Legendary DA's convictions thrown out by DNA testing
The late Henry Wade was district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, from
1951 to 1986
Wade and his team had conviction rates over 90 %
DNA testing has overturned 19 convictions by Wade and his successors
New DA, critics charge shoddy investigations, "win at all costs" culture
As district attorney of Dallas for an unprecedented 36 years, Henry Wade
was the embodiment of Texas justice.
A strapping 6-footer with a square jaw and a half-chewed cigar clamped
between his teeth, The Chief, as he was known, prosecuted Jack Ruby. He
was the Wade in Roe v. Wade. And he compiled a conviction rate so
impressive that defense attorneys ruefully called themselves the 7 Percent
But now, 7 years after Wade's death, The Chief's legacy is taking a
19 convictions — 3 for murder and the rest involving rape or burglary —
won by Wade and 2 successors who trained under him have been overturned
after DNA evidence exonerated the defendants. About 250 more cases are
No other county in America — and almost no state, for that matter — has
freed more innocent people from prison in recent years than Dallas County,
where Wade was DA from 1951 through 1986.
Current District Attorney Craig Watkins, who in 2006 became the 1st black
elected chief prosecutor in any Texas county, said that more wrongly
convicted people will go free.
"There was a cowboy kind of mentality and the reality is that kind of
approach is archaic, racist, elitist and arrogant," said Watkins, who is
40 and never worked for Wade or met him.
But some of those who knew Wade say the truth is more complicated than
"My father was not a racist. He didn't have a racist bone in his body,"
said Kim Wade, a lawyer in his own right. "He was very competitive."
Moreover, former colleagues — and even the Innocence Project of Texas,
which is spearheading the DNA tests — credit Wade with preserving the
evidence in every case, a practice that allowed investigations to be
reopened and inmates to be freed. (His critics say, of course, that he
kept the evidence for possible use in further prosecutions, not to help
The new DA and other Wade detractors say the cases won under Wade were
riddled with shoddy investigations, evidence was ignored and defense
lawyers were kept in the dark. They note that the promotion system under
Wade rewarded prosecutors for high conviction rates.
In the case of James Lee Woodard — released in April after 27 years in
prison for a murder DNA showed he didn't commit — Wade's office withheld
from defense attorneys photographs of tire tracks at the crime scene that
didn't match Woodard's car.
"Now in hindsight, we're finding lots of places where detectives in those
cases, they kind of trimmed the corners to just get the case done," said
Michelle Moore, a Dallas County public defender and president of the
Innocence Project of Texas. "Whether that's the fault of the detectives or
the DA's, I don't know."
John Stickels, a University of Texas at Arlington criminology professor
and a director of the Innocence Project of Texas, blames a culture of "win
at all costs."
"When someone was arrested, it was assumed they were guilty," he said. "I
think prosecutors and investigators basically ignored all evidence to the
contrary and decided they were going to convict these guys."
A Democrat, Wade was first elected DA at age 35 after three years as an
assistant DA, promising to "stem the rising tide of crime." Wade already
had spent four years as an FBI agent, served in the Navy during World War
II and did a stint as a local prosecutor in nearby Rockwall County, where
he grew up on a farm, the son of a lawyer. Wade was one of 11 children; 6
of the boys went on to become lawyers.
He was elected 10 times in all. He and his cadre of assistant DAs — all
of them white men, early on — consistently reported annual conviction
rates above 90 %. In his last 20 years as district attorney, his office
won 165,000 convictions, the Dallas Morning News reported when he retired.
In the 1960s, Wade secured a murder conviction against Ruby, the Dallas
nightclub owner who shot Lee Harvey Oswald after Oswald's arrest in the
assassination of President Kennedy. Ruby's conviction was overturned on
appeal, and he died before Wade could retry him.
Wade was also the defendant in the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court
decision legalizing abortion. The case began 3 years earlier when Dallas
resident Norma McCorvey — using the pseudonym Jane Roe — sued because
she couldn't get an abortion in Texas.
Troubling cases surfaced in the 1980s, as Wade's career was winding down.
Lenell Geter, a black engineer, was convicted of armed robbery and
sentenced to life in prison. After Geter had spent more than a year behind
bars, Wade agreed to a new trial, then dropped the charges in 1983 amid
reports of shoddy evidence and allegations Geter was singled out because
of his race.
In Wade's final year in office, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the
death sentence of a black man, Thomas Miller-El, ruling that blacks were
excluded from the jury. Cited in Miller-El's appeal was a manual for
prosecutors that Wade wrote in 1969 and was used for more than a decade.
It gave instructions on how to keep minorities off juries.
A month before Wade died of Parkinson's disease in 2001, DNA evidence was
used for the first time to reverse a Dallas County conviction. David Shawn
Pope, found guilty of rape in 1986, had spent 15 years in prison.
Watkins, a former defense lawyer, has since put in place a program under
which prosecutors, aided by law students, are examining hundreds of old
cases where convicted criminals have requested DNA testing.
Of the 19 convictions that have been overturned, all but 4 were won during
Wade's tenure. In 2/3 of the cases, the defendants were black men. None of
the convictions that have come under review are death penalty cases.
