Wilson for DA, but with caution

02/11/2014 11:45 AM

02/11/2014 11:46 AM

For the first time since 1966, the election for Tarrant County criminal district attorney is wide-open.

The only way to help pick the next district attorney is to vote for one of three Republicans in the party primary. No other party has a candidate.

Two Fort Worth lawyers and one from Arlington hope to succeed retiring Criminal District Attorney Joe Shannon Jr. of Fort Worth. Voting begins Tuesday and will end March 4, with a May 27 runoff if needed.

For 42 years under Shannon and his predecessor, the late Tim Curry, Tarrant County has built a proud reputation as one of the state’s most efficient and effective district attorney’s offices, one focused more on justice, fairness and stewardship than politics or showmanship.

Every challenger calling for an expensive, heavy-handed, get-tough-on-crime crusade learned that Tarrant County voters would rather get smart results for our dollars.

That should not change.

Yet no matter who wins, change is inevitable for the office of the county’s chief criminal prosecutor and top law enforcement officer.

Fort Worth lawyer and 23-year District Court Judge Sharen Wilson promises abrupt, almost jarring change.

Wilson, staking her reputation as a tough judge in a criminal court where she sees some of Tarrant County’s worst felons, criticizes Shannon’s office as lax. She says she wants to work prosecutors harder and be a stronger voice for crime victims and arresting officers.

That is a mistaken and troubling view of the office.

The district attorney represents the state alone, never the victim or city police. The sole goal must be justice, not revenge or victory.

Yet at the same time, Wilson presents the best experience and qualifications for a chief executive who must oversee a $36 million budget.

An Amarillo native and junior college graduate who went on to Texas Tech University and law school, she has won recognition from numerous professional organizations and served on regional, state and national committees, taking a particular interest in treatment programs and mental health issues.

She has one blemish on her record, and she has not handled it well in this campaign.

In 2008, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct privately admonished Wilson for unfairly revoking a teenage felony defendant’s bond and for jury-room behavior that two jurors considered biased.

Asked in this campaign if she has ever faced judicial discipline for conduct, she sometimes has said no. The questioner did not ask specifically whether she was admonished, she now says.

Opponent Kathy Lowthorp, an Arlington defense attorney, was on the other side of that case and has made it part of her campaign.

Lowthorp, an Army veteran and former military and civilian police officer, says she does not want to lose the current office’s focus on even-handed justice.

But she did not immediately recognize a simple recent question about an important turning point in Texas justice: the recent jailing of Ken Anderson, a former Williamson County district attorney who knowingly withheld evidence that might have led to an acquittal in the case of since-exonerated defendant Michael Morton.

Another candidate is Fort Worth criminal defense attorney George Mackey, a former chief felony prosecutor.

Mackey presents a well-rounded, 30-year career practicing in criminal, civil and family courts. He wants to play more of a caretaker role, keeping the current experienced staff of prosecutors and division heads and staying away from controversy and out of the headlines. He has the support of a much-admired former candidate, ex-state District Judge Bob Gill.

In many ways, Mackey’s mature, balanced approach is appealing.

But his lack of experience in public office or dealing with the county budget is a drawback for voters choosing a top law enforcement executive.

The Star-Telegram Editorial Board recommends Sharen Wilson in the Republican primary for Tarrant County criminal district attorney.

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