Tim Curry, the dean of Texas prosecutors, passed away April 24, 2009. Here, his friends and colleagues remember a quiet man who shunned the spotlight but nevertheless shone brightly.
Executive Administrator, Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s OfficeOne of my favorite pictures of Tim and one of the many ways I’ll remember him is of him smiling at his desk. Until I got to know him a little better I was always so nervous when I had to go into his office to tell him something. As was his usual routine, he’d remove his glasses, rub his hands across his face, and get very serious. Yikes! I knew I’d better get to the point fast. But he was patient, looked you directly in the eye, and genuinely listened. I consider myself so fortunate to have worked for such an amazing man.
Tarrant County Criminal District AttorneyTim Curry, the longest serving district attorney in Texas, passed away April 24, 2009. He had served as Criminal District Attorney of Tarrant County continuously since November 27, 1972. During that period Curry instituted policies and procedures which have been adopted by prosecutors around the state. He took seriously the admonishment in Art. 2.01 of the Code of Criminal Procedure that the duty of a prosecutor is “not to convict, but to see that justice is done.”
Tim was affectionately referred to as the Dean of Texas Prosecutors, but he never sought the limelight or accolades. He avoided press conferences for the most part. He was a private person and virtually apolitical. He often said that he was just a lawyer who had to run for office. He referred to himself as the manager of the “biggest law firm in town.” The Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s office employed 156 attorneys at the time of his death. Even though he disdained public acclaim, he was named the recipient of the Oscar Sherrell Memorial Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession in 2001. He also served as president of the Texas County and District Attorneys Association in 1979.
Curry invariably gave credit to his assistants for a successful prosecution rather than accepting it for himself. When he was introduced at a public function (which he rarely attended), he would say, “Tim Curry, District Attorney’s Office,” as though he were but a cog in a big wheel. Curry said his management style was to surround himself with “people smarter than me.” He was in his office for virtually every day of the 36 years, four months, and 28 days he served the people of Texas. He was accessible to the office personnel, lawyers, and the public.
Shortly after winning an election for an unexpired term in 1972, Curry assembled the lawyers in Tarrant County who practiced criminal defense. Most were apprehensive about the approach the 34-year-old newly elected prosecutor would take. He readily assured the lawyers that there would be a fair and level playing field. He also told them that his word was his bond and that the same would also be the creed of all of his assistants. He asked to be informed if any of his prosecutors went back on an agreement; likewise, he advised the defense bar that he would ask the same of his prosecutors. He further emphasized that under such an arrangement, the good lawyers would rise to the surface and the bad ones would slowly move on to other endeavors. The lawyers left the meeting with a degree of comfort even though many were still not sure what to expect.
After taking the oath of office, Curry instituted an open-file policy, which permitted defense attorneys access to all materials generated by police agencies except the attorneys’ work product. He reasoned that if the defense knew the true facts surrounding an incident rather than just those recited by their clients, more negotiated pleas would result. Time proved him correct. Judges were pleased not to referee discovery disputes. Dockets moved more rapidly and prosecutors could concentrate on those cases that really required a trial. The open-file policy continues today and has been adopted by other offices around the state.
Curry’s office established one of the first Victims’ Assistance Units and recently implemented the first electronic case filing system, which permits police departments to submit cases digitally without leaving their offices. The system permits defense attorneys to view the open files via computers in their offices without a trip to the courthouse. Tim was also an avid supporter of TDCAA and in particular its efforts to promote constructive legislation to aid law enforcement and prevent passing bills designed to hamper it. He regularly assigned a front-line prosecutor to assist in that work during each session of the legislature. He was a strong supporter of the TDCAA Foundation from its inception.
Curry was diagnosed with cancer in August 2008, and he underwent an aggressive course of treatment. He fought courageously during his illness with the same perserverance with which he had managed his “law firm.” Shortly before his passing, the Tarrant County Commissioner’s Court recognized his years of outstanding service by renaming the Tarrant County Justice Center building, which houses the district attorney’s office, the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center. This honor is a fitting tribute to a man who was small in physical stature but had a giant influence on the practice of criminal law in Tarrant County for over a third of a century.
I am both honored and humbled to be asked to complete Tim Curry’s term. His shoes cannot ever be completely filled, but his legacy will go forward. He will always be remembered for the advice he regularly gave his assistants when they were confronted with a problem: He would say, “Just do what you think is right.”
Several months ago we were talking about the time when we would leave the office. He said to me, “The only thing any of us will leave here with is our integrity.” Tim Curry did just that. He will be missed but never forgotten.
