The exit of a draconian Fort Worth DA will leave an opening for reform
Just a few years back, Tarrant County, Texas, which includes Fort Worth, was dubbed a "bright-red anomaly"—a highly populated urban county that reliably voted Republican. Even in its urban core, voters have tended to choose leaders of that party. However, at a time when Tarrant County is growing more competitive for Democrats, Republican District Attorney Sharen Wilsonannounced on November 9 that she will not run for re-election when her term expires next year.
That could mark an opening for progressive advocates, who have successfully worked to flip down-ballot municipal elections in many of Texas's big cities since 2016.
In many ways, Sharen Wilson is an emblem of a bygone era: a time when the Lone Star State was the "buckle of the death belt" and its urban DAs still lauded mass incarceration as best practice. She started her legal career in 1981 as an assistant district attorney in the same office she now leads. Running for DA in 2014, Wilson's campaign touted her as "Tarrant County's toughest criminal court judge," a job she held for 23 years. Her presently available campaign website still uses that descriptor.
Unsurprisingly, her tenure as DA has been defined by a resistance to criminal justice reform.
In 2017, after Harris County (Houston) DA Kim Ogg announced that she would divert all drug possession cases involving under 4 ounces of cannabis, Wilson refused to comment about the reform. Ogg's policy itself was far from perfect, given that it was a diversion program that thousands of people failed due to the requirement of a $150 fee for a "four-hour cognitive decision-making class." But in Tarrant County, there was not even a token attempt to mitigate the fact that the DA Office's most frequent charge issued was possession of under 2 ounces of cannabis.
Wilson's harshness compared with Ogg is not just a Republican versus Democrat issue, either. According to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration, Wilson's per capita indictment rate from September 1, 2015 to August 31, 2016 was even higher than that of Harris County DA Ogg's Republican predecessor, Devon Anderson.
During the same period, Tarrant County also filed approximately 25 percent more juvenile delinquency petitions than Dallas County under Republican DA Susan Hawk, despite Dallas County having over 500,000 more people. (Former DA Hawk has since been replaced by District Attorney John Creuzot, a Democrat who has been broadly identified with the progressive prosecutor movement.)
Wilson has stated on her campaign materials that she balances toughness with fairness, but her record as both a DA and judge casts doubt on that claim.
In 1997, Wilson, then a judge, sentenced a 14-year-old girl to 35 years in prison for a botched robbery-turned-homicide. National news media latched onto the case, with Associated Press describing the girl as "a prostitute and drug dealer." She was reportedly the youngest child prosecuted as an adult in the county's history.
After taking office as DA in 2015, Wilson said she would "never apologize for following the letter of the law"—a promise she has kept when it comes to the most trifling of "criminal offenses" like cannabis possession.
But ironically, she has repeatedly been rebuked for failing to follow the law herself.
In 2014, electoral opponents found that Wilson, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram explained, was "once disciplined for wrongfully incarcerating a defendant and improperly talking with jurors during a trial." In 2015, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed a man's conviction because then-Judge Sharen Wilson had refused to let his defense attorney make a closing argument.
In 2016, she also solicited campaign donations from her staffers using public property, a misdemeanor under Texas state law. A special prosecutor determined that Wilson should not be indicted, due to a lack of "criminal intent"—only for Wilson to use her authority to obtain a five-year prison sentence against Crystal Mason for voting while on felony probation.
As DA, she also failed in 2017 to obtain a conviction for white former police officer Courtney Johnson, who shot Craig Adams, a Black man, for holding a barbeque fork in his own yard. Johnson claimed Adams was holding a knife and that it "took him so long" to drop the object, but also that firing his service weapon was an accident. Wilson opted to not try the case a second time, stating instead that "We will consider the jury's inability to reach a verdict and the evidence presented at trial to decide whether a retrial is justified."
So what are the prospects for a reform DA candidate in Tarrant County next year?
In 2018, Albert John Roberts, a reform-minded Democrat who previously worked as a prosecutor in Dallas, ran against Wilson. He lost, but Wilson's margin of victory was less than 7 percentage points (Wilson had no challenger in the 2014 general election). In the 2022 Democratic primary, Roberts will face off against Tiffany Burks, who until recently served as Wilson's chief deputy. It is currently unclear who, if anyone, will run for the seat on the Republican side.