JUDGING JOHN VANCE

What’s a nice guy like you doing in a #@!* place like this?

Outside, reporters wait. Inside, the phone rings incessantly. The questions are the same: Mr. District Attorney, Mr. Vance, how are you going to handle Randall Dale Adams? Will another “60 Minutes” darling be cut loose? Will there be a new trial? ■ Right now, Vance isn’t answering. Inside his plain office, away from the cacophony, John Calder Vance, the first Dallas County prosecutor to face harsh national press since Jack Ruby walked away handcuffed, has shut out the shouted questions. Instead, Vance listens to another shrill sound. It’s one he has heard often in his brief tenure as DA, the complaint of another ruthlessly violated victim of violent crime. This victim feels doubly wronged-first by the attacker and now by the inadequacies of Vance’s office. ■ Initially, Vance responds with the short, barked orders one might expect from a former Marine Corps sergeant. He coldly interrupts, then blankly dismisses the heartfelt outpouring. But suddenly he stops talking and attempts to rub the stress of the day from exhausted eyes. He’s got a lot on his mind, he explains. So Vance closes the door on the reporters and the phone calls, attempting to block out crises like the Adams debacle that have kept his office embattled since he took the post in January of 1987. And then Vance turns to what he considers one of his most important duties: listening, this time with compassion and, eventually, understanding. The victim is right, he finally says, and he’ll do everything in his power to help.

It’s up to John Vance to prosecute the more than 20,000 violent crimes a year in Dallas County. As DA, it is his job to see that justice is done-for the victim as well as the criminal. Vance believes that crime victims are his clients and should be treated like paying customers. That may seem obvious, but it’s a revolutionary idea in the district attorney business, where a prosecutor technically represents the state and the victim is merely a witness. It’s a stance that has won him rave reviews from victims’ rights groups and those who have experienced violent crime firsthand. But Vance’s pro-victim posture has not made him popular with DAs around the state or even his own prosecutors.

Perhaps unlike his legendary cigar-chomping predecessor Henry Wade, Vance has learned the hard way to keep his prosecutors on a short leash-and he has made it known that complaints against them will not fall on deaf ears. It’s no wonder that many victims leave Vance’s office murmuring appreciatively, “he’s got my vote.” while some of his own prosecutors grumble, hoping for a contender to run against their boss.

Not every voter in Dallas can sit down one-on-one and watch the DA get the job done. And for that reason, some politicos say, Vance is lucky that, due largely to the anemic state of the local Democratic party, he’s unopposed for his next four-year stint as DA. Voters must base their opinion of the DA on how he publicly handles the two or three high-profile cases a year that grab the most media attention. And the cases that got the bulk of news footage in Vance’s term-first the attempted murder of Peggy Railey, then Adams, and more recently Joyce Ann Brown-did little to enhance Vance’s public image, an image that is still shadowed by the big cigar, Henry Wade.

Maybe John Vance is too transparent to be an effective politician. Maybe he will always be a better judge than administrator. Certainly he counts crimes better than votes. The visceral thrill of political power seems lost on him. He doesn’t seem to hear the political elf that was so close to his predecessor’s ear, the voice that said, “Henry, the votes are over here,”

But despite the seemingly endless PR bungles, the accusations of mismanagement, and the newfangled policy changes, Vance will be the district attorney to lead Dallas into the Nineties. It may be fortunate for him that he is the only person who wants the post badly enough right now to run for it. The question remains, though: is it fortunate for Dallas?

MONTHS HAVE PASSED SINCE THE RELEASE OF RANDALL DALE Adams, the man who spent twelve years behind bars, convicted of murdering a Dallas police officer It’s a crime that some people-including a New York filmmaker-say he didn’t commit. The spring of The Thin Blue Line has passed into the winter of Joyce Ann Brown. However unfairly, both cases have dealt costly blows to Vance’s prestige.

Adams, for instance, was prosecuted, found guilty, and sentenced to death for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood back in 1977. During that time, Vance was serving as judge in the 194th Criminal District Court. Last March, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals set aside Adams’s conviction, holding that he had been wrongfully prosecuted, Vance could have pointed a finger in Wade’s direction. He could have instructed prosecutor Winfield Scott to clear the way for Adams’s release. Or he could have dropped charges against Adams immediately.

