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I don’t expect to be in politics very long, says Dallas’s controversial black Republican judge. But I have to be me for the rest of my life.
By Dennis Holder |

SOMETIMES LARRY BARAKA IS A KID AGAIN. HE SHUTS HIS OFFICE DOOR AND WINDS up the miniature Snoopy doll or the plastic California raisin. As the toy scuttles across his desk, Baraka laughs and laughs. ■ Then, his Mickey Mouse watch signals the time for more sober pursuits. Baraka shrugs into his black robe and crosses a corridor to Criminal District Court Number 2 on the seventh floor of the Frank Crowley Courts Building. He lights a menthol Benson & Hedges-a pleasure forbidden to others in the courtroom-and peers down from his dais at a young, black defendant. ■ “You’re going to prison,” he says coldly. ■ That he loves television, Nintendo, and mechanical toys, yet rules his courtroom in unusually stern demeanor is but one of the contradictions that make up Larry Baraka. In fact, the first African-American ever elected criminal district judge in Dallas County is a montage of incongruities. ■ He is a trim, athletic figure, six-foot-one, who scoffs at all exercise “except sex and dancing.” He is a backsliding Muslim (but not a Black Muslim) who enjoys tobacco and alcohol. He is a devotee of Malcolm X who admires George Bush, a loner who holds elected office. He is a peaceful man who always carries a gun.

As a judge, he is considered too lenient by prosecutors who win convictions only to see Baraka prescribe probation rather than prison. But defense attorneys rate him too harsh when he summarily revokes probation for offenders who fail to report regularly or pay monthly fees.

Most important, Baraka is an angry young man of the Seventies who enters the Nineties as, perhaps, Dallas’s leading example of what The Wail Street Journal calls a “New , Generation” black politician. Like Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder and New York Mayor David Dinkins, he is a moderate, a coalition builder, a believer in the politics of community that transcends race.

“I believe strongly in consensus,” explainsBaraka, one of Dallas’s few African-Amer-.icans elected as a Republican. “On mostissues, I think people of good will can reach rational and satisfactory solutions. I don’t see any point in the confrontational politics some people in this city-mostly black people, unfortunately-like to practice. The important issues, whether we are talking about criminal justice or City Council redistricting, are community issues. They are not black issues or white issues.”

While he argues for consensus, Baraka concedes that he is something of a maverick. He rejects his party’s positions as often as he embraces them. He resents political pressure and influence-peddling no matter what the source. He sneers at the legal tricks and maneuverings of attorneys who appear before him.

“A lot of lawyers don’t like him,” says one prominent criminal defense attorney. “He sometimes seems arrogant, like he doesn’t listen. He always seems to be in a hurry. It’s hard to know what to expect in his courtroom. He is kind of independent and unpredictable”

Voters know Baraka best as the judge who granted convicted murderer Randall Dale Adams a new hearing when no one else would. The case is typical of his style.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had refused to hear arguments on behalf of Adams, who was the subject of a controversial movie, The Thin Blue Line. Federal courts and other criminal district court judges had upheld Adams’s conviction for killing a Dallas police officer. But when defense lawyers approached Baraka, the judge agreed to review evidence that Adams did not receive a fair trial.

After three days of hearings in December of 1988, Baraka recommended a new trial. Adams was not adequately defended in the original trial, Baraka concluded, and prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence suggesting Adams was innocent. District Attorney John Vance publicly scorched Baraka for his role in the Adams case. Eventually, though. Vance decided not to retry the case, and Adams went free after twelve years behind bars.

As Baraka sees it, Adams’s dilemma was but one example of a Texas attitude that values punishment more highly than justice. “People say we need to be tough on crime. 1 say we are tough. We give out life like it was lunch. Part of the problem Texas has is we have too many people going to the penitentiary, and not the right ones.”

Who are the right defendants to go to the penitentiary? Baraka says a judge’s job is all subjective, a matter of gut decisions and compassion. He relies on “an affinity toward people” to size up criminals who appear before him.

“Some, I know they ought to be in the penitentiary, and I’m sorry I can’t give them more time.”’ he says. “But I try to look at the whole person and not just the crime. I’ll give a person a second, third, or fourth chance if I can see that the person is willing to do some work to turn his life around.”

