's when you're in trial, preparing for trial and in trial that you really, really do get close to you know all the players 
  •  GUNTER: and all the people that are involved in the case, unlike your typical case that comes in here, you know, this week and we hire on and we go do our work and we review the case and we talk to the client 
  •  GUNTER: and we decide you need to plead guilty and let's go work out a deal and we go work out a deal and plead him and it's over. You know, you don't get really close to that client like you do when you're in trial with someone. 
  •  RAYMOND: And what's that like as a prosecutor, because you don't actually have a client except for the state of Texas? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Right, your client ends up being, in a death case, your client ends up being— well, for all practical purposes, your client or the people that you get closest to are the victim's family.  
  •  RAYMOND: And how— well, do you remember anything, you said they were neat people, do you— you know, what do you remember about them that impressed you?  
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: I remember that Mr. Sternburg's brother, and I can't remember his first name, but he was, he was in the early stages, probably beyond the early stages really, of Alzheimer's, and I remember sitting in his living room, he was an important witness, 
  •  GUNTER: and I remember us trying to draw out information from him that we needed to effectively prosecute that case, and I remember the trouble, the problems that we had. As hard as he wanted to help us, you could just see it written on his face, and his wife was there trying to encourage him but— 
  •  GUNTER: and that was really something that sticks out in my mind, is how painful it was for that brother who wanted to help prosecute this defendant that had killed his brother, but he was so limited in what he could do, yeah. 
  •  RAYMOND: But you ultimately got that— 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Yeah. 
  •  RAYMOND: What went through your mind as you're prosecuting, well, just making the decision to actually go for a death sentence and then prosecuting it? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: I didn't. I was not in on the decision whether to go for the death penalty. Others, you know, my supervisors made that decision. 
  •  GUNTER: They came to me and said we're going for the death penalty in this case, are you interested in being the prosecutor in the case and I said Certainly, I mean I wasn't about to pass up an opportunity like that, so I did, yeah.  
  •  RAYMOND: Anything else you can think of about the case that you remember or think that you'd want people to know, to understand about that experience? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, in hindsight, I had personally, from time to time some little twinges of, you know, is this the right thing to do. 
  •  GUNTER: Of course all of my little twinges were kind of overridden by just the headiness of getting to prosecute a high-profile, serious death penalty case, and you know that's what I was hired to do as an assistant district attorney, so I put my personal feelings aside. 
  •  GUNTER: In the years to come, of course, my feelings about the death penalty became a little more solidified. In hindsight I'm very, very happy that the case got reversed on appeal and he got a life sentence upon retrial. 
  •  RAYMOND: How did that change take place in your views? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: A year or two after I went into private practice then I was appointed along with my good friend Andy Forsythe to defend James Carl Lee Davis. 
  •  GUNTER: And now all of the sudden I get to see everything from the other side, and actually being responsible for someone's life, you know, causes you to look at things a lot differently then when you're prosecuting. 
  •  GUNTER: And in the course of that case, you know you just— I just got so, so, so involved emotionally with the case that that went a long way to forming what my current feelings are about the death penalty. 
  •  RAYMOND: Can you say more about that emotional involvement? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, I mean it was just a terrible set of facts, that was one side of the - I mean, there was this tension during the case. You got this horrible set of facts that frankly if there was a case designed for the death penalty it was probably this one. 
  •  GUNTER: You know what the facts are. He brutally beat to death a number of children with a lead pipe and sexually assaulted one of— well, knocked the top of one of them— this teenage girl's head off, and then sexually assaulted her with the pipe and with himself 
  •  GUNTER: and it was just a horrible, horrible set of facts. 
  •  GUNTER: On the other side of the equation, though, was a severely disturbed young man. James was just a sick, sick puppy. 
  •  GUNTER: He had a stack of mental health records probably close to two feet tall— at least a foot to two foot in height, and it had numerous commitments to the state hospital. He clearly had mental problems. 
  •  GUNTER: And his family, his grandmother, called her Big Mama, she was wonderful. She was the real driving force in that family. She was the strength of that family. 
  •  GUNTER: James's mother, she had her own problems, her own mental problems and it was pretty clear to Andy and me that James came by his own problems honestly from his mother. 
