Criminal Justice

A Legend Continues

TV, where the towns are small and the crimes anything but.

By Gabrielle Cosgriff August 1, 2013 Published in the August 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

You may not know her name, but you know exactly what Kelly Siegler did. She’s the Harris County prosecutor who, during the 2004 trial of Susan Wright, reenacted the murder of Wright’s husband in front of a slack-jawed jury. Having kicked off her heels, the petite Siegler, knife in hand, climbed atop a hefty young colleague lying spread-eagled on a blood-stained mattress, his limbs tied to bedposts. Then, counting off the savage cuts one by one—193 of them in all—she demonstrated in vivid fashion how Wright killed her husband, claiming self-defense. And just like that, Siegler added another murder conviction to her impressive resume.

She still smarts at the notion that the conviction and her subsequent notoriety came courtesy of a courtroom gimmick: “It makes me crazy when people act like that was a for-show kind of display,” she says. “I’ve been a prosecutor since I was 23, and if there’s ever a way to reenact the crime for a jury, I’ve done that as best I could. That’s the way [Wright] committed the crime. Reenacting it makes it come alive to the jury.” 

That said, there’s no use pretending that Siegler’s flamboyant and ferocious persona has been anything less than an asset. During her more than 20-year tenure with the Harris County District Attorney’s office, from 1987 to 2008, Siegler was a consistent exponent of the “hang ’em high,” good ol’ boy approach to law enforcement favored by then-District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who appointed her chief of his Special Crimes Bureau. (Rosenthal was himself hung high in 2008, done in by a blizzard of pornographic and racist emails that leaked.) And of the 20 capital murder cases Siegler tried over the years, she won the death penalty in 19. 

The last few years have been quiet ones for her, at least relatively speaking, but on September 3, the 50-year-old Siegler is set to make a dramatic comeback, as it were, with her television debut as the star of Cold Justice, a new weekly series on TNT of which the network has commissioned eight episodes.  

It’s the fulfillment of a dream she had almost from the moment she joined Special Crimes, Siegler says, in 2000. In those days, her efforts to crack cold murder cases often involved working with small-town police departments far from Houston. The prosecutor discovered, pretty quickly, that there’s a simple explanation why so many murder cases remain unsolved: small, rural forces have neither the time, the resources, nor the technology to pursue them. 

“I fell in love with it,” she says. “That’s where I came up with the idea for the series,” a TV show in which Siegler and a team of professionals join forces with local law enforcement, solving murder cases that have languished in limbo for years.

Siegler’s idea languished too for a while; then, in 2010, she met Dick Wolf, he of the venerable Law & Order franchise. “He loved the idea from the very beginning,” she says. “And with him being who he is, he was able to hook us up with a lot of other people, and eventually TNT bought the series.” 

Cold Justice is known in the TV business as an unscripted procedural drama, meaning that it features “real” cases being solved in “real” time by “real” investigators. There are two of these in Cold Justice, Siegler and Yolanda McClary, a former crime scene investigator for the Las Vegas Police Department (and, you should know, the model for Marg Helgenberger’s character on CBS’s original CSI series.) 

But the show’s “ace in the hole,” as Siegler puts it, are the professionals who work alongside her and McClary. Among these are retired homicide detective Johnny Bonds, a hometown legend and 20-year veteran of Houston law enforcement, and Alan Brown, another respected Houston homicide detective. 

“Johnny is the best cop I ever met,” says Siegler, “and all these guys are just regular good ol’ boys who get along with everybody and can interview anybody from any walk of life. If we were to bring in an egomaniacal cop to one of these little towns it would all blow up in our faces. And Yolanda’s the same way. She gets along with everybody, she’s hardworking, and she’s dedicated to the show. It’s a team effort.” 

What got Wolf’s attention was Siegler’s “unparalleled passion and commitment to justice,” he says, as well as her “incredible combination of brains, talent, and charisma. … I would have had to be blind to not see her obvious star power.”

Not surprisingly, it’s a power that Siegler had to dial back a bit when she, her team, and the cameras went rolling down the interstate. In keeping with her original idea, Cold Justice producers offered Siegler and company’s services to small, mainly rural police forces around the country. The response was both enthusiastic and overwhelming.

The small town of Blessing, 100 miles southwest of Houston, is both one of the communities on Siegler’s list and the place where she grew up, the eldest of three children.  The justice of the peace in Blessing was Billy Jalufka, her father, although he also ran a barbershop-cum-liquor store. As a child, the studious Siegler loved sitting in Jalufka’s establishment, listening intently while he “held court.” Even then, she says, the only thing she ever wanted to do was work in the D.A.’s office.

To say that Siegler’s come full circle, however, is something of an understatement. 

“We’re making things happen on cases that have been sitting around for years,” she says, “for people who have given up hope, and for cops who haven’t been able to have the luxury and the time to focus on those cases. We get to make that happen and it’s a wonderful thing.” 

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