While he has little sympathy for the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key point of view, Baraka also disagrees with the standard liberal line that crime largely is a product of poverty and despair. He rejects the idea that poverty and its trappings automatically lead to crime.

“I believe in self-determination,” he says. “1 believe any person can choose to do good just as much as that person can choose to do wrong. Growing up poor doesn’t cripple you. I know that first-hand.”

THE YOUNG WOMAN PLANNED A ROMP in the hay, but Larry Baraka could only giggle. The marijuana the two had shared earlier made him feel silly, not sultry. “Having sex was the last thing on my mind right then,” Baraka recalls.

Baraka never got the hang of smoking dope, he says. And he feared the lack of concentration and general lassitude that beset some of his friends who grew too fond of devil Mary Jane. He tried drugs a few times during law school at the University of Houston, he says, only because marijuana was part of the student rite of passage. Everybody did it.

That Baraka candidly owns up to youthful transgressions that send other politicians into paroxysms of “no comment” is not surprising. The judge is one of those rare for-tunates who appear wholly comfortable with themselves, warts and all. As an elected official, he is not cavalier, but he also is not driven to win either public approbation or another term in office. “I don’t expect to be in politics very long,” he says. “But I have to be me for the rest of my life.”

What is mildly astonishing about Baraka’s flirtation with illegal substances is the reason it occurred. From his youngest days, Baraka has been a lough-minded loner who rarely did anything just because everybody did it.

Born Larry Wallace, Baraka grew up in a neighborhood more likely to spawn criminals than judges. The middle of five children raised by their mother, he resisted peer pressure that would have led, he says, to prison or to an early, violent death.

“People in Dallas talk about tough neighborhoods. They don’t know what a tough neighborhood is. Where I grew up, in a human garbage dump called the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, crime and drugs and murder were just part of life.”

“Almost every time I went outside, I would get in a light. Other kids resented me because I wouldn’t join their gangs or go out and steal with them. There were some things I just wasn’t going to do no matter how many times people beat me up.”

While he didn’t run from fights, Baraka didn’t look for them either He learned early that the best way to avoid a pummel ing or a switch-blade was to stay inside. So while others his age hung out in the courtyards and stairwells of their twelve-story ghetto warren, Baraka spent most of his childhood in front of the television.

Three TV programs shaped his life, Baraka says today. From “Leave It To Beaver,” he learned about white houses with lawns and picket fences, about families with two parents in the home, about life beyond poverty. From “Perry Mason,” he gained a yearning to practice law on behalf of the underdog. From “The Lone Ranger,” he developed a sense of justice that still informs his work as a judge.

Elementary school frustrated Baraka because he did not learn to read as quickly as other children. But in the sixth grade, teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class, and something clicked. From then on, he read everything he could lay his hands on, and his school work improved dramatically. Though he never reached the head of his class, Baraka had strong enough high school grades to merit financial assistance from Cornell College, a small, private institution in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Among his siblings and cousins, Baraka became the first to attend college and the first to seek stature in a predominantly white world.

“When I went off to college, I thought America was black, that whites were minorities you saw mostly on television. I’d never been confronted with the racist attitude-being called ’nigger’ and so on. I hadn’t formulated any negative attitudes toward people. Cornell College changed that.”

As one of only twenty minority students among 1,000 upper-middle-class whites, Baraka tasted the acid draft of prejudice. He was shunned by most classmates and threatened by a few. Twice, he believes, white students attempted to run him down with their cars. Once he was followed and taunted by three figures clad in the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan.

To defend himself, Baraka studied karate and began carrying a Bowie knife. No longer smaller than his peers, he picked fights with white students. He and one other African-American, also trained in martial arts, roamed the campus, brutally avenging real or imagined wrongs dealt to minority students.

“I began to formulate a racist mentality toward whites,” Larry Baraka says now. “I began to have a very negative attitude toward whites in general, the American system, the culture. You felt alive when you were fighting the righteous fight against whites.”

In his anger, Baraka renounced his Baptist faith and adopted the tenets of Islam espoused by his new hero, Malcolm X. He discarded the surname, Wallace-“a name given to our family by slave owners’-and called himself Baraka, “The Blessed.”

