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"

After the ID hearing, Finn noticed that the prosecution's plea offers started dropping like maple leaves in October, from 25 years to 15, 10 and then five. The morning the trial started, prosecutors asked Finn if his client would take five years deferred adjudication—meaning he wouldn't have to serve any time if he kept his nose clean from this point forward. Finn told his client he'd be crazy to say no, but the man refused, insisting he was innocent.

Realizing the prosecution was dancing around the identification issue during its presentation, Finn went with his gut. While cross-examining the victim, a Hispanic man who had been shot in the butt by his assailant, Finn asked, "You don't know if this is the guy who shot you, do you?"

"No," the victim said.

"And you told these prosecutors that the last time you were here?" Finn said.

"Yes."

The man was acquitted, but Finn says nothing happened to the prosecutors. "That was the culture," he says. "If you don't pay a price to cut corners and cheat, then you keep doing it. If you do that as a prosecutor, what do you think you are going to do as a judge?"

Judge John Creuzot, hired as a prosecutor by Henry Wade in 1982 and appointed to the bench in 1991, believes prosecutorial misconduct is rare. But he has seen another factor at work: the belief that prosecutors are the "victims' lawyers." And victims deserve their day in court.

"If the complaining witness says, 'He did it,' there was an attitude of 'We're going to try it and let the jury sort it out,'" Creuzot says. "There was a strong, strong, strong bias to take it to trial."

Creuzot had several cases he refused to prosecute. One involved a little boy who was allegedly a victim of sexual assault. "He came, his mother came, his siblings came" for the interview, Creuzot says. "There was a guy in the corner with boots and a big cowboy hat. I asked the little boy, 'Did he do this to you?' He said no, and his mother kicked him."

When Creuzot said he couldn't prosecute the case, the cowboy stood up and said, "I know Henry Wade." The case went to trial, prosecuted by another assistant district attorney.

As a judge, Creuzot has seen young lawyers who failed to turn over exculpatory evidence because they didn't know the rules. He's also seen a few experienced prosecutors who "flat-out refused."

During Vance's tenure, one prosecutor told Creuzot that he didn't want the defense lawyer to have a certain piece of evidence because he would "work a defense around it." Creuzot excluded the material and told the prosecutor he couldn't use it. "He was not inexperienced," Creuzot says. "I told him afterward, 'You've lost your mind.' That baffles me to this day."

In a child abuse case, a prosecutor told Creuzot she hadn't turned over a particular piece of evidence because she was looking after the best interests of the child.

"I said, 'You are an attorney, and you must follow the rules,'" Creuzot says. "She's a good person and a great lawyer but in this particular case lost sight of what was going on. Sometimes people have been in there too long, and they lose objectivity."


Facing potential jurors for her first jury trial, a nervous Janice Warder stood in front of several dozen citizens and said exactly the wrong thing.

"The defendant is presumed guilty..." Warder announced before catching herself. In a later bio, Warder told the story of her Freudian slip, saying, "It broke the ice, and with that case I got hooked on trial law."

When she arrived in the competitive Dallas District Attorney's Office in 1980, Warder stood out among the other neophytes as older and wiser. Married at the age of 17, Warder had taught high school and managed a business office before going to SMU law school. After graduating, Warder took a professor's advice and went to work for legendary District Attorney Henry Wade.

Quickly promoted to chief felony prosecutor, Warder earned respect for her professionalism. During her 12 years at the district attorney's office, Warder handled about 250 jury trials, including three death penalty cases. Elected to the bench in 1991, Judge Warder presided over high-profile trials such as that of former priest Rudy Kos. She later received kudos for her handling of the DIVERT Court, a model drug treatment program, which she did after hours. A TV news series named her Dallas' "hardest-working judge."

Warder was willing to take on assistant district attorneys who overstepped their bounds, once admonishing prosecutor George West for withholding possible exculpatory evidence in a capital murder case. But defense attorneys felt most of her bite.

As a prosecutor, Warder "was meaner than a rattlesnake," says Frank Jackson, who started his law career as a Dallas prosecutor in 1971. He's been a defense attorney since 1973. "She could be very difficult to deal with. She felt she could bully people." Jackson says that attitude continued when Warder became a judge.

"I felt she was very unbalanced in favor of the state," Jackson says. "She had no compassion for the defendant. Defense attorneys aren't looking for favors, but I felt she had no respect for us."

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