Monday, October 10, 2005

AUSTIN — Ronnie Earle, to many Republicans and especially Tom DeLay and his friends, appears as the devil incarnate: A rotten, mean-spirited Democrat with an ax to grind. Evil, partisan, unfair — and not too bright.

Here in the Texas capital — where they have elected him as their district attorney ever since 1976 — it is a bit more complicated when talking of things Earle.

Some, particularly those Democrats who consider him the only thing between them and threatened obsolescence for the Democratic Party statewide, admire him greatly.

Others, including members of the Legislature — heavily Republican — and their staffs, fear him somewhat, even make fun of him behind his back, but tread cautiously.

“He’s likable, works hard, but is a real weird duck,” one local lawyer told The Washington Times. “He doesn’t have many close friends, doesn’t mingle much. Nobody really knows what to make of him.”

“I would be a fool to comment on this,” said one Senate aide last week. “Anything could happen to me or my boss.”

Lawyers who deal with the district attorney’s office regularly will talk about Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst or House Speaker Tom Craddick — often colorfully — but generally they shy away from remarks about Mr. Earle or his realm.

“It’s not that we are afraid,” said one, glancing around to see if anyone was in earshot, “but this guy has the power. You know, the real power. And he’s known to have been vindictive.”

Mr. Earle doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. “I’m just doing my job,” he must have repeated to 50 different reporters last week.

Texas, unlike most states, does not allow its attorney general to prosecute criminal cases at the state level. That falls to the Travis County district attorney. That makes him by far the strongest district attorney in the state.

Anyone who has been the top crime-fighter in a community for nearly three decades undoubtedly has a record — one that probably speaks more eloquently than random interviews with friends and foes.

And Mr. Earle does.

In dealing daily with crime and punishment — and facing re-election every four years — any district attorney will suffer blots. For Mr. Earle, several specific cases stand out that indicate he is not necessarily an outstanding prosecutor and that his judgment has been questionable at best.

“Most of my wounds have been self-inflicted,” he often says.

Questionable investigations of then-Texas attorney general Jim Mattox (1983) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (1994) are often mentioned as politically motivated vendettas.

Mr. Mattox and Mrs. Hutchison both won acquittals; Mr. Mattox after a lengthy and expensive trial, Mrs. Hutchison after Mr. Earle threw a snit as the trial opened and refused to put on the state’s case. He tried to withdraw the indictment, but District Judge John Onion refused to allow that and pronounced Mrs. Hutchison acquitted.

The Hutchison indictment accused the senator of misusing state phones for political purposes while serving as Texas comptroller. Several media outlets commented that the charges seemed woefully weak.

Mr. Mattox was charged with bribery in 1983. While pushing a state lawsuit against Mobil Oil Co., testimony showed that he argued with Mobil’s lawyers and was thought — at least by Mr. Earle — to be soliciting a bribe.

But the case that still reverberates around Austin is one where Mr. Earle prosecuted — falsely, some claim — an 11-year-old girl in 1996 for capital murder.

Shane Phelps, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully but strong against Mr. Earle in 1996 and 2000, recalls watching with horror as the LaCresha Murray case unfolded.

“Just as he always does,” said Mr. Phelps, now first assistant district attorney in Brazos County. “Ronnie called a press conference to talk about it.

“He pronounced her guilty before she ever had a trial,” he said.

The fact that Miss Murray was the youngest person in Texas history to be tried for capital murder fueled one part of a public furor, but at trial more facts were elicited that made Mr. Earle’s strong advocacy even more noticeable.

After the victim, a 2-year-old under the care of Miss Murray’s grandparents, died of multiple injuries, authorities took the 11-year-old to a children’s shelter where they proceeded to interview her to get a confession.

In replying to a federal lawsuit filed later against him, two of his assistants and several homicide cops, Mr. Earle claimed that the fact no lawyer or family member was present during the lengthy “confession” interrogation was not illegal because technically she was not a suspect and was not yet under arrest.

“Can you imagine a dark room filled with people firing questions at her? Could she possibly have known her rights?” said Frank P. Hernandez, a Dallas lawyer who is still pursuing legal remedy for Miss Murray, now 19.

“But Ronnie was in the midst of a re-election campaign and he needed the ‘law and order’ crowd.”

Mr. Earle has said he was not completely aware of all aspects of the case before trial.

“But he was in charge,” Mr. Phelps said. “He had to know and he was responsible.”

Mr. Phelps points to what he considers an interesting development in that August 1996 trial. After Mr. Earle’s prosecutors convicted the child and she was given 20 years for criminally negligent homicide, the trial judge, John Dietz, of his own volition, overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial.

That judge was a former Earle assistant district attorney and made his ruling in October, just a month before the Earle-Phelps election.

The Earle prosecutors tried again in early 1997 and convicted Miss Murray again, this time obtaining a 25-year sentence.

On April 21, 1999, three years later, Miss Murray was released from a juvenile facility. The 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin said her confession could have been coerced and was definitely improper. The panel overturned the second verdict.

Sixteen months later, with no evidence other than the then-illicit “confession,” Mr. Earle announced all criminal charges against the girl had been dismissed.

Mr. Hernandez reached back to remind Mr. Earle how he handled another accused young murderer, the son of a friend of his.

On May 13, 1978, about 17 months after Mr. Earle had taken office, John Christian, 13, took a pistol to class at an Austin junior high school and fatally shot his teacher in front of 30 students.

Mr. Earle told the press within hours that he would recommend five years in a state reform school “if the boy is found sane.”

Within two weeks, two psychiatrists testified that the boy suffered with “latent schizophrenia” and was suicidal. Judge Hume Coker ordered the youth to a Dallas psychiatric hospital until he was 18.

The youth went on to graduate from Highland Park High School in Dallas, then the University of Texas and finally, UT Law School.

“Plaintiff contends,” read the Hernandez suit, “that if defendant Ronnie Earle had treated plaintiff Murray in the same manner that he treated John Christian, she would not have been charged with capital murder and would not have suffered the damages she has suffered. The reason she was treated differently is because she is black, compared to John Christian, who is white.”

To outsiders, the 63-year-old Mr. Earle is depicted as just a Texas liberal, though until the mid-1990s he was grudgingly backed by conservatives, who admired his reasonably strong stand on capital punishment.

Some old-time Democrats look at his posture on meting out the death penalty and claim he isn’t a liberal.

“He goes home after work, doesn’t hang out at the bars, seldom attends political functions,” said Buck Wood, a longtime local lawyer heavily involved in the state’s attempt to find a new way to fund its troubled school system.

“You have to realize,” said former Austin lawyer Dave Richards, and long-time liberal and ex-husband of former Gov. Ann Richards, “he’s not of us. He doesn’t fit the pattern of most of those in public office.”

The fact that 12 of his previous 15 “investigations” involved Democrats means little when one considers there were relatively few Republicans in anything close to statewide power here until 2000 or 2002.

DeLay lawyer Dick DeGuerin — who also represented Mrs. Hutchison more than a decade ago — said Mr. Earle “indicts for the political effect it will have on those people.”

He said he doubted new information elicited the second round of DeLay indictments. He thought his motion to quash the original indictments before last weekend forced the second thrust.

“I think they were losing sleep over that over the weekend,” said Mr. DeGuerin.

When he hears the hostile chorus from those who say he is on a witch hunt, Mr. Earle usually just shrugs his shoulders.

He recently told a Texas Monthly reporter: “This investigation is a little like clowns coming out of a Volkswagen in the circus. There’s always another clown coming out.”

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