Who's afraid of Robert rose?

At the Dallas County Courthouse, everybody. David Pasztor explains why

Jimmy Lewis White ran a red Volkswagen Beetle off the side of Highway 820 on Jan-uary 15, 1995. The Bug apparently flipped and rolled, killing driver John Marcellus, an off-duty Fort Worth police officer.

Tests after the accident pegged White's blood alcohol level at .25--more than double what the law allows. At least four people watched White's Ford pickup--a four-wheeler tricked out with macho tires and high-testosterone accessories--plow down the highway and hit three cars, including the Volks-wagen.

The 30-year-old plumber already had one drunken-driving conviction and refused to take a breath test at the scene. He told police he'd only had one beer that afternoon. Yet a bar tab showed that he and several buddies went through 11 pitchers while watching a football game.

The case against White looked formidable when a pair of Tarrant County prosecutors rolled out the state's evidence earlier this month--especially after Kathryn Wyatt took the stand.

A prosecutor's dream, Wyatt was a nervous, sweet 18-year-old without a lying bone in her body. She told jurors she was going 68 miles an hour when White's truck blew by her and went on to hit three other cars. Even Robert Rose, the combative Dallas attorney defending White, wasn't going to take out after an innocent teenager who was driving the family Bonneville to church when she saw the wreck.

The dead man's family packed the prosecution's side of the courtroom for five days straight. Virtually everyone watching the trial believed that Jimmy Lewis White was going down.

But Robert Rose, who hates to lose, decided to go straight for the throat of the prosecution's case: He would argue, remarkably, that White was not drunk at all.

Rose attempted to turn the state's best evidence--the .25 blood-alcohol level--to his advantage by calling an obscure expert to the stand. John Castle told jurors that blood taken from White after the accident surely had been infiltrated by yeast floating in the atmosphere. Yeast, of course, causes sugar to ferment, and that's what it did to the sugar naturally present in White's blood sample.

The alcohol found in White's blood, the expert testified, actually grew there after the blood was drawn from White's body.

In closing arguments, Rose told the jury the test must have been flawed. It would take at least 28 beers for White's blood alcohol to register at .25, he claimed; with that much beer in him, White would have been a staggering drunk. Yet the police had reported only a relatively slight appearance of intoxication.

And the accident? The speeding? The weaving in and out of traffic? The three cars White hit with his truck?

Faulty brakes, Rose argued.
After mulling things over for four hours, 12 citizens of Tarrant County voted to acquit. The verdict stunned White as much as the family of the police officer he killed.

Robert Rose loved it.
If there is one thing Rose wants right now, it is to prove to everyone--his ex-wife, all the people who detest him, and the prosecutors who want to send him to prison--that he is one kick-ass lawyer. "My problem is my personal life. My legal life is fine," Rose says. "I can try a case as good as anybody I know."

Rose's opportunities to prove that are rapidly running out. Early next month, the 45-year-old attorney is scheduled to appear before U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders and surrender his law license. He will be sentenced on federal charges of tax evasion and wire fraud, and probably go to prison.

After 20 years of practicing law, Rose himself is going down.
Whether Rose will be taking anybody else to prison with him is a question sending Dallas County's legal community into raging fits of paranoia.

Rose pleaded guilty on two federal counts in January, admitting that he cheated on his taxes to the tune of at least $200,000, and that he fraudulently used someone else's frequent flier certificates to take an airline trip between Dallas and Las Vegas.

In and of themselves, the charges are not remarkable. But the plea remained secret, sealed at the request of the U.S. Attorney's office, for five months. And when it was unsealed, the courthouse crowd learned that Rose had also promised to give the government "truthful and complete" information about not just his crimes, but "all other criminal activities about which he has knowledge."

Rose, many in the courthouse feared, had become a government snitch.
Rumor and gossip are staples of the courthouse diet, consumed with the morning coffee by attorneys, judges, clerks, and bailiffs. There had already been talk of a federal investigation around the courthouse. Some lawyers swore they heard from somebody who knew that there was a stack of sealed indictments over at the U.S. Attorney's office, just waiting to be sprung. When that happened, the most extreme theories held, Dallas County's judicial system would be shaken to its very roots as handcuffed judges and lawyers were led away to jail.

Word of Rose's plea bargain juiced the already overheated rumor mill up to warp speed.

As a criminal defense attorney, after all, Rose dealt regularly with cases involving drugs and large sums of cash. He practiced before some of Dallas' most prominent criminal court judges. And he was widely distrusted--an arrogant little advocate who might well have tried anything to win a case.

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