Any of these actions would have made Vance a public hero. Instead, he chose the less-popular but predictably judge-like stance, telling the press that he would carefully weigh all of the facts. Meanwhile, his assistant Scott, a twenty-one-year veteran of the office, fought hard against setting Adams free on bond. Vance remained publicly neutral about Adams’s fate-and silent on the issue of who was responsible for any wrongful conviction. The result made Vance look weak and placed Scott in the role of loose cannon.

The Adams case invited daily local coverage and national media attention. The Dallas district attorney’s office was depicted as one where ruthless, win-at-any-cost prosecutors put innocent people in prison. An American Bar Association Journal article last July told its readers point blank that Dallas County, Texas, was “a place where ’law and order’ means law and order and where prosecutors don’t lose.”

The issue came to a head when Vance sought to recuse Criminal District Judge Larry Baraka from the Adams case. Baraka, who recommended Adams’s release to the Court of Criminal Appeals, was vocal to the press about his innocence. The press labeled Vance’s action a “last-ditch effort” to keep an innocent man behind bars. To Vance, the logic was sound (“If you had a case pend-ing before a judge who claimed that he thought the defendant was guilty, what would you do?”), but the cameras missed his reasoning. Then came the kicker. The far-from-camera-shy Winfield Scott, sometimes called “Catfish” because, one defense attorney says, “he’s all mouth,” was unceremoniously dumped. Even that meager attempt at damage control did little but make Scott a scapegoat,

Pick another day and again the headlines make John Vance’s office look bad. And as always, there next to the story is Vance’s Billie Sol Estes lookalike mug tagged with some empty quote that makes him sound about as articulate as Harpo Marx. In August it’s the Dallas Times Herald accusing Vance-who had recently made news with his new hard-line, no-probation policies of prosecution-of selling probation to drug dealers. In some cases, dealers were making plea bargain arrangements with prosecutors that involved paying fines of $40,000 but no jail time.

“I talked to him that day,” says Wade, who still offers a shoulder and free advice to his former first assistant. “Vance got a bad rap on the handling of the drug cases. That type of thing hurts, but he put out a statement and nobody printed a word of it.”

The statement in question was a four-page press release that detailed Vance’s policies and offered oodles of statistics, but droned on for a page and a half before it got to the point: ’’stiff fines and probation are within the range of punishment and involve absolutely no improprieties on our part!” If only Vance-or a spokesperson-had fired off that line, he might have avoided another public hickey. But that is not the style of the man whose admirers still call him “Judge Vance,1’ a man who pauses, who ponders, and only then pronounces what he believes to be the truth.

In the twenty-nine years since he graduated from the night program at Southern Methodist University, Vance has spent his time in law enforcement, most of it on the bench as a judge with the I94th District and a justice on the Court of Appeals. His sense of fairness is apparent in all that he does. At times it seems as if he is perennially in the process of weighing evidence. Meanwhile the press wants answers, summed up in sound bites and short leads, preferably delivered in a snappy, alliterative style. They’re not going to get those from John Vance,

“John is a plodder,” says Wade, “but he thinks right. It’s just that before he speaks, he tries to analyze what he is going to talk about.”

County Judge Lee Jackson agrees. “Some people expect a prosecutor to be a showman, and John Vance is just not an entertainer He has been a very solid, hardworking lawyer, judge, and prosecutor who treats every issue unemotionally on its merits.”

County Commissioner John Wiley Price does not give Vance such a clean report card. For his effort on affirmative action programs (Price’s favorite subject), he gives Vance an F. As a prosecutor, Price thinks Vance has been satisfactory but has only himself to blame for bad press. “He’s no great communicator,” Price says. “He stays on the defensive all of the time and he has a real problem admitting he doesn’t have all the answers.”

