I heard this morning that former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal passed away overnight. He had been in ill health for quite some time and I heard he had taken a turn for the worse over the past few weeks. The news of his passing was not unexpected.
To say that Chuck left behind a complicated legacy would be an extreme understatement, especially for those of us who worked as Assistant District Attorneys under his administration. Although I started my prosecutorial career under Johnny Holmes, he retired a little over a year after I started and the vast majority of my tenure was in the Rosenthal Administration. The end of Chuck's career would tangentially cause the end of my career as a prosecutor, and it was the end of an era of old-school prosecuting in Harris County as well. Like many of the people I worked alongside in those days, my thoughts on Chuck Rosenthal are conflicted.
Chuck ended his career being vilified for many things, and by association, those of us who worked there were vilified as well. I can recall trying to pick a jury shortly after news of his scandalous e-mails had hit the media and asking the panel of 65 potential jurors if their views of the Harris County District Attorney's Office would lead them to be unfair to the State. I remember distinctly that one man said it definitely would. He noted something to the effect of, "You seem alright, but if Chuck Rosenthal was standing there when I came in, I'd have turned around and walked right out." That moment always seemed to encapsulate what that last year (2008) would be like for those of us who worked at the Office -- one-on-one dealings with us prosecutors seemed to be okay, but man, that Office had a horrible reputation.
It was a far fall from the reputation the Office had under the Holmes Administration.
It also seemed to give vindication to all of those in the Defense Bar and some segments of the media that the Office was nothing but a racist and unethical haven of heavy-handed prosecutors who cared more about winning than playing by the rules. That was a bitter pill to swallow for those of us inside the Office who didn't feel that way about one another, and we certainly didn't feel that way about ourselves. The racist and sexist e-mails that were discovered from Chuck's computer were attributed to all of us as if we had authored them ourselves. Back then it felt like any attempts to defend ourselves or the Office, in general, was to condone Chuck's behavior. As most of you know, that's when I started this blog as an anonymous Harris County Lawyer over fifteen years ago.
But time has a way of lending perspective to certain moments in life, and the anger and resentment that I had for Chuck back in the day has been tempered somewhat. Over the years, any attempt to say anything slightly positive about my time there has generally led to retorts of, "You just miss the good old racist, evidence-hiding days of Chuck Rosenthal!" But the truth is that in the big scheme of things, up until his disastrous implosion at the end, working as a prosecutor for Chuck Rosenthal was a pretty fantastic job.
To understand that, you have to understand the relationship that Chuck had with his employees. And to understand that, you have to understand Chuck.
Whenever I talk about Chuck Rosenthal to people who didn't know him, I always lead off by saying, "The first thing you've got to know about Chuck is that he was really a strange man." I don't mean that as an insult to him. It's just true. He was an extremely aloof guy whom most of us in the Office didn't know very well -- certainly not those of us in the lower echelons at the time he became District Attorney. We had all signed up for the job under Johnny Holmes, who was a legendary firebrand of a leader. We were scared to death of Mr. Holmes although we all felt very proud to work for him. We revered him and we would follow him into battle. History may ultimately be unkind to Johnny Holmes, but those of us who worked for him loved him.
Chuck, on the other hand, was just Chuck. He was a tall guy who cut an imposing figure, but he didn't seem to have much going for him in the personality department. He was extremely quiet and he seemed to rarely speak or smile. In an Office filled with dynamic and charismatic leaders from Lyn McClellan to Ted Wilson to Bert Graham and many others, Chuck wasn't really viewed as the heir apparent to Mr. Holmes. I think I had met him once or twice during the Holmes Administration and the only thing I remember about it was referring to him as "Mr. Rosenthal." Without smiling or even making eye contact, he would reply, "Call me Chuck" and then walk off. That and his bone-crushing handshake were all that really stood out about him. I'd seen him in trial once alongside Elsa Alcala when I was an intern for the Office and I didn't think he even had the requisite amount of charisma to be a trial lawyer.
On the day Mr. Holmes announced he wasn't going to seek re-election, Chuck immediately announced that he would be running for District Attorney in 2000, and nobody else from within the Office seemed to be interested in challenging his claim to it. It was a strange time. It was as if some announcement had been made that Chuck would just be taking over and that was all there was to it. Nobody seemed particularly excited nor upset. It just was what was going to happen.
In one of the more ironic moments of life, a retired judge by the name of Patricia R. Lykos chose to challenge Chuck in the primary. I had met her a couple of times when she had been a visiting judge in Brazos County and just found her to be delightful. Several of my friends at the time discussed whether or not she would have been a better D.A. in 2000. Word got around to some of Chuck's inner circle that some of us peon ADAs weren't "loyal" and we learned to keep our bizarrely positive thoughts on Lykos to ourselves. True story!
