Justice on the Block

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

Jim Dougherty, a former federal prosecutor, runs unopposed in the Democratic primary and will face the GOP nominee in November. He's making the high number of capital punishment prosecutions and the poor relationship between the D.A.'s office and minority communities his key issues.

Conventional wisdom has Lykos, Rosenthal and Stafford battling for the two tickets to an inevitable GOP runoff. By this reasoning, Lykos has the support of County Judge Robert Eckels and GOP women's clubs. Rosenthal has the law enforcement establishment and westside Christian conservative Dr. Steven Hotze in his corner. Stafford, meanwhile, has the county leadership that includes commissioners Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole, plus the financial heft of a host of contractors who do county business. That leaves Leitner with only a smattering of defense lawyers as potential contributors.

In GOP judicial politics, observes Leitner, "defense attorney" is a dirty term. When Hotze issued his sample ballot endorsements last month, he felt it a sufficient indictment to simply put the label of longtime defense attorney beside Leitner's name.

Leitner: "Defense attorney" is a dirty term to the GOP.
Steve Lowry
Leitner: "Defense attorney" is a dirty term to the GOP.
Stafford: Does he have the experience?
Steve Lowry
Stafford: Does he have the experience?

Over the past decade Harris County criminal justice has evolved into a system where all criminal district judges are Republican. And most of them are former assistant district attorneys, honor graduates from the Johnny Holmes finishing school for law-and-order jurists. From the defense perspective, it often seems that a relentless prosecutorial machine, stretching from the street cop to the presiding judge, has replaced the traditional American ideal of blind justice. In Leitner's view, the independent roles of the police, the prosecutor and the judge have become dangerously fused.

"The system of checks and balances with every entity being a distinct entity is the way it ought to be," says Leitner. "Sooner or later it's got to go back to the way it was meant to be, and I think this is a perfect opportunity. That's why we need a new face as D.A."

The one sacred cow in the D.A.'s race is, perhaps not surprisingly, the lame duck himself. Even when the candidates talk about what they would do to improve the office, invariably in the next breath they praise Johnny Holmes for his ethics and lack of favoritism in laying down the law in Harris County. Although Holmes has become famous throughout the country as the top practitioner of the revived death penalty, the candidates, with the exception of Democrat Dougherty, tiptoe gingerly around the issue.

Holmes has been less generous, making it clear that he's voting for Rosenthal and that he's troubled by an influx of special-interest money into the contest.

The race has drawn some highly unlikely contributors. They include architect Jack Linville, Houston Sports Authority chair Billy Burge and a battery of influential downtown law firms, all of whom do work for the county. All support Stafford, the first assistant county attorney under Michael Fleming and the man responsible for vetting the contracts of all of the above.

Stafford, an affable, sandy-haired University of Texas grad, began his career as an ARCO chemist, then returned to law school. After several years in private practice, Stafford was turned down for a position with the Harris County D.A.'s office, so he became an assistant county attorney in Liberty County.

In 1996 he ran a largely self-funded campaign for Harris County attorney, failing to make the runoff between Fleming and Mickey Lawrence. Stafford endorsed Fleming and was hired as his top assistant after Fleming took office. Opponents accused Fleming and Stafford of trading a future job for the endorsement, an allegation both deny.

After rejection of his prosecutor's application in 1980, Stafford is trying to enter the office through the top. His lack of experience in criminal prosecution is his most glaring handicap. He admits he has tried very few felony cases, and none of the capital variety. During a recent debate a questioner asked him about a basic criminal statute, one banning the use of illegally acquired evidence against defendants. Stafford was stumped about the law that would be rote knowledge for the lowliest of Holmes's prosecutors.

"If I had my druthers, I'd rather be able to point to my background and say, 'Yes, I have [that experience],' " says Stafford. "But I've tried complicated lawsuits before, both civil and criminal, and consider myself quite capable of trying any case I need to." Perhaps as a cover for his professional limitations, Stafford is billing himself as a good law firm manager rather than a litigator. The problem is that as the top prosecutor he would have to call the shots on cases where he has little first-hand experience.

Compared to his run for county attorney, Stafford now rides in a limousine of a campaign. Commissioner Radack lends his formidable political sign brigade, guaranteeing that anyone driving on county thoroughfares sees a numbing repetition of Stafford placards in the most advantageous, if sometimes illegal, locations.

Fund-raiser Sue Walden, the greenback collector for former mayor Bob Lanier and successor Lee Brown, shears the establishment sheep for Stafford. It's a development that outgoing D.A. Holmes finds troubling.

"When I was coming along I had the good fortune not to go out there groveling for people to support me," recalls Holmes. Governor Bill Clements appointed him to the office in 1979, to replace the retiring Carol Vance. "I was independent enough to say, 'You either like what you see or you don't, take your choice.' How many times have I said, time after time after time over different issues, 'If you don't like what I stand for, vote for the other guy, but get out of my fuckin' face'?"

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