It’s true that Vance lacks the charisma Wade poured on for the public and especially the press. Where Wade was colorful, Vance is scholarly. Where Wade was articulate, Vance is tongue-tied. What’s more, Vance seems at a loss to explain his tenuous control over his office. In nearly twenty years on the bench, he became accustomed to automatic authority and respect. When he pronounced a verdict it was well thought out and by the book. Such accomplishments-and the respect they engender-don’t carry over to the district attorney’s office, where people skills and strength of personality are needed in large doses.

But not all of Vance’s troubles can be blamed on his style. Wade points out that Vance is dealing with a more competitive, dirt-seeking press than Wade dealt with thirty years ago. Today’s hungry print and broadcast reporters must compete not only with newspapers and magazines but with TV tabloids like “Hard Copy.” A man like Vance is not easy copy. His intelligence is hard to transfer into news because he is. . .well, boring.

He does, however, seem to be learning from his mistakes. Just a few months ago, when yet another reporter poked a mike in Vance’s face and asked him how he could let the Adams debacle occur, he shot back:

“Were you working in the DA’s office between 1976 and 1983?”

“No.” said the reporter.

“Well, I wasn’t either,” Vance said. “So I have no more to do with it than you do.”

Vance says now that his reply seemed to set off a light in the reporter’s mind. If so. Vance flipped the switch a little late.



MUCH HAS CHANGED IN THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE FROM the decades when Henry Wade controlled law and order in Dallas. And Vance, his tenure as DA just four years young, cannot escape the comparisons. Vance is in the tough-luck position of being the one who came along to fill the proverbial shoes. And everyone- even Vance-seems to be constantly sizing the fit, Wade knew how to spot loyalty when he hired. And when he didn’t get it, he knew how to fire. As the story goes, in Wade’s last run for office all but two of his prosecutors volunteered in his campaign. Those two soon found themselves in private practice.

When Wade left office, a stream of experienced prosecutors followed, And though some exodus is expected when any long-held tenure is over, courthouse insiders say that Vance has failed to create the loyalty that holds prosecutors in the lower-paying public jobs.

Vance’s relationships with his prosecutors continue to give him trouble. Though he may not attribute it to harsh national press, he has tightened the reins on them, a move that has been criticized from all sides. Publicly he will not admit to the rap of a win-at-any-cost style around the office-even one that is a holdover from the Wade era. He worked for Wade in the Sixties, and he insists that even in those heady days, winning wasn’t the sole reason for reward.

But Vance concedes that a general rule of thumb in the prosecutor’s office has been that conviction rates determine who gets promoted. He says that he has tried to put a stop to that thinking. “It is our idea that if you believe that, you try only the good cases,” Vance says. “We want to discourage that. We want a prosecutor to be willing to give every victim his or her day in court.”

And Vance says he has gone further, giving explicit directions to his assistants to be mindful of justice for the accused. “I’ve told our prosecutors from day one-and if anyone denies it they are lying to you because I can remember exactly the words I put it in. I said, ’if there’s any evidence that is exculpatory that raises its head-that’s just the way I put it- ’you are to investigate that and resolve mat as quickly as you would any evidence that raises its head that shows the defendant to be guilty.’ And I think our prosecutors do that,” Vance says.

In addition to reeling in his assistants, Vance has added a slew of rules and regulations for his prosecutors. Critics, primarily defense attorneys, charge that the new procedures have crippled assistant DAs by requiring them to have higher-ups sign off on almost everything they do.

Vance is adamant that the regulations were needed even though the changes haven’t made him a popular boss. “Some of them [prosecutors] don’t like that,” he admits. “Some of them feel that when you get out of law school you know everything and you don’t need supervision.”

Policy changes aside, Wade’s notoriety is hard to follow. The best and brightest once flocked to Dallas just for the chance of adding a stint with Wade to their résumés. John Vance can’t offer law school graduates that cachet. He can’t match the salaries of the big civil firms. And Vance hasn’t been able to put a stop to the nearly constant bad publicity that also hurts morale down at the courthouse. It’s impossible to get around: John Vance is a very different man from Henry Wade. Wade is large in stature, big of voice, a cigar-smoking enforcer who played golf and drank with the boys. John Vance is perhaps first and foremost a Christian. He is described by one of his old friends as “a sweet Marine.” And if that’s not a strange enough moniker, add “henpecked” to the list.