  •  GUNTER: But sitting in their home, you know, and getting to know that family and trying to learn as much as we could about James, and reading those medical records, those mental health records, you just really in your mind question is it the right thing to kill a human being like this, 
  •  GUNTER: and then at the same time you know you've got, I had my long time religious,  personal religious beliefs that were kind of tugging at me too, so just a combination of those things led me to believe very firmly that I don't think the death penalty is the right thing. 
  •  RAYMOND: Could you tell us about those religious tugs? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Simple, it's just you know I was born and raised and am a devout Catholic today, and the Ten Commandments, you know, one of the commandments just says "Thy shalt not kill," 
  •  GUNTER: and there's not a footnote there that says that, well you can if, you know, the legislature says, you know, passes a statute that says you can. 
  •  GUNTER: I understand the concept of self-defense, I understand there are circumstances where we as human beings I think are forgiven if we do kill, but it's in those situations when we don't have a lot of time to reflect and we act instinctively. 
  •  GUNTER: Executing somebody is not an instinctive event, it's something that the state spends years working up to with an individual, and I just don't believe there's any way to rationalize the death penalty with the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."  
  •  RAYMOND: What do you remember about the actual, James, and his mother and grandmother? You alluded to some problems in that family. 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, James really was crazy as a shithouse rat. I mean, and we knew it when we'd go visit him. 
  •  GUNTER: And we filed a notice of intent to raise the insanity defense and we hired experts to go visit with him and they all agreed, He's severely disturbed, but we never could get over that threshold that's required to prove insanity for purposes of the criminal law, so we just could not show that he was insane. 
  •  GUNTER: Now, trying to have a conversation with James was fruitless, I mean, he really was a nut. Trying to have a conversation with his mother was worthless. You could tell she had problems. 
  •  GUNTER: Big Mama, his grandmother, we could communicate with her and she told us about, you know, how he was brought up and he was, as I recall and it's you know it's been a long time - 
  •  GUNTER: - but he was as I recall abused by his father, physically abused, and you know growing up with a mentally ill mother, an abusive father, you don't have much of a chance, frankly.  
  •  RAYMOND: Do you think James knew what was going on when he talked with you and Andy? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Yeah, yeah he knew why we were there and he could talk about what happened. He told us his version of what happened and that was the problem with the insanity defense is he could, he had a rational understanding of what he did. 
  •  GUNTER:He could relate to us and did relate to us what happened. 
  •  GUNTER: He might fudge here and there some of the really, really embarrassing stuff, you know, him having sex with a dead girl, or with a girl at least, if she wasn't dead at that moment, was in the throes of death with her brains literally hanging out. 
  •  GUNTER: You know he would not admit to that and we didn't lean on him to admit to it, we knew what the facts were. So yeah, I mean he could communicate with us. 
  •  RAYMOND: Given those facts, what was your strategy in the trial? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: It was to try to generate some sympathy, enough sympathy regarding his background and his mental health history to where the jury would just feel like it's just not fair to give this guy the death penalty. Now the law has changed since then. 
  •  GUNTER: Today, I'm not sure, legally, if they could execute James today. Certainly, the jury charge that they would get today is different than he would've gotten back then 
  •  GUNTER: in that the jury would have been given a little more effective mechanism or effective way to even though they believed he was guilty and even though they believed he presented a danger to the community, 
  •  GUNTER:  there's now a charge that says in light of all that if you think there are things in this person's past that would mitigate to the degree where the death penalty just isn't fair, then you don't have to give it.We didn't have the advantage of that jury charge back then. 
  •  RAYMOND: Did you get a sense of what the jury was thinking, either during the trial or afterwards? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: I think they were thinking that we agree that he is one unfortunate, sick, sympathetic human being, but he is clearly a danger to this community and we don't ever want to run the chance, 
  •  GUNTER: run the risk of him doing something to somebody in prison or heaven forbid on the outside of prison. That's the downside to emphasizing a mental health defense, is that's one of those things that can cut two ways. 
  •  GUNTER: On the one hand it can generate some sympathy, but on the other hand it shows whoever's listening to it that, Wooo, this guy is spooky. He's dangerous, and not only is he just mean but he's a psycho, and psycho scares people.  
  •  RAYMOND: What was it like to be trying that case, as a human being, as a lawyer, in your own life? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well it was very, very, very, very stressful for both Andy and me. It really— those kinds of trials are very, very stressful. I don't care what anybody says, they take time off your life. 
