An elected prosecutor used to have one of the most respected jobs at any level of Texas government.
District attorneys were often big personalities — the courtroom muscle of the criminal justice system, the people showing up on TV to play out the real-life version of “truth, justice and the American way.” Candidates for Texas attorney general — an office with almost no duties in criminal law — have tried to capture the crime-busting aura of prosecutors for years. It was strong stuff in a political arena.
Running a political campaign against a sitting prosecutor in Texas was a job for egotistic dunces and legal-minded Quixotes. Even weak DA’s were invincible.
But a strange thing is happening in the impervious ranks of high-profile Texas prosecutors. That cachet is taking a beating.
One prosecutor is in jail. A former district attorney is facing charges related to sending an innocent man to jail. One county spent nearly $400,000 settling a sexual harassment charge against its DA. Another prosecutor is fighting contempt of court charges after refusing to testify in a prosecutorial misconduct inquiry.
An example puts it into focus: In Williamson County, a place known for show-no-mercy law and order, Republican voters ousted a longtime district attorney last year. They had their reasons, but the remarkable thing is that it was even possible.
That was John Bradley, challenged in the Republican primary after a couple of high-profile controversies. He headed the inquiry into a notorious arson case in which Cameron Todd Willingham was executed after being convicted of killing his children. And Bradley was the district attorney accused of sitting on evidence that might have freed Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Ken Anderson, Bradley’s predecessor and now a state district judge, is fighting charges that he withheld evidence in Morton’s prosecution. His lawyers are telling the judge’s judge that even if Anderson broke the law — they’re not conceding that point — the statute of limitations had expired more than 20 years ago.
In Travis County, Rosemary Lehmberg, the district attorney, is serving a 45-day sentence for drunken driving. She was stopped early one morning this month after a witness reported a car weaving dangerously down the road. She was booked, pleaded guilty and was sentenced without a court trial. Her case, like Bradley’s, has political topspin.
Travis County is the seat of the state government, and its district attorney has the duty of prosecuting state officials accused of violating ethics and campaign finance laws. It is also strongly Democratic; should Lehmberg, a Democrat, quit or be forced out, Republican Gov. Rick Perry would get to appoint a successor who would stand for election in 2014.
Tarrant County paid $375,000 to settle sexual harassment claims raised by a former employee of Joe Shannon Jr., the district attorney. Next door, in Dallas County, a judge brought a contempt of court charge against the district attorney, Craig Watkins, who declined to testify at a hearing on prosecutorial misconduct.
Lawyers battle all the time. They call one another names and do their best to win inside and outside the courthouse. But the prosecutors generally win, at least in the public’s view.
Texas DA’s used to be indestructible. The political potshots at long-serving former prosecutors like Dallas County’s Henry Wade, Harris County’s Johnny B. Holmes Jr. and Travis County's Ronnie Earle were part of their jobs. But each left on his own.
The questions about Bradley led to misgivings among the people who elected him. It is clear that Lehmberg and Anderson are in legal and political trouble, but it is not clear whether they will remain in office or appear on future ballots. Shannon and Watkins, if nothing else, have supplied opponents with something to talk about in the next elections.
Times have changed. In the 1980s, crime was the major issue in many local and state elections. In the early 1990s, the people who won those elections went on an epic prison- and jail-building spree.
Voters are worried about other things now. Wrongful convictions and prosecutions have shaken public faith in the criminal justice system.
And, it turns out, in the people at the top.