Blessed and Bewildered

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

Despite the mishaps, he continued to win cases that were high-profile at the time. However, he never -- significantly, to his detractors -- got tabbed as first assistant, the No. 2 position in the office under Holmes. But he headed up one of the four felony trial divisions and was thought of as a top prosecutor.

His personal life was also taking a turn. He met his wife, an FBI agent, when they were both working on a kidnapping case in 1986. The victim was a kid Rosenthal had coached on Second Baptist's basketball team.

"When he was rescued, I called the family and had them meet us down in the basement of the federal courthouse, and they put him in the closest car, which happened to be my [future] wife's car," he says. "And we were kind of there for the reunion, and I took her out to breakfast and fell in love."

Schaffer wonders if Rosenthal's reputation will ever 
match his precedessor's.
Schaffer wonders if Rosenthal's reputation will ever match his precedessor's.

He was married to someone else at the time, but that 19-year marriage was sputtering to a close. Five years later, he and new wife Cindy were married and now have two daughters, ages 11 and eight.

She is voluble where he is reticent. "Chuck's a pretty quiet guy," she says. "People say he married me because he didn't like to do the talking."

She says he takes the current deluge of bad publicity better than she does. "I'm the one who reads the paper and says, 'I don't need coffee this morning to get me going,' " she says. "There are days when you can see that it gets to him, though."

Things began to change for Rosenthal when Holmes asked him, apropos of nothing much, "What would you do if I decided not to run again?"

"I prayed about it," Rosenthal says. And he decided to run, filing the very day Holmes announced his retirement.

Holmes says he figures that Rosenthal, like himself, "ran for D.A. in self-defense."

By e-mail, the retired D.A. says, "I never wanted to be an elected official," but Carol Vance announced his retirement. "I knew if someone else became D.A. I would be either leaving or going down a few notches, either of which I saw as unsatisfactory. I suspect Chuck was in the same boat."

Rosenthal's campaign emphasized his tightness with Holmes. While his opponents didn't criticize Holmes, Rosenthal still encountered a brutal primary fight against former district judge Patricia Lykos and then-first assistant county attorney Mike Stafford, who has since become county attorney.

"I was not at all prepared for the divisiveness that there was within the Republican Party," Rosenthal says. "You were either automatically accepted in a crowd because of who supported you or you could walk into a room and almost cut the animosity with a knife because of who supported you. And I found that odd. I was not ready at all for that."

Rosenthal's key supporters were the Christian right -- the Hotze-Blakemore axis, which has been pushing conservative candidates for years, and the 20,000 members of Second Baptist, a "damn powerful machine on their own," according to veteran political consultant Nancy Sims. They carried him to a runoff victory for the nomination.

Some of Rosenthal's former colleagues recall no religious fervor from the man -- his wife calls him "a quiet Christian" -- but there's no doubt that he now often invokes his faith. To some, that's pandering, and also the reason behind his decision to argue the sodomy case. To others, it's just the way he is.

But it can be jarring talking to the head of the country's most vigorous death penalty prosecutors and hear him talk of the Bible justifying his work.

He says the death penalty is "biblical." What about forgiveness?

"Forgiveness, it's not up to me to forgive. It's in that covenant where God talks about 'man sheds another man's blood, you shed his blood.' And the only thing God can't do is contradict himself, and I believe that Jesus is God and when he says on the Sermon on the Mount that he didn't come to change the law but to fulfill it, he wasn't changing the rules."

He doesn't believe those who sincerely repent on death row should be spared. "Actually I take heart in people who say they find religion in prison before they're executed because as far as I know, the mortality rate for human beings is 100 percent, so it's gonna happen to us sooner or later anyway, and hopefully they meet their maker as a better person," he says.

It was Rosenthal's decision to seek the death penalty against Andrea Yates, the disturbed Clear Lake woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub. The jury instead gave a life sentence.

"It was not an easy decision," Rosenthal says. "But I felt like it was a situation where, given the savagery of the murders, that a jury ought to have the opportunity to consider the death penalty."

He says he received death threats after he decided to make it a capital case. "It would be mostly e-mails, and they'd be sent about three o'clock in the morning from Massachusetts or California," he says.

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