Blessed and Bewildered

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

"I think I have the best job in the world," he says.

Blessed? If this guy is blessed, then Harris County doesn't need to see a D.A. that's cursed.

Attorney Hilder wants to get Rosenthal on the witness 
Daniel Kramer
Attorney Hilder wants to get Rosenthal on the witness stand.
FBI agent Rosenthal met her future husband on a 
kidnapping case.
Daniel Kramer
FBI agent Rosenthal met her future husband on a kidnapping case.

For someone who's had the same employer for 26 years and attended the same church for nearly 40 years, Chuck Rosenthal had a rootless youth.

"I'm oil-field trash," he says. His father was working his way up the ladder at the oil-field giant Schlumberger, and that meant relocating. A lot.

Rosenthal was born in the South Texas town of Alice but didn't stay long. The family moved to Louisiana, to Oklahoma City, to Wichita Falls, to Wyoming, to wherever his father's job took them.

As an only child, moving every year or two, Rosenthal never made a lot of young friends. "I think the only thing [tough] about growing up that way is that I made a lot of adult friends; I was kind of friends with my folks' friends rather than having a lot of kid friends," he says.

By the early 1960s, Rosenthal's father had made it to Schlumberger's corporate office in Houston, eventually becoming a vice president. The family decided to join Second Baptist Church and, hearing that the church was about to erect a complex in what was then Houston's unpopulated Wild West of Voss and Woodway, they built a home nearby.

Rosenthal went to Lamar High (as did his predecessors Vance and Holmes). He was a few years behind Holmes but dated the future D.A.'s sister and hung around some with his brothers. He graduated with no great career plans, but for lack of anything more interesting he went on to Baylor and got a degree in psychology.

As the Vietnam War heated up he decided he wanted to become a navy pilot. He went through all the tests, but when he arrived in Dallas for the final step -- his physical -- he was rejected because he had the skin condition psoriasis. (When he got a draft notice a few months later, he showed up for the physical and kept his condition a secret, but it was detected again and he was classified 1-Y, never joining the military.)

Rosenthal found himself back in Houston, again without any burning desire for any particular line of work. He had a degree in psychology, but that field didn't appeal to him. "I didn't like what psychologists did, so I decided to go into something else," he says. "It seemed everyone I knew had an MBA, so I went instead into law school."

He enrolled for night classes at South Texas College of Law, back in the days when the professors were all practicing prosecutors or attorneys moonlighting for extra bucks. To pay tuition, Rosenthal worked in the personnel department of Methodist Hospital and for a headhunter who tried to convince people to take jobs in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.

He graduated in 1977, at 31 years of age. "I still felt like I owed somebody some government service, so I decided I would come [to the D.A.'s office] and work for three years and then go out and make some money," he says.

Instead, he found another home and -- finally -- a calling. He discovered he loved getting in front of juries.

He claims he had never even been in a courtroom before his first day as a prosecutor. "After kind of signing the insurance papers and things, they sent me right to County Court at Law No. 8," he says. That court's two prosecutors were tied up, so within hours of walking in the door as a newly minted lawyer he was picking a jury for a resisting-arrest case.

"I got up there and started talking to these people in the jury pool and it just kind of felt like I was in the right place," he says. "I liked trying cases. I went around and if someone was sick or unable to try a case I'd kind of step in and do it."

"He is definitely a homicide detective's prosecutor -- he got into the mud with them and learned the job," Chip Lewis says. "He's always had a very close relationship with the police department -- the homicide detectives thought a whole lot of him and still do."

An affable, charming guy -- at least when he's not talking to the media in crisis-management mode -- Rosenthal was considered a loose cannon by some colleagues. There was an infamous incident when an after-hours office gathering resulted in fireworks exploding in a stairwell, and cops being called in to investigate.

"He always had these kind of harebrained, half-cocked schemes," says one former associate. "They weren't always the most well-thought-out things."

He also showed some aversion to taking care of the administrative side of his job as he moved up the hierarchy, obviously preferring trial work.

More seriously, he got in trouble for authorizing an HPD cop to pose as a defense attorney while accompanying the wife of a kidnapping suspect to a jail visit. Defense attorneys were stunned at the move and filed complaints with the State Bar of Texas and the U.S. Department of Justice; both were dismissed without action against him.

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