The Unraveling Legacy of Henry Wade

For 36 years, as the lede here notes, former Dallas County DA Henry Wade “was the embodiment of Texas justice.” He still is, but now that title has a more sinister meaning, thanks to 19 overturned convictions and a couple of hundred more cases under review. As the evidence mounts, it’s easy enough to blame the “win at all costs” culture he brought to the DA’s office. One thing to note, though, as all of this moves forward: Wade was elected 10 times in all, even after the Dallas County approach to prosecution–the “cowboy kind of mentality,” as Craig Watkins calls it–was an open secret. So more than a few people should feel ashamed every time another man is exonerated.

Newsletter

Get a weekly recap in your inbox every Sunday of our best stories from the week plus a primer for the days ahead.

Find It

Search our directories for...

Restaurants

Restaurants

Bars

Bars

Events

Events

Attractions

Attractions

View All

View All

Comments

16 responses to “The Unraveling Legacy of Henry Wade”

  1. LakeWWWooder says:

    I hate to break it to you but the days of Henry Wade were before DNA testing.

    I knew him as a nice man with an almost-saintly wife who brought up a wonderful family.

  2. Zac Crain says:

    DNA had nothing to do with why things went so far south in the DA’s office. It’s the reason why people have been exonerated, sure. But that has nothing to do with, for instance, the Lenell Geter case.

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,926416,00.html

    I’m sure he was a nice man outside of the office. It doesn’t matter.

  3. Daniel says:

    Of course he had mastered the basics of civility — that goes without saying. And it’s only proper to leave his family out of this. But let’s face it, the man was a pr*ck and a stain upon the human species. His name will evermore be spoken with contempt and disgust. He earned it.

  4. Glenn Hunter says:

    Once again the Watkins spin machine is in high gear, pulling the likes of Daniel along for the ride. Wade critics in the AP story are basically all Innocence Project types, you’ll notice–plus of course the current D.A., a proven champ at generating headlines. So what’s the real story? First, on a light note, Watkins’ use of the phrase “cowboy mentality” to describe Wade shows one thing pretty clearly: the D.A. doesn’t know a damn thing about cowboys. More importantly, you need to remember that DNA testing was not available when these exonerated individuals were convicted. They were mainly convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony, which has always been admissible in our legal system. The Dallas County Medical Examiner’s office kept evidence in old cases far longer than other jurisdictions, and that’s why we’re seeing these DNA exonerations in Dallas. If other U.S. counties had done the same thing–kept the evidence to re-examine by DNA testing, as Dallas did–you’d likely be seeing the same results. So visiting all this talk about “shame” on the citizens of Dallas–and besmirching the reputation of a tough but fair prosecutor in the bargain–is just off-base and wrong. But it’s exactly the spin that D.A. Watkins wants out there.

  5. Zac Crain says:

    I don’t mean to get into a dust-up with a colleague here, but eyewitness testimony is not infallible.

    https://www.dmagazine.com/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=&nm=&type=MultiPublishing&mod=PublishingTitles&mid=7155F7796F354F21B1183937D847D6DF&tier=4&id=9D7B7798C14E49638FD792868DB8EEA0

    That’s the link I remember. I can find others.

    Also, Wade’s legacy, I would argue, extended to the likes of Bill Hill, who didn’t exactly swing the doors open wide to DNA testing in older cases.

    I don’t doubt there would be more than a few exonerations in other counties had they kept the DNA evidence as well. But there is absolutely a reason why there are more exonerations NOW than there were two years ago.

  6. Bill says:

    Still have yet to see the Dallas Morning news interview any of the old “Seven Percent Club”. That was an exclusive group of defense attorneys who managed to win not guilty verdicts against Wade’s office. His office had a 93% conviction rate at trial, hence the name. I would like for some of those attorneys to weigh in about this.

    Wade was an exceptional civil servant. Not only was he involved in South American counter-espionage during WWII with the FBI, he was also one of Carter’s short list candidates in 1977 for the FBI Director opening in D.C. None of his “racist”(Watkins term) background was brought up in his vetting for the position. He was above board and thought to be an outstanding candidate by Democrats and Republican in Congress.

    Mr. Watkins should go back and read some of the old articles in the DMN archives dating from the 1950’s. Mr. Wade brought an end to the age old tradition of blacks not testifying against blacks in black-on-black crime.

    One need only read the transcript in the Oswald Murder trial, when Wade crossed swords with Ruby’s defense attorney Melvin Belli. Some of the best prosecution. Ever.

    The liberal progressive movement will never give Wade a fair shake based in Roe vs. Wade alone. They will tarnish his good name from here to eternity.

  7. Daniel says:

    Glenn,

    All right, I’ll preface this remark by acknowledging my own ignorance. Thus I’ll frame it as a question: Is a 93% conviction a typical indicator of a “tough-but-fair” mentality? If so, what percentage point would be widely considered the demarcation between that and a “hang’em high” mentality?