Indeed, most days John Vance’s wife of thirty-six years, Beverly, can be found down at the courthouse. At least one ex-prosecutor, one of Vance’s most vocal critics, complains that Beverly’s office is bigger than that of most of the prosecutors. On the sly, Vance’s assistants call Beverly “Our Lady of the Courthouse.” Some of them find it strange that a man whose job it is to be tough on crime holds hands with his wife in the halls at the office. Others explain Beverly’s presence with stories that paint Vance as a “ladies’ man” in his younger years. Some of them like to say that Vance couldn’t do a thing without Beverly, that she even enrolled him in school without his knowledge, a story that has roots in truth.

“She and her mother did enroll me in college,” Vance says. He was working in Mississippi where he had met his wife during the Korean War. “No one in my family had ever gone to college. I didn’t know anything about it. I wanted to be an FBI agent,” he says. So one day Beverly and her mother signed him up at the University of Mississippi.

Vance is proud of his wife’s participation in his life then and today. She volunteers untold hours manning what some prosecutors call her “office”-a children’s witness room at the courthouse where kids are kept away from the often lurid, adult conversations that go on in the realm of the criminal justice system.

The children’s room is a prime example of the compassion Vance brings to the job of district attorney. And it’s just one soft touch he has added to an office known for being anything but soft. Still, Vance bristles at being called the “kinder and gentler DA”-he says Dallas County is tougher on crime than it ever has been.



JOHN VANCE SITS IN HIS OFFICE ON THE top floor of the new county courts building on Industrial Boulevard and talks about a disease that he believes is ruining this country: pornography. The new courthouse casts a large shadow on the street best known for housing purveyors of porn. But it doesn’t take this mass of brick and mortar for Vance to make his presence known. In one of his most decisive and visible moves, Vance declared war on porn almost as soon as he took office. In the last year of Wade’s regime, there was one jury trial on an obscenity case. By the end of Vance’s first year in office, twenty-five cases had been brought to trial. And he has kept up the pace.

“We are going to stay after those folks until we have cleaned up Dallas,” Vance says. “You never can be sure about the figures, but I heard that we have gone from thirty-nine adult bookstores to seventeen, and it was reported to me a month ago that five of those are going to shut down.”

Pornography gives Vance the suds for his favorite soapbox speech: “We’re not talking about Penthouse and Playboy and the nudity magazines. We’re talking about those things that show all of the natural sex acts-if that’s plural-and the unnatural, the ones you’ve heard of, and those that you’ve never heard of. And all of the things that these folks do to little children. I promised the citizens of Dallas we’re going to be trying to get rid of those folks until the day I leave office- whether publishers like that or not.”

Vance isn’t swayed by critical editorials, which began to run soon after he started putting people in jail for selling pornography. He says his constituency is behind him on the issue, that his office receives more positive mail about porn busting than on any other single subject. The press is wrong, he says. “And we are going to continue to do it if the sheriff has to take [the pornographers] home and put them in his garage.”

Vance is so serious about stamping out porn that the battle lines have been drawn to include his own office. He won’t tolerate hypocrisy from his assistants. Prosecutors say he once fired an assistant when his name showed up on a list of people who rented triple-X videos.

About the same time he declared war on pornography, Vance established a child abuse section in the DA’s office. He is a firm believer that the two threats are directly related. Vance says that 99 percent of the cases in the child abuse section involve sexual abuse. And then he launches into another favorite speech: “We anticipated that in 1988 we would have about 150 indictments of sexual abuse of children. We had over 800.”

Vance believes that child abuse is a disease more far-reaching than AIDS. He says that what his prosecutors deal with today is far different from the abuse he witnessed as a prosecutor in the Sixties. “Sex abuse of children [then] involved indecent exposure and fondlings. Well, most of the cases now are actually some kind of sexual intercourse. It’s unbelievable to me.”

