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Houston prosecutor 'never seen anything like this'

Joe Owmby must make a recommendation on whether to pursue the death penalty against Andrea Yates
Joe Owmby must make a recommendation on whether to pursue the death penalty against Andrea Yates  

Joe Owmby never bargained for this.

Owmby is one of the prosecutors in the Harris County, Texas, district attorney's office who have responsibility for the criminal courts here. It just so happened that the Andrea Yates case ended up in one of his courtrooms.

The luck of the draw put Yates in one of Owmby's courtrooms, which means he'll have to make a recommendation to Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal about whether or not Yates deserves the ultimate penalty if she's convicted of drowning her five children.

"Does your gut tell you this is the kind of crime the death penalty was made for," I asked Owmby.


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"I can't say right now," Owmby said. "The death penalty the way it is applied in Texas depends on the crime, the individual and a combination of that and justice. I can't say the crime is the determining factor."

Kentucky native Owmby didn't come to Houston for this.

He was hired by Exxon as a corporate attorney. When Big Oil got smaller in the early 1980s, Owmby was down-sized out of his job. He calls it the best thing that ever happened to him.

"I feel like I make a lot more of a difference in the world doing this," Owmby said.

But he never bargained for this.

In his 15 years in the prosecutor's office Owmby has tried a dozen capital murder cases.

"This is by far the most horrific case I have ever been associated with," he said.

Sensitive to criticism of Texas as execution-happy, Owmby said will spend the next 30 days weighing factors that will determine whether or not Texas will put Andrea Yates on its hit list, including a review of the crime, her mental state, and her lack of criminal history.

But on the crime alone, Owmby says nothing can compare.

"I mean, we have five children in the morgue," he says. I've never seen anything like this."


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