  •  GUNTER: And, of course, this was the first major case that either one of us had ever defended. I mean we had handled, we had been, both of us had been doing defense work for over a year by that time so I we had the tools and the knowledge and all that, 
  •  GUNTER: but neither one of us had tried a case of that magnitude from the defense standpoint, and with each passing day the degree of responsibility just settled in on us heavier and heavier 
  •  GUNTER: to where by the end of that trial, we were, I mean we were, we were both pretty stressed. Yeah. 
  •  RAYMOND: How did you get appointed? How did that come about? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: The judge just called— on that one, I think the judge called Andy and asked Andy if he'd been willing to do it and he said he would if I would, so they called me and I said I will if Andy does. 
  •  GUNTER: We had prosecuted cases together and we did, we enjoyed working together so it was kind of mutually agreed-upon endeavor. 
  •  RAYMOND: What did you do when the jury came back voting for death? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, I remember we walked, we— and I'm trying to remember why we walked back through— I have a memory of us leaving. 
  •  GUNTER: We were in the— we weren't in the old courthouse, we were in the little three-story building behind the courthouse, and for some reason after that trial was over when the verdict had come -- in we were both exhausted -- 
  •  GUNTER: we somehow were walking back through the old courthouse and it seems like it was after hours by that time, there wasn't anybody around. 
  •  GUNTER: I remember, I got very, I got tearful, and Andy and I just kind of hugged one another and, you know, we couldn't say "I enjoyed the last, you know, month with you" because it was not enjoyable. 
  •  GUNTER: But you know we expressed appreciation to one another for what the other one had done, and I think we both went home and tried to go to sleep.  
  •  RAYMOND: And then you tried another case together.  
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Yeah. Yeah, that was a bad one too. Yeah, that was Kenneth McDuff, yeah. 
  •  RAYMOND: Can you talk about that? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Yeah. Now by that time, we had a few years of defense work under our belt and I'd tried a few murder cases by the time we started representing Kenneth, 
  •  GUNTER: and I don't know if it was just the experience or Kenneth or the facts of the case or what but, although it was extremely stressful again, emotionally it did not trigger those deep emotions like James's case did. 
  •  GUNTER: James's was just kind of special because he really was a sick human being and it's a shame that the state put him to death. 
  •  GUNTER: Andy told me one day he had heard that when it was time for James— I know you were asking me about Kenneth's case but I'll share this— 
  •  GUNTER: he told me that when it was time for James to go down to the execution room that he was just smiling and just thought he was going on a picnic, I guess, and just hopped up there on the executioner's table and was smiling and looking around. 
  •  GUNTER: You know I'm confident probably had just no real clue what was happening but, anyhow. 
  •  GUNTER: By the time we got around to Kenneth's case, you know we were terribly invested in the case, time-wise and work, we are both pretty probably pathological about the preparation for trials, and we put in an incredible amount of time getting ready in that case, 
  •  GUNTER: and really did work to try to find some way to keep him from getting the death penalty in our case, although we knew it was just, it was kind of a pissing-in-the-wind attempt, 
  •  GUNTER: but you know you get into these things and you start convincing yourself, you know maybe we can pull this off. We'd be the greatest lawyers in the world if we were able to keep the jury from giving this guy the death penalty. 
  •  GUNTER: He already had a death penalty pending out at Waco by the time our case got tried so we were hopeful that the jury knowing that they might throw a bone to Andy and me and give us a break and not give him the death penalty in our case, 
  •  GUNTER: but no, they weren't about to pass up the opportunity to just put a little insurance on Kenneth. 
  •  RAYMOND: How did you get involved in Kenneth McDuff's case? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well on that one the judge called me and asked me if I would be willing to represent him, and I confess that when the judge called me I didn't know who Kenneth McDuff was. 
  •  GUNTER: I certainly knew about the Colleen Reed case, the car wash case, and I knew when the judge called that that's, you know he said, "They've got this guy they believe killed Colleen Reed, would you be interested in handling the case?" 
  •  GUNTER: I said, Sure, you know, if I can get Andy to do it with me. And Andy was agreeable, and shortly after that I start— we start to learn who it is that we just agreed to represent. You know that was another once-in-a-lifetime experience getting to represent him. 
  •  RAYMOND: When you say— you said in both instances "the judge," was it the same judge in James Carl Lee Davis as it was in— 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: No. I think it was Judge Wisser in James Carl Lee Davis' case and I think it was Will Flowers in McDuff's case that called me.  
