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After Dallas DA’s death, 19 convictions undone

As district attorney of Dallas for an unprecedented 36 years, Henry Wade was the embodiment of Texas justice.
Dallas DAs Legacy
Former Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade speaks during an interview in Dallas, March 4, 1986. During an unprecedented 36-year reign as the Dallas County district attorney, Wade convicted more than 90 percent of the defendants in his purview. Nineteen convictions — so far — won by Wade and his successors are being overturned, some two-thirds of them involving black men. An estimated 250 cases remain for review. Steve Krauss / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As district attorney of Dallas for an unprecedented 36 years, Henry Wade was the embodiment of Texas justice.

A strapping 6-footer with a square jaw and a half-chewed cigar clamped between his teeth, The Chief, as he was known, prosecuted Jack Ruby. He was the Wade in Roe v. Wade. And he compiled a conviction rate so impressive that defense attorneys ruefully called themselves the 7 Percent Club.

But now, seven years after Wade's death, The Chief's legacy is taking a beating.

Nineteen convictions — three for murder and the rest involving rape or burglary — won by Wade and two successors who trained under him have been overturned after DNA evidence exonerated the defendants. About 250 more cases are under review.

No other county in America — and almost no state, for that matter — has freed more innocent people from prison in recent years than Dallas County, where Wade was DA from 1951 through 1986.

Current District Attorney Craig Watkins, who in 2006 became the first black elected chief prosecutor in any Texas county, said that more wrongly convicted people will go free.

"There was a cowboy kind of mentality and the reality is that kind of approach is archaic, racist, elitist and arrogant," said Watkins, who is 40 and never worked for Wade or met him.

'Not a racist'
But some of those who knew Wade say the truth is more complicated than Watkins' summation.

"My father was not a racist. He didn't have a racist bone in his body," said Kim Wade, a lawyer in his own right. "He was very competitive."

Moreover, former colleagues — and even the Innocence Project of Texas, which is spearheading the DNA tests — credit Wade with preserving the evidence in every case, a practice that allowed investigations to be reopened and inmates to be freed. (His critics say, of course, that he kept the evidence for possible use in further prosecutions, not to help defendants.)

The new DA and other Wade detractors say the cases won under Wade were riddled with shoddy investigations, evidence was ignored and defense lawyers were kept in the dark. They note that the promotion system under Wade rewarded prosecutors for high conviction rates.

In the case of James Lee Woodard — released in April after 27 years in prison for a murder DNA showed he didn't commit — Wade's office withheld from defense attorneys photographs of tire tracks at the crime scene that didn't match Woodard's car.

"Now in hindsight, we're finding lots of places where detectives in those cases, they kind of trimmed the corners to just get the case done," said Michelle Moore, a Dallas County public defender and president of the Innocence Project of Texas. "Whether that's the fault of the detectives or the DA's, I don't know."

'Win at all costs'
John Stickels, a University of Texas at Arlington criminology professor and a director of the Innocence Project of Texas, blames a culture of "win at all costs."

"When someone was arrested, it was assumed they were guilty," he said. "I think prosecutors and investigators basically ignored all evidence to the contrary and decided they were going to convict these guys."

A Democrat, Wade was first elected DA at age 35 after three years as an assistant DA, promising to "stem the rising tide of crime." Wade already had spent four years as an FBI agent, served in the Navy during World War II and did a stint as a local prosecutor in nearby Rockwall County, where he grew up on a farm, the son of a lawyer. Wade was one of 11 children; six of the boys went on to become lawyers.

He was elected 10 times in all. He and his cadre of assistant DAs — all of them white men, early on — consistently reported annual conviction rates above 90 percent. In his last 20 years as district attorney, his office won 165,000 convictions, the Dallas Morning News reported when he retired.

In the 1960s, Wade secured a murder conviction against Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who shot Lee Harvey Oswald after Oswald's arrest in the assassination of President Kennedy. Ruby's conviction was overturned on appeal, and he died before Wade could retry him.

Wade was also the defendant in the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. The case began three years earlier when Dallas resident Norma McCorvey — using the pseudonym Jane Roe — sued because she couldn't get an abortion in Texas.

Cases overturned
Troubling cases surfaced in the 1980s, as Wade's career was winding down.

Lenell Geter, a black engineer, was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison. After Geter had spent more than a year behind bars, Wade agreed to a new trial, then dropped the charges in 1983 amid reports of shoddy evidence and allegations Geter was singled out because of his race.

In Wade's final year in office, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a black man, Thomas Miller-El, ruling that blacks were excluded from the jury. Cited in Miller-El's appeal was a manual for prosecutors that Wade wrote in 1969 and was used for more than a decade. It gave instructions on how to keep minorities off juries.

A month before Wade died of Parkinson's disease in 2001, DNA evidence was used for the first time to reverse a Dallas County conviction. David Shawn Pope, found guilty of rape in 1986, had spent 15 years in prison.

Watkins, a former defense lawyer, has since put in place a program under which prosecutors, aided by law students, are examining hundreds of old cases where convicted criminals have requested DNA testing.

'Protecting a legacy'
Of the 19 convictions that have been overturned, all but four were won during Wade's tenure. In two-thirds of the cases, the defendants were black men. None of the convictions that have come under review are death penalty cases.

"I think the number of examples of cases show it's troubling," said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal group affiliated with the Texas effort. "Whether it's worse than other jurisdictions, it's hard to say. It would be a mistake to conclude the problems in these cases are limited to Dallas or are unique to Dallas.

Former assistant prosecutor Dan Hagood said The Chief expected his assistants to be prepared, represent the state well and be careful and fair.

"Never once — ever — did I ever get the feeling of anything unethical," Hagood said. He denied there was any pressure exerted from above — "no `wink' deals, no `The boss says we need to get this guy.'"

But Watkins said those who defend The Chief are "protecting a legacy."

"Clearly it was a culture. A lot of folks don't want to admit it. It was there," the new DA said. "We decided to fix it."