Chuck It

The only surprising thing about the self-destruction of the Harris County district attorney is that it took so long.
Court of Limited Appeal: Rosenthal has been criticized in a number of cases, including the prosecution of Andrea Yates, in 2002.
Photograph by James Images

January 17 was a great news day in Houston. Texas Supreme Court justice David Medina and his wife, Francisca, were indicted by a Harris County grand jury for charges related to a fire that torched their McMansion in the suburb of Spring. But it became an even better news day when district attorney Chuck Rosenthal quickly asked that the indictments be dismissed and two grand jurors went to reporters to complain of hanky-panky—that is, political favoritism—by the Republican DA on behalf of the Republican jurist. Pretty much overnight, the Medina case became a story about Rosenthal and added to the hysteria (if you were an R) or euphoria (if you were a D or a defense lawyer or both) over the ongoing meltdown in the infamous Harris County DA’s office. Three weeks earlier, the release of scandalous e-mails by a judge in a separate case had led to calls for Rosenthal’s head. Rosenthal admitted that the messages were inappropriate, but in an e-mail to Ed Emmett, the county’s chief executive officer, he downplayed them by saying that “thankfully, stupidity [was] not grounds” for resignation.

Stupidity is an understatement. After three decades of dealing with arrogant behavior—first as an assistant prosecutor and the past seven years as the DA—everyone is more than willing to concede the point. Rosenthal, who grudgingly ended his plans to run for reelection this November, has seen his professional life slip through his fingers, and it’s his own damn fault.

No place in the entire state sends more people to death row than Harris County, and no public institution has brought Houston more embarrassment than the DA’s office. This near-flawless system works like—depending on which analogy you prefer—a conveyor belt, an assembly line, or a stacked deck. The DA’s office, located in an imposing criminal justice center downtown, has nearly unlimited resources to prosecute; defendants have little money, less political clout, and, usually, negligible legal representation. Yet—unsurprising in this day and age—the scandal that took down Rosenthal had nothing to do with something as substantial as capital punishment. Instead, he was done in by his own e-mails, which were unsealed by a judge in a civil case involving the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. They revealed to the public that the man who wrapped himself in piety the way Ronald Reagan wrapped himself in the flag was a less-than-devout follower of the Ten Commandments. “The very next time I see you I want to kiss you behind your right ear,” the married DA wrote to his longtime executive assistant Kerry Stevens. “You own my heart whether you want or not,” he wrote in another, perhaps in reference to their affair during Rosenthal’s first marriage, in the eighties.

But that wasn’t the really bad stuff. An ostensibly humorous video in one e-mail he had received from a friend showed unsuspecting women getting their clothes ripped off. Others contained plans for Rosenthal’s reelection, even though it was against the law to use government computers for political purposes; in some he told co-workers they could take time off from work to campaign for him. Yet the most disturbing e-mail that was sent to him contained a photo of a black man passed out on a sidewalk, surrounded by partially eaten watermelon slices and a bucket of fried chicken. The title read “Fatal Overdose.” The furious response from the public showed that Houston had finally had enough. Local Republican leaders called an emergency meeting and asked Rosenthal to remove his name from the March primary ballot. Initially, a defiant Rosenthal refused. After that meeting, Harris County GOP chairman Jared Woodfill tried one more time to change his mind. “His response was, ‘What part of “no” don’t you understand?’ ” Woodfill recalled.

Eventually Rosenthal did remove his name from the ballot, via a letter hand-delivered by one of his staffers with just minutes to spare before

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