Dallas County

The Dallas Morning News Contorts Itself Hating a New DA. Ouch!

Brian Maschino
The April 29, 2017, shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards resulted in a murder conviction and 15-year sentence for Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver.
After my own lengthy and exacting legal analysis of positions taken by The Dallas Morning News editorial page on official actions and decisions by newly elected Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, I have come to the following learned conclusion, which I think should be published in a legal journal, bound in calfskin and placed on library shelves for posterity to peruse: They’re still pissed a Democrat won. Otherwise, you can’t make head nor tails of a thing they say about him.

During the campaign, when the city’s only daily newspaper was endorsing his opponent, the editorial page took a swipe at Creuzot for something he said about the murder conviction of suburban police officer Roy Oliver. Creuzot told the editorial board of the paper he thought his opponent, Republican incumbent Faith Johnson, had done well to win a murder conviction in the case but should have gone for a much tougher penalty than the 15-year sentence Oliver drew. The editorial page suggested Creuzot was over the top. That was last October.

In the November election, Creuzot trounced Johnson by 20 percentage points. No serious onlooker was surprised, but neither did any serious observer suggest Johnson’s margin of defeat meant there was anything terribly deficient about Johnson. Appointed by a Republican governor to fill a lame-duck term left open when the preceding Republican DA succumbed to drug and mental health problems, Johnson, by most accounts, did OK.

But let’s be real. Her defeat was a foregone conclusion. This is now a solidly blue county. Republicans who yearn for the red old days are kidding themselves. Creuzot has a sterling history as a judge and an innovator, is almost as well-respected by many Republicans as he is by Democrats and is the quality of politician who may very likely go on someday from this post to national office. Johnson, no, not really. It was never a contest.

Shoplifting is a way less serious offense than murder, but you can’t get a jury to convict a person of shoplifting if he didn’t shoplift anything.

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But, oh, the gnashing of teeth. Barely days after Creuzot was elected and before he took office, the Morning News editorial page jumped him with a bizarre complaint related to a public statement he had made about the awful Amber Guyger case — the story of a Dallas police officer who shot and killed an innocent man in his own apartment because, she claimed, she thought she was in her own apartment on another floor in the same building. Creuzot had stated publicly that the appropriate charge for a person accused of deliberately and wrongly shooting and killing another person was murder.

The Morning News editorial page, under a headline saying “new DA could lose all justice,” said it would be a mistake for Creuzot to charge Guyger with murder because he might have a hard time proving to a jury that the shooting was not just a terrible but unintentional mistake. An acquittal, the paper said, would “compound this horrific tragedy” because the victim and his family “deserve justice.”

The paper wanted Creuzot to charge Guyger with manslaughter. Because manslaughter is a lesser offense than murder, the editorial page seemed to believe a manslaughter conviction would be easier to get from a jury. That’s strange logic to begin with. Shoplifting is a way less serious offense than murder, but you can’t get a jury to convict a person of shoplifting if he didn’t shoplift anything.

Creuzot’s position, based on his reading of the law, was that Guyger’s action in shooting Botham Jean did not meet the standard of the manslaughter law, which requires recklessness as a central factor. There was nothing reckless in what Guyger did. She deliberately shot Jean. If Creuzot had taken her to trial on a manslaughter charge, he would have been unable to prove the central element of recklessness.

Here’s what was worse, I thought, in that editorial. The paper said an acquittal would be a failure, because “the outcome of this case is too important for Jean’s family — and Dallas — to heal and move forward.”

Wait a minute. You don’t do a murder trial so the family and community can “heal and move forward.” You do a murder trial to see if the accused is guilty of murder. What is this, the Soviet Union? We have show trials now? We have trials whose purpose is public relations?

Where was this question in the Morning News editorial: What if Amber Guyger is not guilty? If the proper charge under the law is murder, and if Guyger is tried for murder, and if the jury brings back a not guilty verdict, then she’s not guilty. Right? We all still believe in the rule of law here, I assume. Isn’t that the most important thing for us to worry about? Do we want Guyger packed off to prison if she’s not guilty? Is that really any way to heal a community? Let’s hope not. In the Guyger case, Creuzot is pressing ahead on a charge of murder, which he says is the only legally appropriate charge. Let’s see what happens.

