By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's barely daybreak on the 1996 political horizon, but maverick Wise County Attorney Stephen Hale is already facing opponents who want to assure his political sunset.
Since shortly after taking office in January 1993, Hale, who prosecutes misdemeanor crimes in this rural county of 36,000, about 40 miles north of Fort Worth, has been caught in a dust devil of controversy. At issue is his unorthodox approach to minor marijuana-possession cases.
Hale dismisses them.
Hale also dismisses or plea bargains most first-time DWI cases to the lesser charge of reckless conduct, resulting in probation and community service for the offender.
This quest to speed the wheels of justice--his average daily court docket has dropped from six to three pages in three years--has pleased judges, defense attorneys, and frightened, small-time pot users.
But it also has made Hale, a 43-year-old Democrat, a target of the powerful local newspaper, and of a conservative Republican opponent who accuses Hale of sending a message that "serves to invite drug users and drunk drivers to move up here."
Hale, slightly built, bald, and ruddy-cheeked, dismisses opponent Todd Durden's criticism with a shrug of the shoulders. "I believe what I'm doing with the marijuana cases is the right and moral thing to do," Hale says. "As I see it, possession of four ounces or less of marijuana is a victimless crime, and there's no point in tying up the system and ruining someone's life over it."
Hale is still mindful of his own brush with the law in 1974. While he was serving in the Army in Florida, Hale was arrested by civilian police for possessing a baggie of marijuana--in those days, a felony, carrying a possible penalty of two to 20 years prison time. Hale got three years deferred probation, but the incident, he says, clouded his early legal career.
Texas would not grant Hale, a 1980 graduate of the South Texas College of Law, a bar card. So he spent the first five years of his career in Juneau, Alaska. "I felt like I was exiled," Hale says. Texas accepted his Alaska bar credentials when he returned to the state in 1985.
Hale defends his stance on DWI dismissals as well. Court records show that Hale has dismissed or reduced charges in more than 60 percent of drunken-driving cases. "With the DWI cases as it is now, I get people on probation and paying fines," he says. "In the past, these cases just sat there as the docket got longer and longer. They went off into nowhere. I guarantee that if this office prosecuted every DWI case, a three-page docket would be a six-page docket within a month."
Were Hale and Durden, a Fort Worth attorney who lives in Boyd, left to themselves to fight this out, Hale would likely walk all over his opponent in November. That's because Wise County has been a Democratic stronghold in countywide elections since Reconstruction, and "those damn Republicans don't have a chance up here," says Elaine Davis, Wise County Democratic chairwoman.
But in the best small-town Texas tradition, a greater power than the two candidates combined has waded into the race. In a series of news stories and editorials over the past two years, the Wise County Messenger has blasted Hale for his position on DWI and pot-possession cases.
Last summer, Hale again rankled Messenger publisher Roy Eaton by withdrawing as attorney of record for child-protection cases in the county. Until then, Hale was the sole attorney representing the state in terminating Wise County parents' rights in child-abuse cases.
Citing his heavy caseload--at the time, 496 Class A and B misdemeanors and 1,700 hot-check cases--Hale passed the responsibility on to the Wise County district attorney's office. The Texas Family Code allows him to do so. District Attorney Barry Green, who prosecutes the county's felonies, then passed the child-protection cases on to the attorney general. Green did so legally under the same statute.
When Hale turned over the cases he argued that his office received no state funds to handle them; as a matter of fairness, he said, Wise County funds should not have to pay for a state agency's legal work.
Messenger reporter Gary Bailey discovered Hale's motion to withdraw nearly three months after it had been granted, and wrote a series of stories in which child-protection authorities and foster parents chastised the county attorney for allegedly putting abused children in more jeopardy. Yet 271st District Court Judge John Fostel said the move had done nothing to slow the handling of child-protection cases.
The newspaper stories so angered Hale that on September 18 he filed a libel lawsuit in state district court against the Messenger, publisher Eaton, and reporter Bailey. Hale, who claims the stories failed to fairly point out that the district attorney and attorney general had handled child-protection cases after he bowed out, is seeking unspecified damages and attorney's fees in the suit.
Hale says the paper refused to print a clarification or to publish his one-page letter to the editor detailing why he withdrew from the cases. He was further agitated by a one-page daily "update" the newspaper distributes at diners, stores, and other businesses throughout the county, which summarizes previously published stories and lists funerals, births, and club notices. On August 28, the Update led with a headline that read "NO MORE CHILD PROTECTION CASES." The paragraph that followed outlined Hale's reasons for withdrawing from the cases, but failed to explain that anyone had taken them over. "The reasonable person would be left to assume that no one had picked up the cases, which wasn't true," Hale says. "My nephew saw the Update and came and told me I sounded like some kind of child abuser."