Even before he entered high school, Baraka had resolved never to work for wages and answer to a boss. The law, he decided, offered the greatest opportunity for independence and financial reward. Nearing graduation, he applied to top law schools across the country, seeking admission and financial aid. As he awaited their responses, he entered a program called CLEO-Counsel on Legal Educational Opportunity-at the University of Houston. The program was designed to help minority students prepare for law school, and, in Baraka’s case, it offered a chance to overcome relatively poor law school admission test results.

While he was a student in the CLEO program, Baraka says, Harvard and Boston University accepted him into their law schools and offered financial aid. However, because of a mix-up, he did not learn of the offers until after both universities reassigned his financial aid to other entering students. He still was welcome to enroll, he says, but he would have had to pay his own way. With no money and no family wealth to rely on, the costs presented an impossible barrier.Disappointed, he accepted admission and limited grants from the University of Houston law school. Baraka still had to work his way through law school, but at least he was on his way.

DALLAS COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY Henry Wade roosted behind his massive desk like a portly, malevolent god. He chewed silently on a mammoth cigar and occasionally interrupted an assistant, who was explaining the county prosecutor’s office, by spitting great gobs of tobacco juice.

Wade’s act so distracted Baraka that the fledgling lawyer could hardly concentrate on his job interview. Finally, he leapt from his chair and circled the desk to see for himself whether the legendary Henry Wade really was spitting on the floor.

“He had a big spittoon sitting in the middle of a large rubber mat,” Baraka says. “It was obvious that he missed the spittoon about as often as he hit it. That was my introduction to Henry Wade.”

Law school had polished Baraka, and his dedication to Islam had mellowed his rage. But he arrived for that first interview after graduation sporting a bushy Afro and Van Dyke beard and clad in a black shirt, sans tie. He also wore a surly attitude. “I didn’t want no job putting black folks in jail,” he explains.

Despite Baraka’s appearance and demeanor, Wade offered him a job as an assistant prosecutor. “I asked him why I should take it, and he said, ’first of all, you’ll earn a living.” Then he told me that if I worked for him, I could do whatever I wanted as long as I believed it was right. I took the job, and although I know I did some things Henry Wade didn’t like, he never told me that I couldn’t do them.”

A justice of the peace court was Baraka’s first duty under Wade; his first assignment was working misdemeanor cases in Judge Tom Price’s court. But in February 1978, he moved up to Judge James K. Allen’s Criminal District Court No. 5. At twenty-seven, he became the first black prosecutor in Dallas County history to represent the state in felony cases.

Six months later, Baraka quit. With two other black attorneys, he set up practice as a criminal defense lawyer. For offices, the three men bought a tumbledown house on Forrest Avenue, the boulevard later renamed in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. During business hours, they saw clients and argued in court. At night and on weekends, they restored their ramshackle building.

In 1982, Baraka was appointed special prosecutor to represent the state against three Limestone County lawmen accused of causing the deaths of several black youths near Mexia, Texas. Arrested for minor offenses during a Juneteenth celebration, the youths died when an overcrowded boat capsized as the officers rowed them across a lake. The lawmen were not convicted of wrongdoing, but Baraka gained public attention that would prove valuable when he ran for office.

After five years in private practice, Baraka migrated to where the money was. He left his partners to join an Oak Cliff firm that moved, in short order, to North Dallas. Instead of the impoverished blacks and His-panics who had constituted the majority of his former clients, he found himself representing well-to-do whites.

“We had pretty swanky offices in Stem-mons Place, and white clients liked that,” Larry Baraka says. “A lot of times, the whites would find out we were an all-black firm, and they would just swell up their little chests. Being represented by black lawyers was something a lot of whites were proud of,”

As his practice moved uptown, Baraka grew increasingly active in the Republican Party, which he had joined in 1977. He campaigned on behalf of several candidates, including Berlaind Brashear, a county criminal court judge who bailed out of the Democratic Party to ride the wave of Reagan Republicanism.

“Most of the people I knew disagreed with me for being a Republican,” says Baraka. “But I have always been comfortable with it. A Republican president freed the slaves. When the Supreme Court issued the first major civil rights decision in this century [Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954], a Republican chief justice [Earl Warren] wrote the opinion and a Republican president [Dwight Eisenhower] appointed him. I don’t have any reason to apologize for being a Republican.”

