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 the deadline to withdraw. A sigh of relief was heard countywide. Then he stopped talking to the media—his habit whenever storm clouds started gathering.

It is reasonable, however unsavory, to wonder whether communities get the DAs they deserve. Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, in 1976, Harris County has been dominated by law-and-order types who have viewed the prosecution of death penalty cases as a birthright. In the past 32 years, it has sent 284 men and women to death row, by far the most of any county in Texas. (According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the next three counties with the most death penalty sentences since 1976—Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant—have sentenced only 234 convicts to their deaths combined.) The person most responsible for this formidable achievement is Johnny Holmes, who served as DA from 1979 to 2000. He was a River Oaks boy with a handlebar mustache who evoked Wild Bill Hickok in more ways than one. When asked if he believed that the death penalty served as an effective deterrent, he said, “It might not deter everyone, but it certainly deters the man about to be executed.” That sentiment became the justification of those who followed in Holmes’s wake. All claims that the system discriminated against the poor, underprivileged, and underrepresented—like those, for instance, who’d been assigned defense attorneys who slept through court—were summarily dismissed.

When Holmes decided to retire to his farm, Rosenthal, one of his key lieutenants, stepped forward as his replacement. It was a natural transition: Rosenthal, like Holmes, was a true believer in the death penalty. He even resembled his old boss. Both were large, dominating men. Both had white hair. Rosenthal even had a white mustache.

It wasn’t long, however, before a major difference between Holmes and Rosenthal appeared. Holmes was a religious man but did not wear his faith on his sleeve. By contrast, Rosenthal was a devout Baptist who liked to say “I’m blessed” and often wore a bracelet engraved with “ WWJD,” as in, “What Would Jesus Do?” He shared his faith-based thoughts on the Web site of Second Baptist Church, one of

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