District Judge Vickers Lee Cunningham Sr. and chief prosecutor Toby Shook grew up together in our neighborhood and have known each other for more than 30 years. Both are Woodrow Wilson High School Wildcats, graduating two years apart from each other, in 1980 and 1978, respectively.
And both have been spending plenty of time together lately handling some of the biggest cases to come down the pike in recent Texas legal history — the trials of the Texas 7 escaped prison inmates who shot and killed Dallas-area police officer Aubrey Hawkins on Christmas Eve 2000. Cunningham has been assigned to preside over the cases of five defendants, and Shook is prosecuting the cases.
How did two neighborhood Wildcats wind up together in the courtroom?
Cunningham became involved in the cases after receiving a promotion. In October, Cunningham was tapped by Gov. Rick Perry to fill a seat in the 283rd district court, left vacant by Molly Francis, who was appointed by Perry to the court of appeals.
Cunningham’s reward for accepting the job? Inheriting the five remaining trials of the Texas 7 defendants.
“I wanted the challenge, but now I say be careful what you ask for,” Cunningham says.
Francis handled the first trial, resulting in a death sentence for George Rivas. Cunningham’s first trial was that of Donald Newbury, who also received a death sentence, as did Michael Rodriguez in his recently concluded trial.
For a former district attorney and county judge, handing out the ultimate verdict is something Cunningham says he is still trying to grasp.
“It’s hard to describe, other than it is an awesome responsibility that I take extremely seriously,” Cunningham says.
With Court TV covering the trials, Cunningham says he was left feeling a bit warm under the collar prior to his first decision.
“I felt the weight of the process on my shoulders,” he says. “My first death-penalty trial, with no lead-time to prepare, and to do the sentencing live (on TV) … I didn’t sleep. I want to be sure I’m doing the best job and being fair.”
Cunningham is now presiding over the trial of Joseph Garcia. Whatever Garcia’s fate, Cunningham says he knew his own destiny from a young age. As a six-year-old, he recalls wearing a T-shirt that said “Here Comes the Judge,” given to him by neighbor and then-district judge Lewis F. Russell. Later, as a student at Lakewood Elementary, J.L. Long Middle School and Woodrow, Cunningham went through the YMCA youth and government program and participated in mock trial competitions.
Cunningham and his wife live in our neighborhood, and his two children attend Lakewood. His father is neighborhood insurance agent Bill “Bulldog” Cunningham, another Woodrow graduate.
“School is what you make of it,” Cunningham says. “Woodrow provided all the education that you wanted to have. It did then, and it does now.”
Neighborhood native Toby Shook isn’t squeamish about the business of punishment. In fact, he specializes in it. So seeking the death penalty as chief prosecutor in the trials of the Texas 7 isn’t something he had to think twice about.
“It’s a heavy responsibility, but one that I have confidence in, because I’ve had a lot of experience,” says Shook, who also was on the team that prosecuted Darlie Routier, a Texas mother convicted in 1997 of stabbing her two young boys to death.
“They (The Texas 7) weren’t caught for six weeks, so we knew the evidence pretty well by the time (Dallas District Attorney) Bill Hill made the decision to seek the death sentence,” Shook says.
Shook believes there is sufficient evidence to convince a jury that the escaped inmates who remain to be tried — Garcia, Randy Halprin and Patrick Murphy Jr. (escapee Larry Harper shot and killed himself prior to capture) — were all involved in the shooting death of officer Hawkins.
“It’s a case involving a brutal murder of a police officer, and it’s the kind of case most prosecutors want to get a hold of in order to try and bring the criminals to justice,” he says.
“They all admitted to having guns, evidence shows that they were all involved in the officer being shot 11 times, and they all have violent records.”
Shook says Woodrow played a significant role in his career. Former Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade’s children all went to Woodrow, and Wade gave Shook his first job.
“Wade was a legend,” Shook says. “But the first thing he said in my interview, after looking over my resume, was: Well, you went to the right high school, and started laughing.”
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