In 1984, then-Dallas County Republican Chairman Fred Meyer recruited Baraka to run for a judgeship against a well-known Democratic incumbent, Don Metcalfe. Baraka did not want the job, but Meyer convinced him that the party needed qualified minority candidates.

During that campaign, and in his race for reelection in 1988, Baraka turned down large contributions unless they came from good friends. “In my mind, $500 was as large an amount as I could take and feel no obligation and not expect them to curry favor.”

Without big bucks, Baraka campaigned on a shoestring. Much of the $9,000 he collected was spent on a brochure produced not for political value, but as a gesture of defiance. Republican advisers had urged Baraka not to publish his picture, apparently hoping voters would not discover the black candidate on the party ticket. The brochure featured two portraits of Baraka and one of his wife.

Baraka trounced Metcalfe but carried only seven of ninety-one precincts in predominantly black Southeast Dallas. Detractors joked that North Dallas Republicans must have been shocked to awake the morning after balloting to discover they had voted into office the first black district judge ever elected in Dallas County.

If blacks were suspicious of Baraka before the election, they were outraged shortly afterward. Early in 1985, the neophyte judge presided over the trial of Victor Franklin, a black teenager charged with perjury after testifying that a white officer beat a black man before shooting him to death. Following a politically and racially divisive trial conducted without a jury, Baraka found the youngster guilty. Black leaders blasted the verdict, and Baraka lashed back.

In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, he said City Council members Al Lipscomb and Diane Ragsdale “are full of poison and they’re poisoning the community and I’m sick of it,” Baraka later apologized, saying his remarks were made in “the heat of passion ” But the incident drove a wedge between him and other black officials that remains today.

Such slips aside, Baraka gained a reputation during his first term as a hard worker who managed his docket efficiently, and he disposed of more cases than any other Dallas County judge in the Eighties. He also became known as a no-nonsense jurist who administered a stern tongue-lashing with every sentence.

As his term ended, Baraka considered resigning from the bench. He had achieved the goals he set when he was elected judge. But one thing still gnawed at him. That was the lingering perception that he had gained his office not on his own merits, but on the coattails of white Republicans. He resolved to run one more time to prove, at least to himself, that voters wanted Larry Baraka.

Democrats presented no candidate for Baraka’s judicial seat in 1988. But defense attorney Brook Busbee sought to oust him in the March primary. A campaign flier Busbee mailed to some 77,000 households steered the contest into an ugly turn.

Under the heading, “Who has true Republican values?” Busbee’s flier informed voters that “Larry Wallace changed his name to Baraka when he turned to Islam and became a follower of Malcolm X.” The mailer seemed designed to be sure Republican voters did not slip again and accidentally elect a black judge.

Reaction to the flier was far from what Busbee must have expected. The county Republican chairman, normally neutral in party primaries, angrily denounced the mailer as an attack on Baraka’s race and religion. Tom James, who succeeded Meyer as party chairman, endorsed Baraka and urged Republicans to support him. He easily won the primary and was installed for a second term.

“I got what I wanted from that election,” Baraka says. “There wasn’t anybody who voted in that primary who did not know who I was. I am sorry I have not gotten more support from the black community, but I think I am living proof that a person does not need to be held back because of race. If I am a role model, it is because I have succeeded within this system. Other people can, too.”

THE SMALL, RED-BRICK HOUSE WITH cream trim, still wearing last year’s Christmas lights, stands out from its neighbors because of the lawn. Where other yards lining this quiet street in Duncanville are neatly planted and trimmed,’ this one is mud, tall grass, and weeds.

It looks as if no one lives in the house, but Larry Baraka answers the door on the second ring. He wears khaki shorts and shirt that could be military surplus. He carries a plate of fried chicken and fried potatoes. An old movie blares from the TV set in the living room. Nintendo controls and cartridges litter the coffee table.

A full docket of cases awaits in Baraka’s courtroom, but he has taken the day off-the week, in fact-because his four-year-old son, Blake, came down with chicken pox.

