District attorney’s race to bring change to the courthouse
02/22/2014 7:47 PM
02/22/2014 7:48 PM
When Tim Curry ran for Tarrant County district attorney in 1972, he campaigned as a reform candidate who pledged to clean up corruption in the prosecutor’s office.
Over the next 36 years, Curry’s approach earned his office accolades statewide. His open-file policy — one that allows defense attorneys to peek inside prosecutors’ files — became state law. Seeking the death penalty in cases when guilt was not in question earned his administration a reputation for being tough but fair.
So when current District Attorney Joe Shannon — a close friend of the late and legendary prosecutor — decided not to seek re-election in the March 4 primary, this campaign became the first in more than 42 years without Curry or someone closely tied to him in the race.
In the hard-fought Republican primary — which will essentially decide the next district attorney because no Democrat ran — former state District Judge Sharen Wilson and defense attorneys George Mackey and Kathy Lowthorp are all campaigning to bring a new beginning to the office.
“No matter who takes over, it is the end of an era and the start of a new one,” Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said. “There will be a huge sea change on the part of the DA’s office.”
Wilson is touting her record as “Tarrant County’s toughest criminal court judge” and a career spent putting criminals in jail. She also promises to “return integrity” to the district attorney’s office.
Mackey and Lowthorp, who are seeking office for the first time, have picked apart Wilson’s record as a felony court judge. In interviews and in campaign fliers, they’ve criticized her courtroom demeanor, challenged her judicial record and publicized that she was once disciplined for wrongfully incarcerating a defendant and improperly talking with jurors during a trial.
Barring a write-in candidate in the November election, whoever wins the primary will oversee the county’s largest law firm, with 164 attorneys and support staff that raises the employee total to about 325. The office handles some 45,000 criminal cases a year and has a budget of around $36 million.
The district attorney serves a four-year term and is paid $193,402 a year.
‘Right the ship’
Shannon was appointed district attorney by Gov. Rick Perry in 2009 after Curry’s death. A Republican, he was elected to his own term in 2010.
His political future was viewed as tenuous after the county paid a $375,000 no-fault settlement in 2012 in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former assistant district attorney. Shannon denied the accusations, but the settlement angered many in his party.
Wilson, who many say has coveted the office for years and applied for the appointment from Perry in 2009, announced her candidacy on the courthouse steps, pledging to “right the ship” at the prosecutor’s office.
“When we give a person such incredible power over life and death, and freedom and prison, that person must abide by the highest standards,” Wilson said. “That person must be professional above reproach, ethical beyond question and qualified beyond equal.”
Political insiders predicted a bruising, wide-open primary. Then Shannon decided to retire. And a little more than a week later, Bob Gill, a former state district judge and deputy chief in the district attorney’s office, unexpectedly dropped out of the race.
Suddenly, Wilson became viewed as the front-runner.
She has garnered widespread financial support. According to her latest campaign reports, she had $159,760 in cash and received a $25,000 donation from the Good Government Fund PAC and the PSEL-PAC, political action committees run by the Bass family. Fort Worth philanthropist Anne Marion gave her $15,000.
Wilson has been endorsed by Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, Commissioners Gary Fickes and Andy Nguyen, and many mayors, including Betsy Price of Fort Worth, Robert Cluck of Arlington and William D. Tate of Grapevine. The Fort Worth and Arlington police associations have also backed Wilson.
“She fits the bill. She has a tremendous amount of integrity, and in a prosecution, you look for someone who is tough but fair,” Anderson said. “As a judge, she has done that, and you want someone who will press hard on prosecution.”
Wilson first ran for district attorney in 1990 against Curry, who had just switched from Democrat to Republican. A former prosecutor with a 98 percent conviction rate, she criticized Curry as not aggressive enough. Wilson lost by a wide margin.
The next month, she was appointed to Criminal District Court No. 1 by Gov. Bill Clements, a post she held until she resigned last year to run for district attorney again.
Wilson now says she respects how Curry ran the office. “He wasn’t in it for self-aggrandizement,” Wilson said. “I now realize how much he respected the office and how much he worked behind the scenes to make it the way it was.”
A felony court judge for 23 years, Wilson was known for her tough-on-crime approach. She earned headlines and applause for putting signs in the yards of sex offenders and imposing tough restrictions on probationers. She was also jeered for politicizing events in her courtroom and for sparring with defense attorneys and prosecutors.
Wilson presided over such high-profile cases as the trial of George Lott, who was convicted and executed for the 1992 shooting rampage at the Tarrant County Courthouse, and the actual-innocence claim of John Michael Harvey, who served 11 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of sexual molestation of a child.
Wilson is proud of keeping her court docket clear and of having the lowest budget. She also took the lead in working with other judges to revamp the criminal docket to ease jail overcrowding by sorting the basic and complex cases and setting them for hearings.
If elected, Wilson said, she will run the district attorney’s office more like a law firm, getting the most for taxpayer dollars and ensuring that promotions are based less on seniority and more on how hard an attorney works. She also said the office needs to be more responsive to the public. Her campaign literature also stresses being more responsive to victims.
