Innocent as Charged

After his acquittal on an assault charge, Clark Birdsall questions the system he once embraced

Seated at his kitchen table, former Dallas County prosecutor Clark Birdsall--his voice soft, his speech measured--didn't act like a man who had just left the courthouse a free man, judged innocent of a tawdry crime he had spent the last four months insisting he hadn't committed.

Only a day had passed since he'd been acquitted of a charge that he had assaulted his girlfriend, but there was little about Birdsall's demeanor that suggested real joy that a nightmare had ended.

Clearly, some pain lingered; he'd lost sleep and energy, and his experience had conjured questions for which he's found no satisfactory answers.

Former Dallas County prosecutor Clark Birdsall doesn't know if he'll ever live down his assault trial, even though a jury took only 37 minutes to acquit him.
Mark Graham
Former Dallas County prosecutor Clark Birdsall doesn't know if he'll ever live down his assault trial, even though a jury took only 37 minutes to acquit him.

Last week, the former prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney's public integrity division found himself on the other side of the judicial process, accused of having assaulted former girlfriend Pamela Sedmak during an after-dinner argument on McKinney Avenue. She reported to authorities that Birdsall had shaken her, twisted her arm, knocked her head against the car, and finally thrown her to the ground during an angry exchange. He, meanwhile, had insisted that Sedmak, a graphic artist, had been the aggressor, and that he had carefully avoided any contact that might be viewed as an assault. Still, he was charged with a Class A misdemeanor that carries a penalty of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine, and the matter was set for trial.

And months before a jury would deliberate for only 37 minutes before acquitting him of the charge, Birdsall was fired from his job without so much as an opportunity to tell his side of the story to his superiors.

What cost him his career was an unwritten but apparently long-standing policy within the DA's office that if one is arrested, one is fired. "I was aware of the rule," Birdsall says, "but I also knew it had been applied unevenly at best." He recalls a time when a felony prosecutor, in an angry courtroom scuffle, broke a bailiff's finger. The sheriff's department filed aggravated assault charges, but a grand jury ultimately no-billed the prosecutor and the matter was forgotten. The assistant DA wasn't fired. Birdsall also tells of a female prosecutor who was arrested for drunk driving but remained on the staff.

Birdsall, on the other hand, says he was told to clean out his desk the same day charges were filed against him. One need spend little time in the courthouse to hear his defenders whisper opinions that the assault charge only provided District Attorney Bill Hill and his new staff the opportunity to rid itself of another member of the "old guard"; that the trial itself was an exercise in high-profile humiliation co-authored by the new DA and high-ranking personnel in the Texas Peace Officers Association (the black officers' union) who were angry at Birdsall for what they viewed as his over-zealous prosecutions of black officers. Allies of the displaced prosecutor spoke of the fact that he had taken and passed a polygraph test that supported his innocence. They said they'd never seen any hint of a violent nature, or any proof that racism was evident in his approach to his duties.

During the course of the trial, even Birdsall's ex-wife testified that she had never known him to be physically violent or even confrontational. "The truth is," Birdsall says, "our divorce was not a pleasant one. But the moment she learned of the allegations, she phoned to say she knew they were untrue and was willing to do anything she could to help." Several other women whom Birdsall had dated in recent years spoke in his behalf.

It was the testimony of Birdsall's ex-wife and other female friends--all of whom indicated they'd never seen the defendant act in a violent or abusive manner--that emerged as the most critical evidence, according to jury foreman Donald Willis. "If he had those kind of tendencies," Willis told reporters after the trial, "you think they would have surfaced, particularly in the course of a divorce."

In what was basically a "he said, she said" case, neither side offered any eyewitnesses to the confrontation. Jurors, then, were left to weigh Sedmak's version of events--that Birdsall had assaulted her--against the defendant's. Birdsall testified that Sedmak became agitated and assaulted him, jumping on his back and grabbing his glasses and car keys.

"If Clark Birdsall is guilty of anything," his attorney, Reed Prospere, told the jury in closing arguments, "it was trying to make a relationship work that wasn't meant to be."

And if he was, indeed, a racist, why was Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price--a man whom Birdsall had once prosecuted unsuccessfully--on the stand at one point, swearing that Birdsall was "an honest man"?

In fact, Price's decision to testify provided the only light moment for Birdsall. "I phoned Price's office," he recalls, "and he called me back to say, 'I hope you're not calling me to be a character witness for you.' I told him, yes, that was exactly why I was calling. He started laughing, and it went on for what seemed like several minutes. Then finally, he said, 'OK, I'll do it. You've always been a straight shooter with me.'"

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