“My baby is my life,” the judge explains. “That’s my son and he has a need, If you can’t be there for your child, who can you be there for? The people in my courtroom can wait.”

Indeed, lawyers and defendants do wait, but not patiently. “Since when is chicken pox a life-threatening disease?” one attorney asks angrily. “Baraka has gotten to be a judge who doesn’t give a damn about other people’s time. He thinks we have nothing to do but arrange our schedules around him.”

Baraka is aware of the criticism, and it stings. But he simply is not as interested and challenged by his judicial responsibilities as he once was. He is not quite burned out, he insists, but after six years on the bench, he feels a little charred around the edges.

“In my first term, I worked harder than any other judge in Dallas. I still work hard. I just can’t eat and sleep the job the way I used to. There’s too much stress.”

Some of the stress, he concedes, is of his own making. Other judges may leave their jobs behind when they head home at five p.m. But Baraka is unable to shake off the responsibility when he takes off the robe.

“I have people’s futures in my hands every time I make a decision,” Baraka says. *’I go home every evening and reflect on what I have done and worry about whether I was right. Sometimes, I wake up in the night and realize that I have overlooked something. If I make a mistake, I try to correct it as soon as possible.”

Conscience is not the only source of tension, however. As a high-profile black official, Baraka also feels community pressure that other judges might not confront. Minority leaders measure not only his performance on the bench, but also his posture as an African-American. They want a role model for the black community as well as a judge.

Baraka’s blunt-spoken personal style sometimes contributes to the pressure. In July, for example, Baraka found Donald Ray Gray innocent in a highly publicized rape case. Then, in an apparent effort to deflect the criticism he knew his decision would bring, Baraka added to his not guilty verdict a personal opinion that Gray probably committed the crime, and he slammed prosecutors for presenting that particular case rather than what he believed were stronger cases against Gray. Because his remarks clearly condemned Gray, Baraka was forced to recuse himself from hearing two other rape charges against the Oak Cliff man. who eventually pleaded guilty to one rape.

Then there are the death threats. In six years, Baraka says he has received several, most with racial overtones.

Because of the threats, Baraka carries a handgun wherever he goes. He admits that packing a loaded pistol in his Lincoln Mark VII may be illegal. He has no special permit. But he cites the old adage, “It is better to be tried by twelve than carried by six.”

The threats, the pressures, the responsibilities of the job have led to severe bouts of depression in recent years, Baraka says. That depression causes the absences and erratic work habits that annoy lawyers who practice in his court, he says. It also contributed to his divorce in May from Theresa Harris, his wife of seven years.

For Baraka, divorce intensified the depression and led him to take a month-long sabbatical this spring. He used the time to gamble in Las Vegas, to help his son accept the separation, and to ponder his own future. He returned, he says, reinvigorated and newly enthusiastic about his work.

Still, Baraka sees the next few years only dimly. He may resign his judgeship at the first of the year. He may finish the current term, which ends in 1992. Or he may seek a third stint on the bench. Fred Meyer suggests Baraka may next seek a seat on the state’s court of criminal appeals. Whatever he does, however, Baraka insists that politics is not a long-term career.

“I couldn’t serve in the legislature or Congress because I can’t work in an environment where decisions are made by consensus. I’ve been asked to run for district attorney against John Vance, but I have problems with the system that works mostly against Hispanics and blacks. I ran for office to give something back to the community, not to make politics my life’s work.”

What lies ahead, if not politics? More money. A judge’s salary-roughly $87,000 a year-is fair, Baraka believes. But he could earn more in private practice.

“I’ve never been materialistic, but since I started earning some money, I have gotten to enjoy nice things. And being single now-I have joint custody of my son-things are more expensive. I have taxes I have to pay. This salary really isn’t a lot.”

Baraka weighs giving up law altogether. He grew up watching television, and he dreamed of making TV shows or movies. Perhaps he will study film-making at Southern Methodist University and try his hand in Hollywood.

Wouldn’t it be fun to hobnob with the likes of Barbara Eden and Tom Selleck? Wouldn’t it be exciting to race to the stage and breathlessly accept an Academy Award? At age forty, the judge who daily peers down from his podium at drug dealers, armed robbers, and murderers still dreams of such things.

Sometimes, Larry Baraka is a kid again.