  •  RAYMOND: Do you remember what the system was at that point for appointment? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Yes, there was no system. The judge just picked up the phone and called who he thought would do a good job. You know our judges have always been very conscientious. 
  •  GUNTER: I know in some counties there has been a history of appointing less-than-competent lawyers to represent capital defendants just to enhance the chances that the person would get convicted and would get the death penalty. 
  •  GUNTER: But that has never ever been the way it works here in Travis County. It's just the opposite. Our judges are extremely conscientious, and they don't want cases reversed on appeal. 
  •  GUNTER: They want the defendant to get a good trial, a good fair trial that will hold up on appeal. 
  •  GUNTER: So they just kind of sit down and figure, Okay, who are the lawyers most currently up to date on trying death penalty cases and you know that are good competent lawyers. 
  •  GUNTER: That's how they did it then and I think that's pretty much how they do it now, I mean our court appointment system has become a little bit more formalized than it used to be back then, 
  •  GUNTER: but when it comes to the capital cases, we so rarely seek the death penalty in cases in Travis County that the judges still put some individual thought into who ought to be handling the case. 
  •  RAYMOND: Can you talk a little bit more about then the preparation for Kenneth McDuff? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, since so much of his misbehavior took place up in the Waco area, we had to spend a lot of time up there, talking to witnesses, talking to his family, 
  •  GUNTER: talking to inmates that he had shared cells with in different facilities that we suspected the state intended to call as witnesses. Oh we got to do some pretty interesting stuff. 
  •  GUNTER: One of the crucial pieces of evidence in the case was there was this guy that identified Kenneth in this car leaving the car wash, and we had to, I mean a big, big focus for us was to try to undermine the credibility of this witness 
  •  GUNTER: and he was this good looking, very credible, upstanding citizen that was standing on the front porch of this house just right across from the car wash, maybe, I'm going to say fifty yards from the car wash parking lot, 
  •  GUNTER: and he was out there on the front porch with his brother and some other people, they were visiting this house, 
  •  GUNTER: and as I recall and again it's been a long time, Kenneth and Worley, that was his accomplice, they drove up that street in front of this house that they were standing in front of, 
  •  GUNTER: and Kenneth and them were driving the wrong way, and that of course caught their attention, and this is at night, and he gets just a fleeting glance at the driver of the car, 
  •  GUNTER: and then, moments later, theoretically, or the theory was that Kenneth then circled the block and pulled back into the car wash and snatched Colleen Reed, and then these people hear her scream, and then they see this car pull off out of the car wash parking lot, 
  •  GUNTER: and he puts two and two together and says well that's the same car that just drove the wrong way, and the way he remembered that was the taillights, the Thunderbird had real distinctive taillights. 
  •  GUNTER: Well, we had to try to attack his identification of this car that drove by at night and you know other than the car going the wrong way there wasn't really any reason to you know to really study who's in the car. 
  •  GUNTER: And so what we did, Andy and I ended up doing, and I can't remember how we pulled this off but we found that old Thunderbird of his at some tow yard up in Waco and we went up there and talked this guy into letting us borrow that car, 
  •  GUNTER: and we drove that car back down here to do some video-taping, just set it up and just try to film and see can you really see somebody driving this thing at that same time of night and all that, 
  •  GUNTER: and at the time my wife was a flight attendant and we had this little, our daughter, she was probably, let's see, I can't remember now when that trial was. Do you remember what year that was? Do you know? Ninety-five maybe? I can't remember. 
  •  GUNTER: My little girl was a little girl, and I had her, my wife was off flying, so she was with us the night we did that, so my daughter's sitting in the backseat of the Thunderbird where Colleen Reed was allegedly raped and murdered. 
  •  GUNTER: My wife still doesn't talk to me, I mean she's still mad at me today about that but I didn't have anything else to do, I was in charge of my daughter that night and we had to do it that night, we had to get the car back the next day, 
  •  GUNTER: but I remember that, that was kind of a fun deal. But we did, you know we put together this videotape and we showed it at trial, just in an effort to show that this guy couldn't have seen what he said he saw. Course it didn't do any good. 
  •  RAYMOND: Where were you trying this case? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Pardon me? 
  •  RAYMOND: Where were you trying this case? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: We tried this in Guadalupe County in Seguin. Judge Flowers granted a motion to change venue just because of all the adverse publicity in the case. 