"I think the number of examples of cases show it's troubling," said Nina
Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal
group affiliated with the Texas effort. "Whether it's worse than other
jurisdictions, it's hard to say. It would be a mistake to conclude the
problems in these cases are limited to Dallas or are unique to Dallas.
Former assistant prosecutor Dan Hagood said The Chief expected his
assistants to be prepared, represent the state well and be careful and
"Never once — ever — did I ever get the feeling of anything unethical,"
Hagood said. He denied there was any pressure exerted from above — "no
'wink' deals, no 'The boss says we need to get this guy."'
But Watkins said those who defend The Chief are "protecting a legacy."
"Clearly it was a culture. A lot of folks don't want to admit it. It was
there," the new DA said. "We decided to fix it."
(source: Associated Press)
Oklahoma man on Texas death row loses appeal
A federal appeals court Tuesday rejected an appeal from an Oklahoma man
condemned for the slaying of an 85-year-old woman at her northeast Texas
home nearly 15 years ago.
Willie Earl Pondexter, 34, is one of two men sentenced to die for the
October 1993 shooting death of Martha Lennox at her home in Clarksville,
about 60 miles west of Texarkana. Also on death row for the slaying is
Pondexter's partner, James Lee Henderson, who was tried separately.
Neither man has an execution date. Pondexter was scheduled to die in early
2005 before a judge withdrew the date because appeals were pending in a
Pondexter, from Idabel, Okla., was 19 when he and Henderson were arrested
driving Lennox's car in Dallas, about 140 miles to the southwest. It was a
few hours after authorities believe Lennox was shot while asleep in her
home, not far from the town square. Besides fleeing with her car, they
took about $18 from her purse. Clarksville police, alerted by Dallas
authorities after the arrests of the men driving Lennox's car, went to her
home and found her body.
Lennox's family had a long history in the Red River County area and had
accumulated substantial real estate holdings. Lennox herself had donated a
374-acre forest preserve north of Clarksville to the Nature Conservancy of
In the appeal rejected by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Pondexter
argued his trial lawyers were deficient because they didn't consult with a
pathologist to dispute testimony from a medical examiner called by
Pondexter's defense at trial was that while he shot Lennox in the head, he
didn't fire the fatal shot. In his appeal, he said the prosecutor's
closing argument blaming him for the fatal shooting was improper and his
trial lawyers should have objected. A medical examiner testified either of
two wounds the woman suffered could have killed her.
Pondexter also said his lawyers failed to interview a fellow inmate whom
he'd told that the woman already was dead when he fired. He alleges that
prosecutors improperly withheld that information from the defense.
He also argued that prosecutors violated his due process rights by telling
Henderson's jury that Henderson fired the fatal shot and Pondexter's jury
that Pondexter fired the fatal shot.
The New Orleans-based 5th Circuit rejected each of the claims.
The panel said that jurors "cognizant of overwhelming evidence of guilt"
would have convicted Pondexter even if they had the findings of a second
The appeals court also said that if Pondexter knew he made statements to a
fellow jail inmate while awaiting trial, "It was Pondexter who was in the
best position to notify his counsel of the need to obtain that
The judges said jurors "could have reasonably concluded Pondexter's shot
to the victim's face was the cause of death." And they said it was
"well-established" that the use of inconsistent theories in separate
trials of co-defendants "is not a violation of the due-process clause."
At the time of the slaying, Henderson was on parole from Oklahoma, where
he had been convicted of auto theft. Pondexter had no previous record. In
1997, he nearly escaped with another condemned inmate from death row by
cutting through a recreation yard fence with a hacksaw blade.
(source: Associated Press)
Gov. Perry should halt this execution
All eyes are on Gov. Rick Perry regarding the Aug. 5 execution date for
Jos Medelln, a Mexican who confessed to the 1993 gang rape and murder of 2
Houston teenage girls.
Although this newspaper opposes the death penalty, no one doubts the
governor's prerogative under the law to permit the execution of convicted
murderers. In this case, though, an international court has ruled that Mr.
Medelln deserves a judicial review because he was denied his right to a
Mexican consular visit, as required under a U.S.-signed treaty.
The international court's ruling can't be enforced, and the Supreme Court
has upheld the state's authority to proceed. But that doesn't mean Mr.
Perry is required to proceed. For the good of the country, we join
Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
in urging him to grant a stay of execution.
The State Department calculated that 4,456 Americans were arrested abroad
in 2006, up from 3,614 in 2005. The bulk of those arrests occurred in
Mexico. For an American sitting in a filthy, dark jail cell in a foreign
land, it's easy to be overwhelmed by hopelessness. One thing makes the
nightmare bearable: the guaranteed visit from an American consular
Many foreign governments permit this visit because they know that the full
weight of American diplomatic pressure will come to bear on them if they
Yes, Mr. Perry can flex the state's judicial muscle and show the world
that Texans don't bow to the whims of some distant, obscure international
court. But it would send an unequivocal message to all foreign governments
especially Mexico that this country doesn't stand by its promises. They
can justifiably point to Mr. Perry's example if they decide not to be
bound by this or other important treaties in the future.
This is a heavy weight to put on one man's shoulders, but Mr. Perry, your
decision could set the course for international events of far greater
importance than the fate of a single, confessed killer. It's time to put
the interests of this country and its citizens first and halt Mr.
(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)
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