Much of what John Vance encounters in his job as DA is unbelievable to him. Big-city filth was foreign to a man born in small-town Pampa, Texas, raised in the Church of Christ, and educated at the high school in Breckenridge, then a town of about 7,000 near Abilene. Vance’s daddy was an insurance agent, his mother a housewife. And like most young men of his era, Vance’s eyes were opened to the world not by his parents but by the armed services and the Korean War. As a boy, Vance used to hunt deer around Breckenridge, but no more. “I got enough of that in Korea,” he says.

After the service and the University of Mississippi, where he earned a degree in public administration, Vance came to Dallas to work for Lone Star Steel and began to attend the night law program at SMU. Sheepskin in hand, he did a short stint in the city attorney’s office where he quickly had his fill of civil suits. From there he went to work for Henry Wade. That was in 1962, just a year before the eyes of the nation would look to Henry Wade for justice. Twenty-five years later, the nation would get another view of justice Dallas-style.

To a large degree, that view has been poorly shaped by an ultra-conservative man unaccustomed to having to put a political spin on events and issues in the glare of the media spotlight. “John Vance is not really a politician,” says attorney Frank S. Wright, a close friend since law school. Further, Wright says that Vance will never be political for one simple reason-“He’s brutally honest and it’s an integral part of politics to be occasionally ambiguous.”

John Vance may never learn to play the campaign game. But those close to him say that Vance truly loves his job and wants to keep it, Friends like Wright say that he is not motivated by the power an office might confer. If he were, Wright adds, he would probably still be in his more powerful position of Court of Appeals justice.

Nor does it seem that dollars give Vance a thrill. While many prosecutors leave the district attorney’s office for lucrative careers on the other side as defense attorneys, Vance will never make that move, his friends say. “We change with our first fee,” Wright confesses on behalf of his fellow defense attorneys. “But John never would change. He can’t fight on both sides. He would not accept even a taint of impropriety.”

You’ll find no surface dirt on John Vance. His motivations are ready for white-glove inspection. He is a man who lists the number of years he’s been married on the second line of his resume; a man who is proud that he has attended the Waterview Church of Christ “since the second Sunday it was open”; a man who says he is rewarded by doing the right thing. Vance will never be Henry Wade. He may always be Judge Vance, a title that should remind fans and foes that he was one of the best around.

But that doesn’t mean that Vance will not make his mark. He has, however clumsily, taken steps to rid the office of its rough-and-tumble appearance. His steady hand of fairness and judgely demeanor are a welcome addition to a county political landscape that at times has been rocked by one crisis after another. And Vance has already revolutionized the way “the law” looks at victims of violent crime. In that role, he may have been ahead of his time. Says Patsy Day, executive director of Victims Outreach, a group that provides assistance for crime victims, “I tout his procedures all over the state.”

Day is pleased with Vance’s requirement that prosecutors keep victims informed of the status of their cases. Vance tells of a haunting experience during his tenure as a judge that convinced him of the need for that change. “I got a call from a lady one time who had been raped,” Vance recalls. “And she wanted to know when her case was going to be tried. It had been disposed of two years before and no one had told her, You can well imagine the trauma she went through every day. That’s why I want to keep [victims] notified of what’s happening, so they can go on with their lives.”

But even this simple humanitarian touch illustrates the yin and yang of a tough assignment. Vance believes that a single phone call can have a real impact on a victim’s life. But many DAs across the state fear that bringing the victim into the process will slow criminal procedure to a hopeless crawl. What will happen to justice as Vance painstakingly weighs all the evidence, making sure that all is fair, that victims are kept informed, that prosecutors go by the book?

It may be too soon to tell. An appreciation of this square, God-fearing, fatherly man may require patience. His are attributes that don’t play well on the ten o’clock news. His conservatism smacks more of the past than of the future. But quietly, gradually, if violent crime in Dallas continues to taper off (the first decline in seven years was reported in early January), the city may yet look to the man with the white wavy hair and the square-framed glasses as a hero rather than a nerd. “Dallas is really very lucky to have John Vance,” says Patsy Day. And her sentiments are echoed day in and day out by many who are closest to his work.

The irony is, if it’s left up to Vance to get the good message across, the public will be the last to know.

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