  •  RAYMOND: Did it help? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: No, no, not at all. 
  •  RAYMOND: Can you tell me about trying the case in Seguin? 
  •  GUNTER: Yeah.. 
  •  RAYMOND: Have you done that before or since? 
  •   CHRIS GUNTER: Yes, well I've never tried a case before or since down in Seguin. Oh it was nice, we stayed in this neat old house, this bed and breakfast, for— I forget how long the trial took, it probably took a month. 
  •  GUNTER: I mean, we enjoyed staying down there and everybody was very nice to us, all the local people, all the courthouse personnel were very nice to us, and the jury was nice to us, and everybody was nice to us. 
  •  GUNTER: They just, you know, the jury just said this is one bad seed and we're going to do what we can to make sure he gets executed. 
  •  RAYMOND: What was it like for you to be working with or representing McDuff? I mean actually himself, to work with him? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, he was an interesting guy. Big man, loud, and see by the time he was on trial there he was in his fifties, and you would expect would be slowing down a little bit but no, this guy was one big, strong, loud, mean, mean human being. 
  •  GUNTER: Some days, or initially he was very, very apprehensive about Andy and me. I think he had had bad experiences with lawyers his whole life, didn't trust lawyers, didn't trust us initially. 
  •  GUNTER: In time, he came to see that Andy and I really were on his team, even though we fought like cats and dogs sometimes, I'm talking about Kenneth and Andy and me. Kenneth was a very difficult client. 
  •  GUNTER: When he wanted to be, he could be a very good client, easy to get along with, but very mercurial. We'd go in there one day and he was just happy to see us and pleasant to be around, charming. 
  •  GUNTER: Other days, man, he was cocked and ready to go off on somebody and that's why he always had an entourage of guards whenever we had any kind of a pretrial hearing. 
  •  GUNTER: They'd push him around and they'd try to push his buttons, and sometimes they were successful at it. He'd buck up and there'd be some pushing and shoving, I remember right before one of our pretrial hearings over at the courthouse, they were kind of messing with him 
  •  GUNTER: and Kenneth was kind of pulling back and next thing you know they're all wrestling around in this, back then we had this foyer where all the judges were and oh it was just a mess and they ended up with Kenneth on the ground with a big old bump on his noggin 
  •  GUNTER: and that was pretty much the end of— no, I don't think Judge Flowers ended that pre-trial hearing, I think he went ahead and just stuck him in the jail holding facility and we went on without him if I'm remembering right. 
  •  GUNTER: You know it was like that with him, you just kind of never knew what he was going to be like. 
  •  GUNTER: One thing that Andy and I still talk about is how he would flash that charming side of his and you know one of the things that always struck us was how he could convince people like Hank Worley or Roy Dale Green, 
  •  GUNTER: that was that case back in the sixties where he murdered those teenagers, his sidekick then was this poor, pitiful lguy named Roy Dale Green, 
  •  GUNTER: and we always wondered how does anybody throw in with this guy? How does he talk people into going along with him on these terrible adventures? 
  •  GUNTER: But when he would flash that charm you could see how he would do it, you could just picture him in a beer joint, which is where he always picked these guys up, you know, sidle up to one of them 
  •  GUNTER: and buy him a cold beer and get to talking to him and buy him another cold beer and whoever it is, Hank Worley's his new best friend and the next think you know old Hank Worley's in over his head. 
  •  GUNTER: Kenneth could be very charming and the same thing is how he could talk these women into getting in the car with him, these various prostitutes that he would pick up and ultimately murder 
  •  GUNTER: and I think it was that side of him, very, very sociopathic, you know in that regard, had that real appealing side, but boy when he turned, I mean you could see it in his eyes, and you did not want to be around him. 
  •  RAYMOND: Without corresponding to anything that's in that realm of attorney-client privilege, can you talk about what kinds of fights you and Andy would have with him? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: He would want us for instance to cross-examine very vigorously, and just go for the throat, Colleen Reed's sister.  And you know she really enjoyed the spotlight. 
