August 06, 2008
The legacy of Henry Wade

With all the attention that the numerous high-profile DNA exonerations have brought to Dallas County and its current District Attorney Craig Watkins, what does it all mean for Henry Wade, the man on whose watch those unjust convictions occurred? Via Grits, the answer is that his reputation has taken 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.


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."

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."

The irony, of course, is that had Wade not been obsessive about maintaining evidence from past cases, many of these reversals would not be happening now. What skeletons do you suppose might be lurking in Harris County's closet, if only we had the way to investigate them?

I'll say again, I'm really glad to see the mindset that a DA's conviction rate is the most important measuring stick be challenged in such a forthright way. Every one of these bad convictions represents not just an innocent person in prison, but a guilty one left free to victimize others. We as a society need to be able to believe that the people we're putting behind bars are the ones that really belong there. Only by being dedicated to getting it right, rather than getting it done, can we do that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 06, 2008 to Crime and Punishment
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