Blessed and Bewildered

Recent debacles demonstrate why District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal needs more than a moustache to match the legacy of Johnny Holmes

Ask Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal the ubiquitous informal question "How're you doing?" Chances are he'll give this straight-faced reply: "I'm blessed."

Those who wait for further explanation find that none is forthcoming. To Rosenthal -- the D.A. who replaced the legendary Johnny Holmes through the avid political support of Houston's two political pillars of right-wing Christianity, Second Baptist Church and the traditional Steven Hotze-Allen Blakemore team -- "I'm blessed" is a simple statement of fact.

In his two and a half years as D.A., however, it hasn't been blessings that have been falling on Rosenthal's head. It's been one shitstorm after another.

Texas memorabilia, Cigar Aficionado magazine 
and Sun Tzu: Rosenthal in his lair.
Daniel Kramer
Texas memorabilia, Cigar Aficionado magazine and Sun Tzu: Rosenthal in his lair.
Holmes's long shadow lives on.
Daniel Kramer
Holmes's long shadow lives on.

There's the debacle over the Houston Police Department's DNA lab, which was either inept or corrupt. The county's criminal district judges have asked Rosenthal to recuse himself from investigating the matter, since it involves cases that were prosecuted by the D.A.'s office. He's refused to do so, generating howls of protest.

There was the debacle of going after HPD Chief Clarence Bradford for perjury, a case that centered on whether Bradford lied about cursing. The case infuriated the city's black community and was so weak that a judge tossed it out after hearing the prosecution's side, not even waiting for the defense to put on witnesses.

There was the debacle of the sodomy arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Rosenthal, who's a much better trial lawyer than he is an appellate advocate, decided that he would be the one to argue on behalf of Texas's law against gay sex. Major papers across the country ridiculed his efforts: The New York Times said the arguments "proved to be a mismatch of advocates rarely seen at the court."

Three debacles in less than three years is pretty daunting. But that's not all. Rosenthal also ran into trouble when he added to Harris County's "hang 'em high" reputation by asking for the death penalty against Andrea Yates. He dithered before finally deciding to return a large campaign donation from a road builder his office was prosecuting. He angered another minority group, the county's Hispanics, when he threatened criminal action against hospitals who were treating indigent illegal immigrants. And he failed to get convictions in one of the more high-profile police misconduct cases in recent years, the Kmart mass-arrest incident.

The hits will keep coming, too -- Rosenthal may soon be forced to take the stand in a hearing to determine if he or other law enforcement officials failed to provide defense attorneys with potentially exonerating evidence they had in a 1989 capital murder case.

All this has come as Rosenthal has tried to step out of the shadow -- if not the halo -- of Holmes, who in two decades as D.A. developed a widespread reputation among attorneys, judges and the public as a straight-shooting nonpolitician. Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, there was no doubt about where he stood or the motives that led him there.

And since Holmes himself had replaced another longtime D.A., Carol Vance, Rosenthal was the first "new face" in the job since the Nixon administration. Even though Rosenthal won some high-profile cases as a prosecutor, most of Harris County knew nothing of him until he took the position. And the introduction has been brutal.

"Going back to 1977 when I started with the D.A.'s office, I can't remember that many things going wrong at the same time," says District Judge Mike McSpadden, a longtime friend of Rosenthal's.

To some, the unending missteps are completely predictable -- they say Rosenthal has always shown a lack of judgment; some say they don't trust him.

"Is Chuck Rosenthal honest? That's a tough question to answer," says defense attorney Kent Schaffer. "I'm not sure he subscribes to the same moral code as Johnny. Johnny was ruthlessly honest because he was beholden to no one, and his word was gold. Chuck has done some things that make you wonder whether he will enjoy the same reputation."

To others, Rosenthal is being unfairly painted by events, some of which are out of his control and none of which shows dishonesty on his part. He admittedly hates politics, and may have made some mistakes adjusting to the harsh spotlight of the D.A.'s office, they say, but he will grow into the job quickly.

"Stepping into the shoes of a legend is often an unenviable place to be," says defense attorney Chip Lewis, who worked under Rosenthal as an assistant D.A. "Johnny wouldn't be facing much of this criticism because he was untouchable; he had a record of 25 years of being beyond reproach…I had many personal experiences with [Rosenthal] and I haven't seen anything to indicate he would be inclined to hide evidence, mislead attorneys or use improper evidence."

As for Rosenthal himself? He admits he "underestimated by 100 percent" how difficult the job would be, but has no qualms about doing it. Whether it's the no-quit doggedness his admirers cite or the obstinate political tone-deafness his critics complain about, he sees nothing much wrong with his performance so far, and no reason not to run for re-election in 2004 and beyond.

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