When Chuck won the D.A.'s race and took over, the transition from Holmes to Rosenthal was about as seamless as one could have imagined. I was too low on the food chain to have known the few people he chose not to renew. Things just kept chugging along as they always had. Chuck was the new District Attorney and most of the rank and file rarely interacted with him. We might see him at the Office Holiday party for our yearly bone-crushing handshake, but other than that, we didn't see him.
And that was what made Chuck a good boss to work for -- the man simply let us do our jobs. He wasn't there to micromanage us or yell at us for doing something to embarrass him or the Office. He trusted his people to do their jobs and he left us alone to do them. The hierarchy of the upper-Administration was effective and they themselves tried cases. There was a camaraderie within that Office because we were all of the same mindset of people who felt we were seeking justice and we weren't afraid to go to trial. We also weren't afraid to dismiss bad or weak cases because we knew we wouldn't get in trouble for it as long as we used our best judgment.
Say what you will about Chuck Rosenthal, but that Office ran like a well-oiled machine during his tenure. I think I had to deal with him in an official capacity on two occasions. On one occasion, someone had taken issue with a quote I had said in a newspaper article. I was called to his Office where he showed me a letter he had received complaining about my quote. I explained myself to him. He shrugged and said, "I get bullshit letters like this all the time." And that was the end of that conversation.
The other time I dealt with him was when I needed to offer immunity to a witness on a murder case. It involved a lot of paperwork and ultimately required the elected District Attorney's signature. I prepared all of the paperwork and took it to his office. He didn't stand or say anything in greeting. I just handed him the paperwork and he signed it. As I left, he told me, "Send me an e-mail when you are done with trial and tell me what I just signed."
That was what it was like working for Chuck. He didn't inspire much in us, but we appreciated the discretion to do our jobs. Rather than having one leader that we all looked up to, we felt more like we were part of a very talented team of trial lawyers and we looked up to each other. Fifteen years later, those of us who worked there still may get the occasional taunt about having worked for someone as terrible as Chuck, but we definitely don't get taunted for being bad trial lawyers.
But for all of those who hated Chuck Rosenthal, those of us who worked for him at the time felt uniquely betrayed. When his actions were brought to light, he had the option of resigning or, at a minimum, announcing that he wouldn't seek re-election. Instead, he doubled down on refusing to leave -- even when an executive committee of Republicans implored him to leave. Had he chosen to leave with some grace, perhaps that Office could have kept on running seamlessly. Instead, it led to a hotly contested primary that ultimately ended a great many prosecutorial careers. As one Division Chief repeatedly said, "I get the suicidal pilot that wants to crash his plane into a mountain, but Chuck took a 747 full of passengers with him."
In retrospect, who knows what would have happened? It was 2008 and there was a major shift in the politics of Harris County that extended far beyond just the D.A.'s Office. Chuck certainly bore the brunt of the blame from those of us who had worked for him, but that probably gave him more responsibility than he had actually earned.
After it was all over and Chuck was gone and I was gone, he started sending me random text messages and e-mails -- mainly commenting on things I had written on the blog. I typically left them unanswered because I felt pretty bitter towards him. In the early months of the Lykos Administration, I attended a going-away party for Bert Graham that was attended by a great many former prosecutors, including Johnny Holmes . . . and Chuck Rosenthal. I had quite a few beers at that party and when Chuck walked up to me, I angrily told him to stop sending me texts and that if he wanted to talk, we could go to lunch.
The following day, he called and invited me to lunch.
To say it was the most awkward lunch I've ever attended would be a major understatement but after some failed attempts at small talk, I did launch into him for having failed the Office and the people who worked for him. He sat there impassively throughout it all. When I was done, he just looked at me and said "What would you have had me do differently?" Since I had just spent fifteen minutes monologing about what I thought he should have done differently, I was floored by his question. I really regretted having asked him to lunch. Like I said earlier, Chuck was a strange guy.
At the end of that going-away party for Bert, a group of us had been standing outside smoking cigarettes toward the end of the party. Chuck had stopped to speak to some of us while we were standing there although none of us really knew what to say. As we were standing there, Johnny Holmes walked out of the front door and shook hands with most of us. He then stopped and looked at Rosenthal, without shaking his hand.
"Chuck," he said, barely acknowledging his successor's presence. And then he just walked away. I'm not sure that I ever saw Mr. Holmes again in person.
For me, that moment always seemed to epitomize the end of my time at the District Attorney's Office.