Texas’ political and legal institutions have pulled themselves by the bootstraps into the early days of the Truman Administration (a vast improvement from a decade ago, when they were still happily entrenched in the Van Buren Administration). However, it does not mean the Lone Star State has stopped stomping people of color, regardless of their social status.
Judge C. Victor Lander, who oversees Dallas’ municipal courts, is currently nursing a large bootprint on the top of his head for a column he wrote earlier this week in the city’s African-American newspaper. It wasn’t a pack of lies; instead, it was just too inconveniently close to the truth for the Saltine packs who mostly run the Big D.
Was Judge Lander outing closeted child molesters? No, he had merely praised Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins for his efforts at reforming the office. Watkins is Texas’ very first – and still sole – African American district attorney. That’s not a particularly stirring achievement for the nation’s third most populous state, given Watkins wasn’t even elected until 2006. Incidentally, Texas has nearly 300 counties, meaning they elect D.A.s by the truckload (by comparison, California has only 58 counties).
What got Lander in hot water was observing that “black folks have been cleaning up white folks’ messes for hundreds of years, so why should we expect any different now?” He also criticized the Dallas County District Attorney’s office for being an institution where “it was more important to convict than it was to ensure justice was done.”
Within a few days Lander apologized to Dallas’ mostly white legal and political establishment – a group that almost certainly hadn’t read a line in an African-American newspaper until one of their colleagues waved a copy under their noses in an episode of bloated outrage.
Bloated outrage is certainly what comes to mind regarding Dallas City Councilman Mitchell Rasansky, who called for Lander to resign. Rasansky said he was “extremely offended and hurt by these unwarranted comments.” Either Rasansky is one of those white guys who takes offense at anything a black man does or says that’s considered “uppity,” or he’s telegraphing to Lander his power. The City Council in Dallas appoints municipal judges, one of the hundreds of sad examples in Texas where the bench is overtly politicized. Rasansky is leaving office later this year, but no doubt he’d love to bag Lander before he exits.
The Dallas Morning News also clucked that Lander had violated judicial codes of conduct. “If you’re a white lawyer or defendant today in one of the 10 municipal courts Lander supervises, how confident would you be that you’ll get a fair shake?” the paper wondered on its editorial page.
My conclusion: a helluva lot more confident than in the past. Dallas County’s legal system has been the equivalent of an EPA Superfund Site for decades. That’s the legacy of the notorious Henry Wade, who operated the D.A.’s office for nearly 40 years on the philosophy of never letting a good fact get in the way of a bad conviction. Wade instructed his deputies to systematically exclude minorities from death penalty cases, and suppress inconveniently exculpatory evidence. That was among the reasons Watkins established a unit to examine DNA evidence to determine if anyone had been wrongly convicted. The municipal courts Lander oversees don’t handle the felony cases Watkins prosecutes, but certainly he’s kept that legacy in mind during the 12 years he’s been on the bench.
Indeed, 19 people convicted in Dallas County during Wade’s tenure have been exonerated of their crimes since the start of this decade alone. Most had been convicted of rape and/or murders, and had been serving long prison terms. Some had been wrongfully imprisoned for 20 years or more. As the Morning News skewered judge Lander for his misconduct, it conveniently forgot that it posts an ongoing list of exonerated defendants on its own website.
That horrific roster doesn’t even include Randall Adams, who was put on death row for the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer because the real killer was a juvenile and couldn’t be executed. Prosecutor Doug Mulder all but boasted that he had gotten an innocent man convicted. It took Errol Morris and his landmark documentary “The Thin Blue Line” to free Adams. He had spent 12 years in prison, and at one point had come within a few days of being strapped into the electric chair.
No doubt Rasansky hasn’t seen “The Thin Blue Line.” Which is a shame, given that he lives in a 6,600 square-foot home valued at nearly $3 million. No doubt he’s got a nifty home theater that would nearly replicate the experience of watching this extremely sobering film in a movie house.
Meanwhile, Texas has executed some 60 inmates since Watkins took office, more than all the other 49 states combined. Almost certainly every single one was guilty of the crimes they committed. But even if one was innocent, that’s a mess a whole lot of people – black or white – can never clean up.