John Wayne vs. Atticus Finch

Dueling D.A.Candidates Differ on Punishment and Prevention

After going unchallenged for two decades, it stands to reason

that Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, would finally face serious opposition in his reelection bid for Travis County District Attorney. While he easily shook off two Democratic challengers in last spring's primary, Earle, 54, now faces a tougher challenge in Republican opponent Shane Phelps, 39, a lesser-known but suitably financed lawyer who resigned from Attorney General Dan Morales' staff to run for this office.

Of course, trying to unseat Earle is a full-time job in a county entrenched in Democratic tradition. Earle is steeped in old liberal Democratic ways, and his strength can be measured in the campaign dollars he has received -- $129,000 as of September 26 -- from the likes of lobbyists, trial lawyers and political action committees (PACs). He can also rely on a fair amount of allegiance from children's advocates and supporters of community-based crime prevention programs -- the heart and soul of Earle's office which has earned him plaudits from progressives and sneers from the cops who don't cotton to the touchy-feely school of criminal behavior. That derision may explain the Austin Police Association's endorsement of Phelps, and leave open to interpretation the endorsement given Earle by the Travis County Sheriff's Association.

Phelps, who campaigns under the slogan, "A prosecutor, not a politician," has a romanticized view of prosecuting thugs and sending them up the river. He does, in many respects, fancy the role of the gunslinger charged with protecting communities from predatory creeps and hoodlums -- much the way Alan Ladd did in the classic Western, Shane. Jokes about the film's hero, who bears the same first name as the career prosecutor, have followed Phelps throughout his life; it's a comparison he no doubt enjoys: The movie is a favorite of Phelps' and he has a framed poster of the film displayed in his campaign office on Rio Grande Street.

Phelps believes the district attorney's place is in the courtroom, trying cases and setting an example for the assistant prosecutors, while sending a strong, tough-on-crime message to criminals. Until he quit his job last year to run for D.A., Phelps was chief of the Prosecutor Assistance and Special Investigations Division at the AG's office, a job that took him to small towns across Texas, where he tried a slew of felony cases too hot for the locals to handle. From 1987 to 1990, Phelps was an assistant district attorney in Harris County. He considers himself lucky to have mentored under Johnny Holmes, the flamboyant Houston prosecutor who has put more people on death row than any other D.A. in the United States.

It is this hard-nosed background that Phelps, an ex-Marine, draws on when he criticizes Earle's handling of felonies and capital murder cases. "There were only 96 jury trials last year," Phelps says. "We're missing an opportunity to try a number of cases involving drug dealers and habitual offenders." Phelps goes on to criticize the resources Earle devotes to prosecuting child abusers, while allowing other offenders to simply plead out their cases and, lickety-split, they're back on the streets. "I don't begrudge him for prosecuting child abusers," Phelps says. "We try more child abuse cases here than anywhere else, but Mr. Earle has not placed enough emphasis on trying other cases." Should he win the election, Phelps vows to increase by 50% the number of cases brought to trial.

Earle, of course, takes issue with Phelps' fault-finding. "I used to think that all I had to do as a district attorney was be really tough on crime and run the best prosecutor's office in the state," he says. "Nobody does tough on crime better than we do, but I discovered that the results of our tough-on-crime policy were -- there's more crime, more prosecutors, more police officers, more prison cells, more crime victims."

With that revelation, Earle began raising his social consciousness, as it were, to learn why people commit crimes in order to prevent them in the first place. Along the way he implemented a number of programs. He was the first prosecutor in Texas to create a victims' services program; he established the Children's Advocacy Center and Child Protection Team; and he developed the Neighborhood Conference Committees, which involve neighbors in deciding the sentences of juvenile offenders. Also, he points to his Community Justice Council, a collaborative crime prevention effort, as a national model for other communities.

But Earle's attempts to mend a fraying social fabric seemed to come apart at the seams the day 11-year-old Lacresha Murray was charged with capital murder in the May 24 death of two-year-old Jayla Belton, who was being cared for in the home of Murray's grandparents.

Earle was roundly criticized in much of the African-American community for the severity of the charge and the swiftness with which the girl, who has since turned 12, was brought to trial. Murray's conviction of a lesser charge of injury to a child has since been thrown out and she's awaiting a new trial -- this time scheduled after the Nov. 5 election. Jeff Travillion, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, said that while he personally doesn't fault the district attorney's office for its handling of the case, the 1,500-member local organization remains divided. "There are some who were dissatisfied, and there were others who were satisfied, and still others who believe (Murray) did not commit the crime and feel the actions of the Austin Police Department and the district attorney were inappropriate," Travillion says. "You have two families involved in the case. One family lost a child and one family was held responsible for the death of that child. The outcome held no winners."