So here is the latest offering from the Morning News: The editorial page said it was “troubled” by Creuzot’s announcement last week that he will not prosecute three Dallas police officers indicted in 2017 in the death of a man named Anthony Timpa. The editorial page said it had been hoping a trial would reveal details of the case withheld so far by police. “How frustrating all of this must be for Timpa’s family,” the paper said.

In August 2016, Timpa was handcuffed by private security guards while intoxicated on cocaine. He died of a sudden heart attack while being restrained by Dallas police officers. Here is a central factor brushed over in the Morning News’ writing about the case: The family’s own expert witness is not willing to testify that the cops did anything wrong.

Creuzot said in his statement that he had consulted with three different medical examiners, all of whom had looked into Timpa’s death. None of them would testify in court that the cops had “engaged in reckless conduct that placed Mr. Timpa in imminent danger of serious bodily injury,” a central element of the charge against the police. And, yes, I admit, because of the way Creuzot’s statement was written, I had to read it a couple of times myself to see that the three medical examiners to whom Creuzot referred seemed to include Dr. Nizam Peerwani, chief medical examiner of Tarrant County, who was hired as an expert witness by Timpa’s family.
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Fired Dallas police officer Amber Guyger is scheduled to be tried for murder beginning Aug. 12 in the Sept. 6, 2018, shooting death of 26-year-old Botham Jean.
Brian Maschino
In fact, I double-checked with Creuzot’s spokesperson, Kimberlee Leach, to ask if the statement meant that the family’s own expert witness was unwilling to testify against the cops. She said, “Yes. All three medical examiners, including Dr. Peerwani hired by the family, said they could not and would not testify that the officers were reckless or caused the death.”

This isn’t only a matter of trial strategy or some kind of gamesmanship. Three experts, including one hired by the family, all of them more likely than any non-expert to know what really happened, would not go to court and put their hands on the Bible and say the police recklessly killed Tony Timpa. Doesn’t that mean nobody knows that the police were reckless? We don’t want the cops convicted of something they didn’t do, do we? Do we?

What was Creuzot’s strategy supposed to be, according to the Morning News? Go to court and lose? Go to court and have all the expert witnesses testify against him?

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But, yes, if we were going to look at it only as a matter of trial strategy, then what was Creuzot’s strategy supposed to be, according to the Morning News? Go to court and lose? Go to court and have all the expert witnesses testify against him?

The newspaper proudly recited its own reporting efforts in the case and its frustration with the police for refusing to release information the paper believed should be public. Man, do I ever sympathize with that, and I sincerely admire the Morning News for making the effort. But I don’t expect anybody to hold a trial just to help me get the good stuff. Really? Put three human beings through a trial the DA knows in advance he’s going to lose so the newspaper can see the evidence? What planet does that happen on?

In all three of these instances, from Roy Oliver to Amber Guyger to Tony Timpa, Creuzot has based his stance on the law. In all three, the Morning News editorial page has found some social/political basis outside of the law on which to take him to task. His position is just too much, or it risks defeat, or it frustrates the paper’s reporting efforts. Those arguments, the ones the paper uses to go after Creuzot, may seem sort of all over the place philosophically, especially for a conservative editorial page. But I think there is a unifying theme, a single cord that ties them into a neat bundle.

The guy’s a Democrat. He beat the Morning News’ candidate, the Republican, by 20 points. It was a drubbing. Plus, he’s a star. The drug diversion program Creuzot developed as a judge became an important model for the national criminal justice reform movement. He’s not going away. He's headed on up. That’s the News’ real problem. The Morning News is all over the map about him, because they can’t stand that he won, and they still can’t get a good handhold on him. There is no better proof of that than the roller-coaster logic of their attacks. The recurring subhead under the headlines for their editorials about Creuzot should be, “Damned Democrat, Still in Office.”

You know, I wonder sometimes to whom they think they are speaking. Who is their audience? What is their prime demographic? It’s certainly not Dallas or Dallas County. Is it six dozen Park Cities mossbacks? Or do they just talk to themselves?