  •  GUNTER: Every chance she got she was in front of those TV cameras, and Kenneth saw it on that jailhouse TV, and every time there was an article in the paper, she was quoted, and I'm embarrassed I'm forgetting her name right now, but Kenneth hated her, 
  •  GUNTER: and when we kind of laughed and said -- No, we're not going to be asking, we're not going to be vigorously cross-examining her sister. In fact, we're going to probably pass the witness, we're probably not going to ask her anything -- 
  •  GUNTER: Oh, I remember him getting real upset about that. You know, "You're my lawyers, you need to be defending me," and really getting angry about that. None of the other ones are coming to me right now. Just different ideas of trial strategy. 
  •  GUNTER: There was a time when he wanted to get on the witness stand and testify, and of course we argued big time about that. And he had a great deal of experience in the courtroom. He had spent more time in trial than most lawyers have. 
  •  GUNTER: But his ideas of course were most of the time just totally stupid and you know without saying it that way we would just tell him -No, we're not going to do it that way - and he would get angry. We'd fight about that. 
  •  (RAYMOND to Solis: Are you? I thought I saw you doing something.) 
  •  RAYMOND: No, fine, okay, sorry, just watching out for the tape. Did he understand when you explained why it wasn't a good idea? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: He would. He would resist. He'd get very, very focused. He would get tunnel vision and get it in his mind that I want to do it this way and sometimes we could not make any progress with him there at the moment. 
  •  GUNTER: But when we were done and we would leave, and he would have time to kind of think about what we'd talked about more often than not the next time we met he would concede that we were probably right.  
  •  RAYMOND: What was your strategy in that case? If you, if you had one. 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well on that one we really did try our best to raise some reasonable doubt. We tried to cast doubt upon that witness's identification. 
  •  GUNTER: We had to attack, very hard, Hank Worley because Hank Worley testified, and so our cross-examination of him was very long and we really did try to undermine his credibility. 
  •  GUNTER: There was some hair evidence that we had to deal with and you know we tried to deal with that the best way we could. Our strategy was to try to raise some doubt. 
  •  GUNTER: And then, when they found him guilty, then our strategy was basically, Look, he's been given the death penalty already in the Waco case. 
  •  GUNTER: Don't give him the death penalty again and cause the taxpayers to have to spend the tens of thousands of dollars to pay for a court-appointed appeal. 
  •  GUNTER: And in fact we offered in final argument, and this, oh this created a real firestorm in the courtroom, we had gotten him to sign a waiver of appeal. 
  •  GUNTER: And in final argument I stood up and I pulled the waiver of appeal out of my briefcase and told the jury, Look, you know, if you give him the death penalty, there's an automatic appeal, 
  •  GUNTER: and it's going to cost thousands and thousands and thousands of the taxpayers' money, and he's already got the death penalty in one case, and I'm here telling you right now I have a signed waiver of appeal that we will file, 
  •  GUNTER: you have my word, if you give him a life sentence rather than the death penalty. 
  •  GUNTER: Oh, the prosecutors just went, they went ballistic and Judge Flowers went ballistic. 
  •  GUNTER: Oh he really did, he didn't talk to me for months. It took a long time for him to talk to me after that. But desperate lawyers try desperate things so we were trying everything we could to pull a rabbit out of a hat.  
  •  RAYMOND: Do you know anybody who's ever done that before?  
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Yeah. Yeah I sure do, it's where I got the idea. Back in the sixties, there was a defendant here in town, a James Cross. James C. Cross murdered three UT co-eds. He was a student. He was a big fraternity guy. 
  •  GUNTER: And I think it was three, at least two but I think it was three girls, sorority girls that he killed and left their bodies out in this field. And Perry Jones and Roy Minton tried that case. 
  •  GUNTER: Mr. Jones is now deceased but of course Roy is still practicing law, one of the best lawyers to have ever been in this state. 
  •  GUNTER: But they defended Cross, and they stood up and made that same argument to that jury in that case and the jury gave him a life sentence. 
  •  GUNTER: In fact years later, just as an aside, years and years later, like twenty years later, Cross had spent— maybe longer than that, twenty-five, twenty-eight years later. 
  •  GUNTER: Due to some changes in the law it became apparent that Cross actually might have a ground of appeal and his family went to Minton's firm to see about exploring setting aside his conviction, 
  •  GUNTER: and Minton and them said, "We promised that jury we would not appeal that case and we're not going to do it" and he ended up having to hire another lawyer. But anyhow, so yeah I got the idea from a case tried many, many years ago.  
  •  RAYMOND: And that was just in lore, or you had— 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Do what? 
