Thursday, December 8, 2022 Dec 8, 2022
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The next Mr. DA has some big shoes to fill, but several candidates are eager to try them on.
By Eric Miller |

WHILE MOST political veterans are willing to concede that politics and law do mix, few could have expected what amounted to be a political gathering one recent Wednesday morning in a Dallas County courtroom. The tense courthouse meeting, which took place amidst a capital murder trial, was attended by four of the five men who want to be the next district attorney of Dallas County. One of the Democratic candidates, Royce West, was seated at the defense table next to his client, Thomas Joe Miller-El, a man accused of slaying an Irving Holiday Inn clerk last November 16. Seated behind a microphone on the witness stand was one of West’s Republican opponents, Jon Sparling, who had been subpoenaed by West and co-defense attorney Brice Cunningham. Two other Democratic hopefuls were in the audience: Peter Lesser was busy taking notes and John Allison was whispering campaign pledges to reporters he recognized.

The candidates were gathered in the courtroom because West and Cunningham had subpoenaed Sparling to testify just two days after The Dallas Morning News broke a series of stories alleging that the Dallas County district attorney’s office, using its power of striking potential jurors, has “systematically” attempted to exclude minorities from serving on trial juries. The two defense attorneys said they called Sparling to the stand not to embarrass him politically, but because as an assistant Dallas County district attorney in 1969 he wrote a controversial paper used to instruct junior prosecutors on the art of picking juries. The portion of that paper that West and Cunningham were most interested in read: “You are not looking for any member of a minority group. They almost always empathize with the accused,”

Since Miller-El is a black man, West, also black, says he subpoenaed Sparling in an effort to prove that Miller-El’s jury was one of those chosen in a manner tha unfairly excluded several potential black ju ors. He wanted a new jury chosen-one that might include more blacks.

“Any trial lawyer worth his salt would have done the same thing as Brice and myself,” says West. “We didn’t ask the Morning News to publish this series. But once it was published, [the legal tactic] was incumbent upon us. It wasn’t my fault that the guy who authored that paper was a Republican candidate.”

In front of the TV cameras. Sparling went on the offensive, charging West with “grandstanding’-using a client on trial for his life to advance his own political interests. “I’m not here today by choice,” Sparling said. “This whole thing was a political ploy, purely partisan politics.”

What made West’s courtroom maneuver a bit suspect was the fact that he had complained to reporters that the exhaustive capital murder trial had kept him from campaigning for more than a month. To Sparling, it seemed that West was bringing the campaign into the courtroom. As it turned out, the motion to dismiss the current jury was denied. But if the Miller-El trial is a signal of things to come, then surely by the time the voters go to the polls this fall, the man they pick to follow the legendary Henry Wade will have endured a grueling and expensive campaign laced with opportunism and perhaps character assassination.

At this point in the campaign no one really knows just what to expect. It’s been decades since there’s been a serious race for Dallas County district attorney. Henry Wade first took the oath of office four years before the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools and two years before Dwight D. Eisenhower became president. Today the Dallas district attorney’s office is regarded as one of the best in the nation and Wade himself is believed by many to be the most powerful man in Dallas County. He is supported at the polls by Republicans and Democrats alike. He won’t be an easy act to follow.

“We’ve been spoiled by thirty-six years of non-controversial, good administrative direction,” says Allison. “People have never considered this office, because they have entrusted it to Henry.”

“Trying to follow Henry Wade is like trying to stand one-legged on a breeze flagpole,” says one Dallas criminal defense attorney. “I mean, who wants to be coach after Tom Landry?”

BUT APPARENTLY Wade’s legacy hasn’t intimidated the three Democrats and two Republicans who say they would like to follow him as Dallas County district attorney. Even though the post has been held by a Democrat for decades, most seasoned political observers think the next district attorney here will be a Republican. Dallas County is increasingly becoming a Republican Party stronghold at the courthouse level, and none of the Democratic candidates is expected to draw as many Republican crossover votes as Wade has in past elections.

So far, the front-runner in the district attorney’s race appears to be Sparling, a forty-five-year-old Republican who spent thirteen years as a prosecutor for Wade and who is also the founder and former chief of Wade’s Specialized Crime Division, organized to fight white-collar crime. Last November, Sparling resigned the post he has held since 1981 as a Texas Court of Appeals justice and announced his candidacy for district attorney. But he has been campaigning behind the scenes for about two years and already has amassed a formidable campaign war chest. Sparling had political flyers in the mail and a billboard on Central Expressway before the other candidates had formed their steering committees. Yet Sparling and his supporters would be the last to claim the race is sewn up. John Vance, fifty-two, currently a justice on the Court of Appeals, is shadowing Sparling and is expected to give him a run for his money in the May 3 Republican primary. Vance is also a product of Henry Wade’s office: he worked as an assistant district attorney from 1962 to 1969, rising to serve as first assistant to Wade. From 1969 to 1981, Vance was a state criminal district judge who gained a reputation for fairness and hard work. Wade has yet to endorse a candidate, though most insiders feel that Vance’s naming of Dallas car dealer W.O. Bankston, a fervent Wade supporter, as his finance chairman was a signal that Wade is lending Vance his behind-the-scenes support.