Still, attorneys sometimes cringed when they had a case in her court. She’s often been described as a “bully.”
Attorney Mimi Coffey said Wilson has a reputation for being “pretty fierce.”
“There are attorneys who have refused to take cases in her court because they didn’t want to have to deal with her. That is pretty extreme,” Coffey said.
But Tax Assessor/Collector Ron Wright said Wilson was one of the county’s best judges, running a conservative court that delivered “more bang for the buck” by clearing more cases. He also liked that Wilson made prosecutors and defense attorneys “toe the line in her court.”
“There is no buddy-buddy system in her court,” Wright said. “As a taxpayer, I think that is a good thing. I don’t see that as a flaw at all. I want to see them toe the line and do their job.”
Lowthorp has made Wilson’s integrity a central issue in her campaign.
A veteran criminal defense attorney and former military and civilian police officer, Lowthorp originally filed to run against Wilson as a judicial candidate but switched to the district attorney’s race when Gill dropped out. Lowthorp said Wilson needed a strong opponent.
“I have concerns about what she will do [as district attorney], I do,” Lowthorp said. “It is going to be her way or no way. This is what the legal community is worried about.”
Lowthorp’s history with Wilson is stormy. In 2006, Lowthorp filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct after she said Wilson unfairly met with jurors during the trial of Allen Christopher Roman, an Arlington teenager involved in a violent convenience store robbery.
In 2008, Wilson received a private admonition — not a public reprimand — from the commission for engaging in conduct that caused two jurors to believe she was biased against Roman and Lowthorp. She was also punished for improperly revoking his bail.
Earlier in the campaign, Wilson was not forthcoming about being disciplined. Now she acknowledges being punished but says she took those actions to protect the community. She said Roman was attending classes at Sam Houston High School while charged with a serious crime, something she thought was inappropriate.
“I wish I was perfect, but I’m not,” Wilson said.
For nine months after Wilson and Lowthorp clashed, Lowthorp said, her cases were transferred from Wilson’s court. “She is a nice lady and she knows the law, but what she has done that is not right is disrespect the legal community and the people who work in it,” she said.
Lowthorp said raising money for the race has been difficult. Her latest campaign finance report says that from Jan. 1 to Jan. 23, she received $2,000 in contributions and had no cash on hand.
If elected, Lowthorp said, she would improve investigations at the district attorney’s office to prevent cases from being lost. She would also “have a war on gangs like there was a war on drugs.” And she would seek to improve communication with law enforcement agencies.
An experienced hand
Mackey knows he’s not a household name.
A former chief felony prosecutor and criminal defense attorney with 39 years of experience, Mackey has not garnered a lot of headlines defending his clients, and he says that’s a good thing.
So when Mackey filed a campaign treasurer designation in March 2013, not long after the sexual harassment claims against Shannon went public — but long before anyone else jumped into the race — only insiders in the Republican Party recognized his name.
Mackey said he’s making his first bid for public office because he doesn’t want any “slippage” in the integrity of the district attorney’s office.
“There has been a lot of public confidence and trust in the DA’s office,” Mackey said. “I am running to restore that confidence and trust.”
Mackey is endorsed by Gill; Marvin Collins, a former U.S. attorney and first assistant chief in the district attorney’s office; and Donald R. Curry, Tim Curry’s campaign manager. (Tim and Don Curry were not related.)
“There is no question, in my opinion, that Tim would have wholeheartedly supported George Mackey,” Don Curry said. “He is not a politician — in that degree he is a lot like Tim. But he knows what he is doing.”
To pay for his campaign, Mackey invested $75,000 of his own money. On the last contribution report, he had $65,300 on hand, with a $500 contribution from Wes Turner, former publisher of the Star-Telegram, and $250 from John Roach, former head of the Tandy Corp.
In a campaign mailer, Mackey said people can vote for him or “elect someone ensconced in a pattern of controversy that distracts from the purpose of the office” — a reference to Wilson. In another mailer, he directly attacked her record, mentioning the judicial complaint.
If elected, Mackey said, he doesn’t expect to make wholesale changes but plans to take the Curry legacy and “build upon it.” While he says most of the prosecutors are excellent, he would do more to crack down on repeat offenders of nonviolent crimes.
He would also look more closely at cases filed with the economic crimes division to make sure that business interests are protected.
A new generation
For 36 years, Tim Curry quietly ran the prosecutor’s office. He was so quiet that sometimes people questioned whether he was even there.
But Curry is gone, and his successor Shannon is too politically damaged to select his replacement, leaving a wide-open race for what many people consider the most powerful office in the county, said Tom Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“The current DA is not in the position to hand down the crown,” Marshall said.
No matter who wins, Shannon and others are committed to working with the next generation at the district attorney’s office. Shannon will serve until the end of the year.
“We’re going to work with whoever wins and make as smooth a transition as possible,” said Collins, who is “turning out the lights” when Shannon leaves office. “We have an outstanding staff of attorneys, support people and investigators, and they do an outstanding job.”
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