Phelps also is critical of Earle's handling of the case, specifically for charging an 11-year-old child with capital murder. That charge was brought, Earle says, because the grand jury found evidence to back up a capital murder count, considering the victim was kicked with enough force to cause her liver to split. "The real issue here is who's watching our children, and what's happening to them while they're being watched," Earle asserts. "We've got an incredible child care issue here -- the biggest law enforcement issue in this community. That's the lesson of the Lacresha Murray case."

Phelps doesn't stop there with his criticisms, though. He claims there are dozens of other cases falling through the cracks because of a lack of strong prosecutorial leadership. "I have undercover police officers who bring me these cases -- good solid cases -- that Ronnie Earle's office turns around and gives these habitual offenders chance after chance after chance. Here's one," he says, flipping through a voluminous police report, "they pick this guy up with 59 grams of cocaine and he's out two days later on a $1,000 bond. This is a guy who's an habitual offender."

At the headquarters of the Associated Republicans of Texas, a statewide PAC based in Austin, Pat Robbins, the group's associate director, bemoans what she believes to be a soft-on-crime mentality in Travis County. "Ronnie's been in office for 20 years, and from our perspective the serious crimes are getting worse. We attribute that to offenders getting off the hook here. Criminals come to Travis County to commit crimes, but they know better in Williamson County," she says of the Republican-controlled community to the north. "We've got to start cracking down."

Earle's campaign consultant, David Butts, can't let that one go. "The Republican party breathes fire and damnation about how Ronnie is leading us down the primrose path to hell," he says. "Their basic tactic so far is to say that Ronnie's lax on prosecution. But most people in Travis County don't think crime is raging out of control." And Earle defends his record vehemently, pointing to his office's conviction rate of nine out of every 10 jury trials, and his success in getting predatory criminals like murderers, baby kidnappers, and rapists off the streets.

Regardless of Earle's record on convictions, Republicans are always going to fault him for something, Butts points out. "The Republican party in this state wants Ronnie's scalp," he says. Whether Phelps was actually recruited by the Republican party to run against Earle or whether he chose to run on his own aspirations doesn't much matter at this point. What is certain is that Phelps has the dedicated support of Republicans from across the state. The checks coming into Phelps' campaign office underscore just how much the GOP wants Earle out of office -- presumably as payback for Earle's investigation and prosecution in 1994 of Republican sweetheart Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. Senator from Dallas. "I don't think there's any question that people are giving me money as a payback for what happened to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison," the candidate acknowledges.

Phelps, whose personal desire to become the next D.A. is more genuine than the payback theorists would have you believe, had by the end of September amassed more than $120,000 from contributors in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Wichita Falls, Midland, and El Paso. The Associated Republicans of Texas has been especially generous, presenting Phelps on one occasion with a check for $50,000. "We wouldn't be involved in this race unless we thought we had a shot at it," explains Robbins. "But this is not your typical local election."

Not surprisingly, each candidate is critical of the other's source of funding. Phelps questions the ethics of Earle accepting contributions from powerful lobbyists, while Earle likewise scorns Phelps for taking money from citizens who don't reside or pay taxes in Austin. With all this money rolling in to both campaigns, the comfort level at the two camps registered fairly high last week. Phelps says he is so confident of a win he has never even considered what he will do for a living if he loses the race. All the same, he has already taken measures to trim his personal expenses by selling his car and buying a cheaper set of wheels to maneuver around on the campaign trail. Earle backers, meanwhile, maintain their man is the clear front-runner and venture that if the election were to be held this week, the incumbent would take a 2-1 victory.

This is not to suggest Earle isn't vulnerable. He is, of course, but not because there is any particular ground swell of ambition to break his record of longevity; rather, Earle's vulnerability, strangely enough, lies in his own power. Republicans, and some Democrats, believe Earle has bungled his authority as the head of the state's Public Integrity Unit -- the division that investigated and brought charges against Hutchison for allegedly misusing state employees and equipment, and destroying documents during her tenure as Texas treasurer. Earle dropped those charges on the eve of the 1994 trial, saying the judge's inadmissibility rulings had rendered his case too chancy to take to trial. Earle has never been able to live down the Hutchison fiasco on two counts -- one for throwing in the towel at the last minute and the other for bringing charges against her in the first place.

By the same token, the district attorney has endured numerous potshots for his prosecution of two high-ranking Democrats -- former Attorney General Jim Mattox in 1983 on commercial bribery charges, which ended in acquittal, and former House Speaker Gib Lewis in 1990, who was given a minor penalty for one ethics violation. This election year, Lewis sent Phelps a check for $500.

To be sure, the two candidates hold radically different philosophies on what it takes to be an effective prosecutor. Simply put, Phelps advocates strong prosecution to get criminals off the street. Earle says he wants strong prosecution, too, but not without programs that get at the root causes of crime. Is this typical conservative vs. liberal rhetoric? You be the judge.

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