A Devil's Deal in Dallas Court

A terrible crime plus skaky evidence tempts prosecutors to play a secret game of "let's make a deal"

When Gerald Pabst took the witness stand to testify against his brother-in-law, he looked scared. He was literally shaking. Yet he answered the prosecutor's questions in a soft, even tone that didn't fit the gruesome details of the murder.

It was all the fault of Clay Chabot, Pabst said. At dawn, after the two men spent the night boozing and doing meth together, Chabot had dragged Pabst along to get compensation for a bad drug deal. The speed-fueled escapade had ended with Chabot killing the dealer's wife. Pabst said he'd obeyed Chabot's orders because he'd been threatened.

A peripatetic painter who spent a lot of his non-working life face-down drunk, Pabst appeared remorseful for his role, determined to tell the truth about the 1986 murder of Galua Crosby no matter the cost to himself. Pabst, who, along with Chabot, had been indicted for Crosby's murder, testified that he expected to be tried for the crime himself at some point. Under repeated questioning by the judge and Chabot's attorney, Pabst insisted he'd made no deal with the prosecution in exchange for his testimony.

Mark Graham
Mike Ware is reviewing the Crosby murder to determine if Clay Chabot will be retried.
Mark Graham
Mike Ware is reviewing the Crosby murder to determine if Clay Chabot will be retried.

Attorney and former judge Kelly Loving, who thought of Pabst as the "Pillsbury Doughboy," could see the effect his tubby client had on the jury. They believed every word Pabst said.

Chabot later took the stand in his own defense, denying any role in Crosby's death and blaming Pabst. But Chabot, a wiry and wired ex-military man, came off as a cocky, unemployed speed freak who jurors could readily imagine getting pissed off over a drug debt and exacting revenge by raping Crosby and shooting her three times in the head.

Classic courtroom drama: Two scumbags pointing the finger at each other. Each man could explain away the scant physical evidence linking him to the crime. Yeah, Pabst pawned the woman's boombox. But as Dallas Assistant District Attorney Janice Warder would hammer home, the murder weapon belonged to Chabot, who claimed Pabst had stolen it.

The jury believed Pabst, convicting Chabot and sentencing him to life in prison.

But what they didn't know was that the prosecution had a secret arrangement with Pabst in exchange for his testimony. Though Crosby's family believed Pabst had gone to prison, two days after Chabot's conviction, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft of the boombox and walked free. Less than a slap on the hand.

This spring Clay Chabot's conviction became one of the latest DNA cases to bring shame to the Dallas County District Attorney's office. Pabst had played everyone involved in his prosecution for fools, and, in turn, they helped him deceive the jury.

The "Pillsbury Doughboy" failed to mention that he had sexually assaulted Crosby, a fact revealed this spring by a DNA test on a vaginal swab. The test ruled out any involvement in the rape by Chabot, who has maintained his innocence since he stepped inside the penitentiary.

Janice Warder, a well-respected prosecutor who became a state district judge in 1992, had made a "no-deal deal" with Pabst—or so it became clear when Chabot's conviction was appealed.

"You testify and I'll do the fair and just thing," Warder told Pabst and Loving, according to her later testimony in federal court.

According to interviews with defense attorneys and former prosecutors, such "nod-and-a-wink" deals were common practice in the Dallas District Attorney's office in the '80s and '90s under district attorneys Henry Wade, John Vance and Bill Hill. The attitude was that, if not written down, if not an explicit quid pro quo, such arrangements did not have to be disclosed under the so-called "Brady rule," which required all exculpatory evidence be turned over to the defense.

"They say, 'You have to trust us, and you won't be displeased,'" says Randy Schaffer, a Houston attorney who handled part of Chabot's appeal. "'We have an understanding, but we have no deal. Your client is doing this to be a good citizen.'"

Under District Attorney Craig Watkins, such prosecutorial tactics are being re-examined in the light of 14-and-counting DNA exonerations in Dallas County. The issue has drawn national attention: A crew from 60 Minutes filmed Watkins' presentation earlier this month for law students working with his office and the Innocence Project at Texas Wesleyan Law School. They will be screening more than 450 requests from offenders for DNA tests.

Dallas public defender Michelle Moore worked with some of the 10 exonerees who attended the seminar. She's also coordinating the DNA screening student project. Some things have already changed, Moore says. "The DA's office used to fight everything," Moore says. Under Watkins "they are more open to tests." A week after the seminar, Watkins announced that Steven Phillips, convicted of a 1982 sexual assault, did not commit that crime. An admitted peeping tom, Phillips remains in prison on other charges.

Many defense attorneys regard unwritten deals such as the one employed in the Chabot case as deceitful.

"It's egregious, unethical and illegal," says one Dallas defense attorney, who asked not to be identified. But she says the tactic is used routinely so the prosecution can avoid any taint on their witnesses' credibility.

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