Guarding Death's Door

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Texas District Attorney Ronald Earle supports the death penalty, but has doubts

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D.A.s have other concerns too. The National District Attorneys Association has called for DNA testing "at any stage of a criminal proceeding — even up to the eve of execution"--and stiff penalties for defense lawyers who don't adequately represent capital suspects. But Earle is going further. He is trying to do in his corner of Texas what death-penalty opponents say is impossible: enforce capital punishment flawlessly, ensuring that the innocent never spend a day on death row and the guilty are sent there only after trials free of bias and vengeance. Earle hopes that by raising every conceivable doubt about defendants before he decides to seek the death penalty for them, he can slay the "demon of error" invoked by Governor Ryan and achieve total certainty in the capital system.

It's a laudable goal. The trouble is, that's not his job. Jurors are supposed to determine innocence, and judges are supposed to ensure fairness. Most prosecutors feel an intense obligation to let the system work as it's built; crusading just isn't part of the prosecutorial gene pool. But Earle believes that, as he puts it, "the system cannot be trusted to run itself." It needs a watchdog, a backup.

Hence Earle has created virtually a second Travis County justice system for murder cases: well before any trial begins, he and his top lieutenants decide for themselves whether someone is guilty and deserves to die. If there's even a hint of doubt, they deny jurors the option of a death sentence. That approach has isolated Earle. Other D.A.s say he worries extravagantly over minor problems. Abolitionists have little use for him because he still sends people to die. But Earle's exertions raise an intriguing question: Does it take someone like him — someone who has more or less come to detest the death penalty — to save its credibility?

Ronnie Earle — even enemies call him Ronnie — is among the longest-serving D.A.s in the nation. He is also one of the most admired — and most controversial. Earle has been re-elected six times, and he can probably keep his job as long as he wants. His popularity doubtless owes something to the low crime rate in Austin, the county's biggest city (and state capital). In 2001, according to FBI figures, Austin had the fourth lowest per capita murder rate among U.S. cities with 500,000 to 1 million residents.

Earle's capital locale has extended his visibility beyond the county. He was one of the first prosecutors in Texas to create a victim-assistance program, in 1979; later he helped write a state law requiring every D.A. to open an office to connect crime victims with social services. He helped start Austin's Children's Advocacy Center, which works with abused kids, and a family-justice division of the D.A.'s office, which prosecutes those accused of domestic violence and helps their families get back to normal. A lot of prosecutors view such do-gooderism as a waste of time, preferring to devote themselves to cases guaranteed to go Live at 5. Earle, by contrast, rarely appears in court. He would rather attend, as he did recently, a conference in a motel ballroom off Highway 35 to talk about how to fight substance abuse. Predictably, those in the movement for community justice, which tries to combat the sources of crime as well as punish it, swoon over him. "He has a track record going back years of working toward crime prevention by working in the community," says Catherine Coles, a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who studied Earle's office in the '90s.

He wasn't always so progressive. In the early '80s, when Reagan conservatism was ascendant, Earle sounded pretty much like any other law-and-order D.A. He spent a lot of time in court, and he stood out as a Democrat willing to aggressively prosecute corruption in his own party. (The G.O.P. didn't nominate a candidate to oppose Earle during the entire 1980s.) He seemed particularly conservative on the death penalty. In 1982 he said in a Limbaughesque radio commentary not only that he backed capital punishment but that it "reaffirms our humanity" and fulfills "our moral responsibility." He called it "society's right to self-defense."

But even back then, Earle felt more hesitant about the death penalty than he let on. He had prosecuted only two death cases, and they had taken a lot out of him. Physically, capital cases require weeks if not months of work. More important, Earle found that his get-tough bravado afforded only weak protection against the emotional turbulence of a capital case. Working every day to ensure someone's death — even if he deserves it — can test one's humanity.

"At first, I thought justice was vengeance," he says, settling back into the chair in his second-floor office, which is not far from the pink-granite capitol. "D.A.s feel they have to give voice to the anguish that victims feel. And I tell you, that's a righteous anger. You look at these guys"--the killers, he means--"and some of them are monsters, just awful." Many prosecutors don't concern themselves with why they become awful, but Earle has a theory: "People learn to act through what I call the ethics infrastructure, that network of mommas and daddies and aunts and uncles and teachers and preachers"--he continues the list for some time--"who all teach us how to act. And that infrastructure has atrophied. When I was growing up"--Earle is 61 and was raised outside Fort Worth--"my mother had seven sisters and a brother. My dad had six siblings. So I had all these aunts and uncles plus my mother and father, and that structure is powerful. People don't have that now. And nobody is taking care of the children.

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