    My declaration of ignorance is no rhetorical ploy. Educate me, legal beagles.

    P.S. Nobody’s impugning his very self-evident talent as a prosecutor and a D.A. The valor of his salad days is immaterial. I astringently question his human decency. His son characterizes him as “competitive” — like its sibling “ambitious,” that’s not an accolade in and of itself.

    P.P.S. To say “eyewitness testimony is not infallible” is to make the understatement of the fiscal quarter.

  8. skeptic says:

    For some reason, I seriously doubt Daniel or Zac were alive in the 1960s and living in Dallas..fellas?

  9. Rawlins says:

    I have a lot of inside info on that SOB based for starters when I was an invaluable sole prosecution witness to a murder / rape and thus ‘protected’ pre-trial and aft by Wade. Oh boy do I have stories.

  10. Zac Crain says:

    Fine. I hope you guys are ready for a bunch of stories that happened in West, TX from 1974 until 1992 or so.

    And, just to be on the safe side, I’ll further restrict myself to the happenings on Reagan Street.

  11. wja4507 says:

    Daniel,
    To this day that remains around the rate of prosecution for the U.S Atty’s office, but I see no lambasting of those folks. How do you get a 93% prosecution rate? Exercise considered restraint in who you indict/bring before the grand jury. Therein lies the “tough but fair” possibility, right? I have neither the time nor the inclination to dig through the public records (let alone news reports on them) to ascertain the predominant reason(s) for exonerations. It’s a good thing that it’s happening, and a good thing that some folks have been determined to continue to be guilty.

  12. Daniel says:

    I was born the year Revolver was released, if that’s relevant to you somehow. It’s true I didn’t move to Texas until the McGovern/Nixon campaign cycle. Wild times, baby.

    Even at age 6, I could tell Dallas was a real sh*thole in 1972. All the new neighbor kids told n1gger jokes and several had flat tops and their parents loved Nixon and were deeply distrustful of the existence of Baltimore, Maryland, let alone a young family from there. Was I unlucky to have missed the 60s here?

    In the land of the rednecks, the rose-necked man is DA.

  13. Former ADA says:

    Failure at Journalism

    Several questions should’ve come to your mind, Zac. First, what is Watkins’ conviction rate? As a former ADA under both he and Hill, I would bet you money it is at or above 93%. In fact, a conviction rate in the 90%s is standard – around the nation – a fact you conveniently ignore. Also, your favorite kind of prosecutor, i.e., one who exercised discretion and generally took solid cases to the grand jury, would have an exceedingly high conviction rate. See http://www.rasmusen.org/papers/prosecutors-raghav-ramseyer-rasmusen.pdf (a paper done by a Harvard law prof, an Indiana University B school prof, and a Washington & Lee economics prof). I found that article using the Google search terms “conviction rate prosecutor,” while I was doing what you might call “background.” Second, you might’ve compared how many convictions were overturned under Hill versus the number of those overturned under Watkins. Surprised at the answer? You shouldn’t be, had you attempted to avoid failure at the simple task that was your charge.

    Third, you should read the interviews of multiple ex-prosecutors-under-Wade, who almost uniformly reject the idea that the goal was to “win-at-all-costs.” See the June 9, 2008 issue of Texas Lawyer, available, I believe, at the following website; http://www.law.com/jsp/tx/PubArticleTX.jsp?id=1202421991854. If not, the article’s title is, “Witnesses to the Prosecution: Current and Former ADAs Who Helped Convict Exonerated Men Reflect.” John Council wrote it. You should read up on the topic before you go jump on the bandwagon of dumping on the office that has kept your city safe for so many years.

    Fourth, was there even the hint of a thought about interviewing a defense lawyer who worked in the courthouse during Wade’s or Hill’s administrations? What about one working in Watkins’ courthouse today?

    Finally, before you can successfully admonish us all to be “ashamed” of Wade’s legacy every time another person is exonerated, you should wonder why the evidence is still around to test. Henry Wade. You wonder why a person was wrongly convicted in the first place but fail completely to consider this could’ve happened anywhere else. Do you honestly think the prisons of Mobile, Ala. or Jackson, Miss. are free of innocent people convicted in the 1970s-1990s? Does the thought that there might not be any evidence to test because they didn’t have a great DA like Henry Wade ever cross your mind? Dallas County is and has been the nation’s leader in DNA exonerations – something we should celebrate, and something the credit for which goes equally to Wade, Vance, Hill, and Watkins, and to all of us fair-minded people who worked for your safety under these great men.

    Stop embarrassing yourself and your city without taking the time to learn the facts. It is unbecoming.

  14. dazzling urbanite says:

    Daniel, where were you living, Mesquite?

  15. fred says:

    du, he may have lived in the bubble.

  16. Daniel says:

    Lake Highlands.