  •  RAYMOND: That was just in courthouse lore, the stories or— 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Yeah I worked for Minton. When I was in law school I law clerked over there, so I've been very close to those guys for years, yeah. 
  •  RAYMOND: I wonder if you could talk about to what's relevant with each of these three cases about jury selection. I know that that's— 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, that, of course that is the big deal. I mean, jury selection is everything and there have been some huge advances in the theory of jury selection in death penalty cases since the last time I tried, since Andy and I tried McDuff's case. 
  •  GUNTER: And I frankly don't know a lot about it because I've not tried a capital case since then and haven't had to, just haven't had to do it. 
  •  GUNTER: Oh there's this, what they call the Colorado Method, and it's apparently very effective to help weed out those people that are never going to rule in your favor and try to get those ones that are going to be somewhat sympathetic to you. 
  •  GUNTER: You know, jury selection is what it's all about. 
  •  GUNTER: Now I think, I personally believe that along with this new method of jury selection in capital cases I think the defense bar has benefited from just a general— I'm not sure skepticism is the right word, but a slight attitude change among people about the death penalty. 
  •  GUNTER: You know we've all heard about all these people that have been found to be innocent after they've been convicted and I think that really plays on these jurors' minds these days, more than it used to. 
  •  GUNTER: And I think they're more sensitive to the thought that, Gosh, it's sure possible to convict the wrong person and it'd be horrible to execute the wrong person, and I think that that sensitivity has factored into it being harder for prosecutors to get the death penalty today. 
  •  GUNTER: You see more life sentences than you did back in the eighties and the early nineties.  
  •  RAYMOND: You said you have not taken a case, capital case, I guess since McDuff— 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Right. 
  •  RAYMOND: Can we talk about why that is, is it just— 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, I've not been asked to, and that's okay with me. I'm not out looking to do another death penalty case. You know I will, if the judge calls me and asks me to, but I'm not going out there looking for one, because they are nasty cases.  
  •  RAYMOND: And you talked a little bit before about how you changed your views some more between— 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Prosecution— 
  •  RAYMOND: Prosecution and defense, and some of that was about James Carl Lee Davis himself. He was - 
  •  GUNTER: Right 
  •  RAYMOND: - a very different person. 
  •  GUNTER: Right.  
  •  RAYMOND:  Given these three very different experiences, can you talk about generally where you are? 
  •   CHRIS GUNTER: Oh yeah. Not generally, I can tell you specifically where I am. I am against the death penalty. I think it violates my religious beliefs. 
  •  GUNTER: I think, on a secular basis, I don't believe that it accomplishes anything other than satisfying some feelings of vengeance on the victim's family's part, and it certainly accomplishes getting rid of one maybe sorry human being, 
  •  GUNTER: but I just don't think either one of those reasons are good enough to execute a fellow human being. 
  •  GUNTER: You'll hear, you really don't even hear it that much anymore 
  •  GUNTER: but he popular argument for the death penalty was that it was a deterrent, it provided a deterrent effect, it kept others from committing those heinous crimes, but I don't buy that and I don't think any of the experts buy that. 
  •  GUNTER:  The people that do these sorts of crimes, they aren't capable generally of thinking past the next forty-five minutes, much less, Gosh, if I go kill two people at one time rather than one I'm going to be subject to the death penalty. 
  •  GUNTER: No, they don't engage in that kind of mindset.  
  •  RAYMOND: I'm going to ask you a couple more, but can we just change the tape? 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Sure.  
  •  RAYMOND: You were just talking about the reasons people give for the death penalty and one of them being some kind of sense of satisfaction or something in the victim's family. 
  •  RAYMOND: Have you seen that happen, either as a prosecutor or a defense attorney or even as an observer around the courthouse. I mean, does that happen, do people get something out of it?  
