Justice on the Block

Is the D.A.'s office for sale to the highest bidder?

Lawyer Michelle Leitner pensively studies the first lines of a script for a minute-long radio commercial being taped for her husband, Jim. "It just starts strange," she says, as they wait in a cramped production booth at the KPRC talk radio studio on the Katy Freeway.

"Concerned voters!" exhorts Leitner's message. "Who do you want for your next district attorney? Do you want your next D.A. to support the police -- or be the police? Or do you want your next district attorney to stand for integrity, leadership, independence, commitment and honesty?"

In this session, both Leitners are concerned that voters might not understand the message. Talk radio is not a subtle medium. Even a student of this race would have trouble reading between the lines of the ad Leitner had crafted and deciphering its thrust at opponent Chuck Rosenthal.

The Fab Five: Rosenthal speaks, while (from left) Lykos, Stafford, Leitner and Kelley wait their turns.
John Childs
The Fab Five: Rosenthal speaks, while (from left) Lykos, Stafford, Leitner and Kelley wait their turns.

"You want the controversy," pitches KPRC account exec Dana Lee, who penned the script from notes provided by Leitner. "You want people to talk about it. You want it to spark some thought." Better to stir up comment among listeners, Lee advises her client, than to put out a boring résumé as a campaign pitch.

After mulling over the script with Lee, the candidate gives the go-ahead and cuts a required "bug" at the end of the message identifying it as a paid campaign commercial. The message will later be recorded by a KPRC reader.

Leitner has the lightest campaign war chest of the five Republican candidates, and this $5,000 ad represents his total budget for the electronic media. His opponents -- Rosenthal, visiting Judge Pat Lykos, first assistant county attorney Mike Stafford and former city controller and "road rage" indictee Lloyd Kelley -- are walking and talking their pitches in television ads far beyond the reach of Leitner's budget.

And KPRC is not the most logical choice as the vehicle for a message espousing greater separation among police, prosecutorial and judicial functions. On the overheated conservative talk shows that have become the station's bread and butter, a question like "Do you want your district attorney to be the police?" likely would draw a majority response of "Hell, yes!"

The stocky, mustachioed Leitner is a former Harris County prosecutor with seven kids, including a 24-year-old son on probation for theft. He has the best-balanced bio of the Republicans running to replace Johnny Holmes after two decades as district attorney. A defense attorney for the past decade who has defended death penalty clients, Leitner has earned endorsements from publications as disparate as the Houston Chronicle and the religious conservative Link Letter.

He also has the courage -- or foolhardiness, considering this is a suburbia-dominated GOP primary -- to publicly question whether law and order has gotten out of hand in Harris County. Like presidential contender John McCain's kamikaze attack on ministers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Leitner's ad might resonate in a general election among urban and minority voters, but it may well prove political poison in the primary Tuesday, March 14.

Leitner entered the race in January primarily because he was appalled that Rosenthal, a prosecutor he regards as unreliable and sometimes out of control, might inherit the helm of the most important criminal justice post in the county. While he supports the death penalty, Leitner believes the D.A.'s office has gone overboard in seeking the widest possible application of the statute. And that policy has made Harris County the death penalty capital of the nation.

Before entering the race, Leitner visited the retiring Holmes and got his assurance that he would make no endorsement, a commitment Holmes later discarded when he appeared in a Rosenthal television commercial pledging to vote for his subordinate. "First time I've ever seen Johnny talk out of both sides of his mouth," mutters Leitner, who says he would not have run had Holmes made his intentions clear at the beginning.

Leitner was particularly galled that Rosenthal wears a Houston Police Department jacket in the ad. Hence the reference to "be the police" in Leitner's radio counterattack.

"I have always been afraid of prosecutors who believe they're doing the Lord's work and the ends justify the means," says Leitner. "I'm not saying that Chuck is like that all the time, but I don't want a person to be district attorney who's like that any time."

While Leitner may be the conscience of the GOP field, Rosenthal, Lykos and Stafford are the financial heavyweights. Disgraced city politician Kelley serves as jester. At a Republican candidate showcase at Kim Son last week, Kelley had the audience tittering over his defense against his widely publicized road-rage assault charge.

It's hard to take a district attorney candidate seriously when he's facing trial for manhandling a motorist, and then claims he's being prosecuted because he's running for D.A. According to Kelley, he was the victim of a careless motorist and was only trying to see the man's driver's license. And the candidate's admission that he has been under treatment for depression after losing the 1997 controller's race to Sylvia Garcia will not boost his credibility in the contest.

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