On the Democratic side, the greatest name recognition belongs to Peter Lesser, thirty-nine, who has been a Dallas criminal defense attorney since 1975. The New York native ran for district attorney in 1982. drawing roughly 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary race against Wade. Lesser is the only one of the five district attorney candidates who has no experience as a prosecutor.

The man quietly being touted as the most electable of the Democratic candidates is John Allison, a forty-eight-year-old Dallas attorney who has practiced criminal law since 1968. Allison, chief municipal judge in University Park, is also a former Dallas County prosecutor and one-time assistant state attorney general. He assisted Wade as a briefing attorney in the prosecution of Jack Ruby.

The youngest man in the race is Royce West, thirty-three, a criminal defense attorney who spent seven of the past nine years as an assistant district attorney in Dallas and Harris counties. In addition to his legal training, West holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in sociology, with an emphasis on criminology, from the University of Texas at Arlington. “I’ve always wanted to help people,” he says. “But by the time I received my degrees, I realized I couldn’t do the things for the community that I wanted to do. I wanted to become a lawyer because I wanted to be more independent.”

Political insiders believe West will draw support from Gov. Mark White, who will need help from minority voters this fall against his Republican opponent. But West says he has yet to be offered White’s support. “I’m not running for Mark White,” he says. “And I’m not running as a black. I’m running as an attorney who happens to be black.”

BUT NO MATTER who emerges victorious from the May 3 primaries, all the nominees will climb on the law-and-order bandwagon. Sparling has already cast himself as the hard-nosed prosecutor, tough on crime. With recent FBI reports labeling Dallas the crime capital of the nation, voters may gravitate toward the candidate they judge to be the most aggressive prosecutor.

Despite Wade’s 92 percent felony conviction rate, statements made by the candidates in recent interviews indicate they feel the system isn’t keeping pace with the growth in the crime rate. “I am sincerely concerned about the safety of the streets” says Vance, “The streets are dangerous. They’ve been taken away from the citizens.”

“The thing that concerns me is that North Dallas is floating in cocaine,” says Allison. “You can go into any junior high school in Dallas and get as much marijuana or as many pills as you want. That’s scary.”

While all the candidates are taking tough stands on crime, only Peter Lesser has pledged to make sweeping changes in the district attorney’s office. The district attorney’s office currently assigns three permanent prosecutors to each felony court; those prosecutors try all the cases assigned to that court. Under Wade’s system. Lesser claims, the three prosecutors become too chummy with their judge. Lesser says he would reorganize the office into bureaus, assigning assistant district attorneys to prosecute certain types of cases in whatever court the cases are assigned. He also says he would end Wade’s current practice of assigning two prosecutors to every trial. “One prosecutor can handle most cases,” he says. “It’s a foolish waste of money.”

Vance agrees. “I’ve always been convinced that 80 percent to 90 percent of the cases prosecuted can be tried with one prosecutor,” he says. Vance would also standardize plea bargain agreements. “The circumstances of the crime should dictate the plea, not how good the prosecutor’s case is,” he says.

Sparling, West, and Allison also say they wouldn’t tamper with the structure of the district attorney’s office. “It runs good as it is,” says Allison. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The problem is that there aren’t enough courts to handle the volume. Our jails are already full, but the people are going to have to pony up and pay for the increased facilities that are needed.” Sparling says it would be “catastrophic” to abolish the current practice of assigning two prosecutors to try a felony case. Prosecutors learn from each other and assist each other to “prove up” a crime in court, he says. Sparling says that prosecutors who are friendly with judges can only benefit the district attorney’s office. “Why give away something that doesn’t need to be given away?” Sparling says.

West would also maintain the status quo for prosecutors. But he says that if elected he’ll attempt to keep the courts open longer, perhaps until 9 p.m. “Criminals operate on a twenty-four-hour basis,” he says. “We have an eight-to-five justice system. We also need to do something about the terrible attrition rate in the DA’s office. It’s ridiculous when a prosecutor can become the number two prosecutor in a district felony court with only two years of experience.”

PERHAPS THE MOST difficult task for voters on May 3, and again in November, is to evaluate the character of the man they want to follow Wade. Even though the new DA won’t have the reputation of Henry Wade, a big-city district attorney is a power-fu! man. On paper, he has the power to pros- ! ecute criminals. In the real world, however, he has much more: the power to investigate citizens in his community, the power to ] recommend that individuals be indicted for crimes, the power to plea bargain or force the accused to stand trial. Such a powerful man must be above reproach.

That’s why the candidates say they hope the recent courtroom jousting between West and Sparling isn’t a sign of things to come later down the campaign trail. But already, the contest has had its share of mud-slinging. Vance has accused Sparling, married to wealthy Dallas real estate broker Helena Underwood, of campaigning on his wife’s money. Sparling has countered by chiding Vance for not resigning his post as an appellate judge, claiming that Vance’s failure to resign, while not illegal, is unethical.

“I’d like very much for this to be a clean campaign,” says Sparling. “A spirited campaign is okay, but I don’t want it to be dirty. I’m a little thin-skinned, but I’m working on that. If there’s one thing I learned from Henry Wade, it’s that you don’t do something to anybody because you’re mad at them.”