January 15, 2008
Rosenthal's judgment

Interesting analysis of the career of Chuck Rosenthal and how his judgment, which he claims was at fault for all the recent unpleasantness, has been an issue for quite some time.

Attorney Jim Leitner, who ran against Rosenthal in 2000 upon the retirement of local legend Johnny Holmes, tried to seize on his personality in that first primary campaign.

"How can we expect someone to set the example for all law enforcement agencies of Harris County if they do not possess good judgment?" Leitner said eight years ago.

Given the content of some of Rosenthal's recently publicized e-mails -- which included questionable campaign communications that are being investigated by the Texas attorney general, repeated love notes to his secretary, racial jokes and images, and sexually explicit video clips -- the question is more pertinent than ever.

Rosenthal declined to comment for this story, but over the past few weeks he has said he was sorry for causing pain to others with his personal e-mails and that he regretted some of what he had said. But he insisted he had not done anything that should cost him his job or his shot at re-election.

His actions were not illegal, Rosenthal has said, acknowledging only his own "stupidity." County Judge Ed Emmett, referring to a conversation with him, said Rosenthal owned up to "great errors in judgment."

The J-word. It has dogged him for decades. People who have praised him sometimes had a hard time understanding things he has done. Why, for instance, could he not see how bad it looked to take a $2,500 campaign contribution from the owner of a construction company that was being prosecuted by his office for environmental crimes? And why did it take two weeks and several news articles before he was willing to return the donation?

Sometimes his behavior seemed mere foolishness. There was the oft-cited instance when he set off firecrackers in an office stairwell that some workers feared was gunfire. There was his less-publicized and highly personal judicial "voters guide" that he shared with other prosecutors. He offered opinions on candidates, including sitting judges, in language that often lapsed into the vulgar.

There were other instances over the years when Rosenthal's conduct has had more serious connotations. In 1986, for example, his tactics as a prosecutor were questioned when he was accused of sending two undercover police officers posing as defense lawyers into the city jail to talk with a defendant there on cocaine charges. The alleged trick was an attempt to learn more about a reported kidnapping. Even Holmes questioned whether his assistant, one of two prosecutors assigned to the case, had pushed the envelope.

The defendant's attorney, Dan Gerson, was incensed when it happened, and his opinion did not lessen over time.

"I thought it showed a willingness to cross the ethical line, and that Rosenthal believes that the end justifies the means," Gerson recalled in 2003.


In the trial of Robert Coulson for the murder of his family, he presented photos of an incriminating envelope positioned prominently on a desk, only later acknowledging in an appeals proceeding that the envelope was not there the night of the crime and shouldn't have been shown to the jury.

And in the prosecution of accused murderer Anibal Sanchez, weapons testing that likely would have undermined the state's case was never given to defense attorneys, as required by law. Sanchez was sent to death row, where he died of natural causes. When the unseen police ballistics report became a major point of an appeal years later, he dismissed the failure to disclose it as an oversight. But his co-counsel later became suspicious.

"I wonder whether I was just a shill," said lead prosecutor Lorraine Parker, who moved to Denver to practice civil law and became active in a local anti-death penalty organization.

"He was a lot tighter with the cops than I ever was. His judgment as a prosecutor often came into question. I cannot understand why Johnny Holmes anointed him as a successor," Parker said.

That last bit sounds like the basis of a plotline from Law and Order, doesn't it? Put all this stuff together and it's pretty damning. It's also a pretty strong argument for a complete overhaul of the office.

In fairness, the defense bar's complaints over his judgment during the last eight years have centered more on matters of policy: pursuing the death penalty against Andrea Yates or failing to bring in outside scrutiny for cases that may have been compromised by the troubled Houston Police Department crime lab.

But this latest scandal shows Rosenthal's conduct has veered too far off track to be ignored, said Pat McCann, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

McCann finds himself in the odd position of advocating on behalf of his usual adversaries on the other side of the aisle and the institution they represent.

"I think what's most important, Chuck is doing dishonor to the people who have served him and whom he cares about," McCann said.

"If he could step aside and ask for forgiveness, that would be the best way to honor them. Right now, he's going to wind up destroying what he worked to build."

Mark Bennett delves into the question of how much those people (one in particular) who have served Rosenthal should now be held accountable for his actions:

[I]s it fair for voters to hold Kelly Siegler's close professional relationship with Chuck Rosenthal, as well as her positions of rank, respect, and power in the Office, against her when considering her qualifications as a candidate for District Attorney? Or does the buck somehow bypass Kelly on its way to stopping at Chuck?

Why or why not?

A commenter there makes the case for why not; go take a look and see what you think. I'll just say that fair or not, it's a question people are going to want answered. Lisa Falkenberg, meanwhile, explores the "screwballs" issue to raise questions about Siegler's judgment. Check them out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 15, 2008 to Crime and Punishment

The Chronic left out one juicy factoid: they endorsed him.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on January 15, 2008 9:14 PM
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