A Texas Murder Case Raises An Exquisite Question: Must Parents Testify Against Their Child?
In the past four months the Schatz murder has ensnared the parents of both the victim and her alleged killer in a heartrending legal imbroglio. While the accused murderer, David Port, 17, has been free on a $20,000 bond, his parents, Bernard, 47, and Odette Port, 48, have been jailed since September 12. Their crime: contempt of court for refusing to testify against their son before a grand jury. "I've worked so hard to be a father, I just couldn't testify," Bernard Port explained in court. "Even God didn't force Abraham to sacrifice his child," argues the Ports' attorney, Randy Schaffer, who has become frustrated at his inability to get them released. In Houston there was outrage at the anguish imposed on the Schatz family. Debbie's father, Albert Schatz, 53, grief-stricken by her death, was felled by a fatal heart attack two months later. His widow, Barbara, 52, is bitter about the Ports and believes them to be obstructing justice. Debora Sue's brother-in-law says the family was briefly tempted to seek vigilante justice against the Ports "if we thought we could have gotten away with it."
The Ports' strange confrontation with the law began on the morning after Debora Sue Schatz disappeared, when a resident of Lynbrook Hollow spotted her car still parked on the street. Within hours the normally quiet neighborhood was swarming with police, postal inspectors, reporters and curious citizens. The postal inspectors brought two bloodhounds who traced Schatz's scent to the Port residence. At that point, the Ports emerged from their house and reported to the police that their son, David, was missing.
The Ports allowed police to search their home for clues. The cops claim that they found bullet holes and bloodstains in the house; the Ports deny it. When they were informed that their son was considered a possible suspect, the Ports ejected the police.
That afternoon David Port drove to Lynbrook Hollow in his maroon Chevy. "There he is!" yelled bystanders. The teenager sped off, eventually surrendering to pursuing police after crashing his car. Police officers claim that David told them he killed Schatz; his parents immediately posted bond and David was back home 24 hours later.
From then on the Ports came under intensifying pressures. On Monday, June 11, Bernard Port, a prominent financial consultant, and his second wife, Odette (who is not David's mother), were subpoenaed to testify before the Harris County grand jury. The prosecutors wanted to question the couple about the physical evidence allegedly found in their home and their son's emotional state prior to the crime. But the Ports, who are Jewish, refused to testify, citing an ancient Talmudic law forbidding a parent from testifying against a child. When prosecutors produced a rabbi who refuted the Ports' interpretation of Jewish law, Bernard Port responded that his refusal to testify was not only religious. "I see it more as a moral and cultural issue than a religious one," he declared. "I believe we all have to live by our tenets. What are they going to do, shoot me?" Odette Port, who married David's father nearly 10 years ago, claimed that cooperating with the grand jury would constitute a betrayal of her maternal duties. "When David came to live with us last October, he became my child. A mother's instinct is to protect," she said, "and I would feel unnatural doing just the opposite."
After hearing both sides, Judge William Hatten found the Ports guilty of contempt of court. All through the summer the case was appealed and re-appealed until it reached U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White, who declined to free the parents on bond. Though some courts have upheld the right claimed by the Ports to be exempt from testifying against one's own child, most states do not recognize a parent-child privilege comparable to the law that protects spouses from testifying against each other. If a parent-child privilege were legally recognized, says Judge James De Anda, "soon we would face a situation where testimony could not be elicited from vast numbers of relatives."
Amid all the legal battling, David Port took a step designed to render the case against his parents moot. He waived his right to a grand jury indictment and pleaded not guilty to the murder charge. The prosecution refused to drop the charges against the Ports. District Attorney Brad Beers claims that the grand jury, which indicted Port for murder on September 28, is still investigating the case. Because he fears David's alleged confession may be inadmissible, he believes the Ports' testimony is crucial to the state's case—and wants the Ports held in jail until they agree to talk. "The prosecutors are trying to chill the public," as Schaffer sees it, "so that if something like this happens to your family, you know that they're going to put you in jail too if you won't testify."
While locked in the Harris County jail, the Ports spend their time "praying and reading," says Schaffer. The Schatzes, a large, close-knit clan, were devastated by Debora's death—and again by her father's. Two days after Albert Schatz's death, his widow filed a $5 million civil suit against the Ports, charging that their negligence "proximately caused" both deaths. "Money is not going to bring my daughter back," says Barbara Schatz. "I just want to see justice done."
Meanwhile David Port remains free, living at an undisclosed location. The Ports' house at Lynbrook Hollow stands silent and empty. Inside, a telephone answering machine records a steady stream of anonymous abuse. One man calls regularly, always leaving the same grisly message: "Collect call for David Port from Debora Sue Schatz."