  •   CHRIS GUNTER: Well, I don't know what people actually get out of it. You know I've—yeah, I'm around that courthouse a lot and I've seen not just in death penalty cases but I see how victims and victims' families, you know, they want a pound of flesh, 
  •  GUNTER: and, you know, you see them, you know, walking out of that courtroom high-fiving one another or you'll see them, you'll hear them erupt into cheers in the courtroom when a good verdict comes down for the state and the defendant gets a lot of years 
  •  GUNTER: and, you know, I've never been in their shoes so I can't speak to what they really feel. One thing that I've always found just so, so, ironic is— and irony may not be the right word I'm looking for there— 
  •  GUNTER: but I can't tell you how many times I've had victims get on the witness stand and tell a defendant that, "I have forgiven you," and talk in these Christian terms, "I'm a good Christian person and I have forgiven you," yet they're high-fiving it, 
  •  GUNTER: or they're extremely upset when the verdict doesn't go their way and the defendant doesn't get as much time or as much punishment as they think they should 
  •  GUNTER: and I just always have felt there's a real disconnect there between this purported Christian, you know, forgiveness, yet it is so clear that they want vengeance so badly. It just, it doesn't connect for me. 
  •  GUNTER: I have seen documentaries and I have read things that, they've tried to follow up with people that go down and watch these executions just to see if it really makes them, if it brings that closure, 
  •  GUNTER: and that's one of those terms that makes me want to vomit that we hear so often in this business is, Oh, the victim and the victim's family just needs closure, 
  •  GUNTER: and you know these people that will go down there and watch these executions, and then later on they've been interviewed, and there's no closure, and it didn't bring any sense of relief, 
  •  GUNTER: at least, the people that I saw interviewed on, you know, in this documentary. I think it's just one of those, one more thing, just one more tragic layer to the whole tragedy. 
  •  GUNTER: And, you know, I think people sometimes think, you know, giving them the death penalty or giving them ninety-nine years or executing them is going to make me feel good again as a human being. I don't buy it. I don't believe it.  
  •  RAYMOND: Is there anything I should have asked you about the death penalty or anything, anything you would want to communicate to people now or, you know, later? You know, years from now who might watch or read your transcript, watch this video, so that they would benefit somehow from your experience and understandings?  
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, I think the only final thought that I would have would be really more as a person rather than as a lawyer and that is, you know, that 
  •  GUNTER: I just hope for the day that we don't feel compelled as a society to deliberately set out to kill a fellow human being no matter how flawed that human being might be. 
  •  GUNTER: And don't get me wrong, I believe in punishment, and I believe when people do bad things they need to get bad punishment. But I think the punishment can be effective but short of, you know, killing somebody. 
  •  GUNTER: And that, you know, that's not any great legal doctrine or legal thought. I mean that's just my personal feeling as a fellow human being. And that's all I've got to say about that.  
  •  RAYMOND: Well, thank you, Mr. Gunter, for your time. I know you're really busy and we really appreciate your time. It's been a privilege to talk with you. 
  •  CHRIS GUNTER: Well, you're very welcome. I appreciate it, getting to do it.  
  •  RAYMOND: Thank you so much. 
  •   CHRIS GUNTER: Well good luck with your project.  
 
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Title:Interview with Christopher Gunter
Abstract:Christopher M. Gunter is an attorney, and has practiced criminal law in Travis County since 1980, after earning his JD from the University of Texas School of Law. In this interview, Gunter discusses his experiences prosecuting his first death penalty case when he was an Assistant District Attorney in Travis County. Gunter discusses his encounters and his experiences while preparing his case against Leroy Barrow, who received a death sentence, a sentence that was ultimately reversed and replaced with a life sentence at a later trial. Gunter then describes his experiences serving as a defense attorney in two widely publicized capital murder trials: that of James Carl Lee Davis in 1985 and Kenneth McDuff in 1994, both of whom were found guilty, sentenced to death and executed. Gunter describes his collaboration with colleague Andrew Forsythe, his trial strategies, his feelings toward his clients and the trial process, his religious beliefs and the evolution of his personal views about the death penalty. This interview took place on July 25, 2008 in Gunter's law office in Austin, Travis County, Texas
Sequence:1 of 1
Contributors:
  • Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Interviewer
  • Gabriel Daniel SolisRole: Videographer
  • Megan EatmanRole: Transcriber
  • Gabriel Daniel SolisRole: Proofreader
Date Created:2008/07/28
Languages:eng
Geographic Focuses:North America--United States--Texas
Geographic Base:North America--United States--Texas--Austin
Type of Resource:Moving image
Genre:Interview
Identifier:tav00008
Rights:
    This electronic resource is made available by the University of Texas Libraries solely for the purposes of research, teaching and private study. All intellectual property rights are retained by the legal copyright holders. The University of Texas does not hold the copyright to the content of this file. Formal permission to reuse or republish this content must be obtained from the copyright holder.

 

 

 

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