Judge Pat Ferchill
Probate Court No. 2, Tarrant CountyFor all who have unsuccessfully tried to improve county government, read this and weep! In the mid-1980s, Judge Robert M. Burnett of my sister court and I decided that the volume and complexity of the incoming civil commitment cases required a dedicated prosecutor instead of the rotation system then in place. Having different prosecutors come in and out jeopardized continuity and never allowed a particular prosecutor to become familiar with the numerous repeat clients and their circumstances. It was also difficult for a bevy of prosecutors to learn about community programs, medications, outpatient options, and the like.
I went to Tim and furnished him with the above information, and without hesitation, he said, “Let’s do it.” A joint proposal from him and the probate courts to the commissioners court for a new position of mental health court prosecutor was approved, and Rose Romero (now federal attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commis-sion based in Fort Worth) became the first such state’s attorney.
We will miss Tim, not only in the large-scale reforms he brought forward but also in the little ways he helped make a better Tarrant County for everyone.
Assistant Criminal District Attorney, Tarrant CountyMy late father, Bob Guthrie, used to tell me the about the time that he and my mother volunteered for Tim Curry’s first campaign in 1972 by driving around Fort Worth in a car with a loudspeaker, encouraging voters to “Vote for Tim Curry, District Attorney.” Little did Dad know that 28 years later, his daughter would find herself interviewing for an ADA position with Mr. Curry. I was quite nervous before the interview, but I recall that Mr. Curry put me instantly at ease. The interview ended up being quite enjoyable, and whenever I had the opportunity to visit with Mr. Curry after I was hired, I walked into his office with the same ease that I would walk into the office of any other colleague.
On one occasion he called me in to discuss a couple of my cases and ended the meeting with the same words that I know many other prosecutors heard: “Do what you think is right.” These words of advice will long be associated with one of the greatest prosecutors this state has ever seen. He was a man who served three generations of citizens and whose legacy we will all strive to carry on in his honor and memory.
Assistant Criminal District Attorney, Tarrant CountyThe interview process within the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office included a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Curry. He stood up when I came in, offered and then fixed me a cup of coffee, and talked with me about the ethics of criminal practice. Your word is your bond in this business, and your honorable reputation is something you can never regain if lost, he told me. In my 20-year association with him, Tim Curry never failed to live by these maxims. He was then and remained until the end, a gracious gentleman. You will be missed, Mr. C.
Assistant United States Attorney in AustinTim Curry established an excellent framework at the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office that taught his employees to value integrity, open discovery, and teamwork. He hired well-qualified assistants and gave them the freedom to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Prosecutors were encouraged to hit hard blows but always fair ones, resulting in the office’s reputation as the premier place for any prosecutor to begin or end his career.
It was difficult to even contemplate leaving the office after five inspiring years. When I did resign, I took with me many lessons on how to be a good team member, treat your opponent fairly, and effectively convey a message to a jury. Although I have been a federal prosecutor for 17 years, I still feel bonded to my experience and the friendships I formed as an assistant district attorney in Tarrant County. Clearly, Tim Curry has left a legacy that any elected prosecutor could envy.
Former Executive Director of TDCAAFirst time I met Tim, I was struck by his unassuming manner. He didn’t seek or enjoy the limelight of public office. Even though he served in many leadership capacities for the association, I don’t recall him ever making a speech. Last year when I told Tim he was to be honored at an event for the foundation, he said, “That might not be a good idea because I don’t think anyone will come just because of me.”
When I once asked him the secret to his longevity, he told me it was because he had “a good picker,” explaining that he was blessed to have chosen so many good folks to work alongside him. And he never identified himself as “the district attorney” but rather always said, “I work in the DA’s office.”
Late one Friday afternoon I called Tim at his office, figuring he’d be gone for the day. But sure enough, he was there to take my call. When I commented that I was surprised to find the boss still at work, he simply said, “Tom, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years in office, it’s this: If something crazy is gonna happen, it usually happens right around quittin’ time on Friday afternoon.”
Tim was a not a man of large stature—in fact, someone once referred to him in a newspaper story as “diminutive.” But for all who knew him, he was a quiet giant in our profession.
Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division, Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s OfficeTim not only gave me my first job as a prosecutor but also my second. I had been a misdemeanor prosecutor for about two years, and there had not been much movement in the office. A group of defense attorneys that I had clerked for made me an offer that I really could not turn down from a financial standpoint. So I left the DA’s office, and I was miserable.
After about six weeks I decided to go and see Tim. As I walked into his office he said hello, and I replied, “Tim, I have f——d up. I’ll take any job you want me to do if you’ll just take me back.” Tim was actually chuckling and told me to go see Bob Gill, then the misdemeanor chief, who asked me, “When can you start?”
Tim could have told me “no” out of pride, and there would be no telling how my legal career would have ended up. As it turned out, I have been here almost 22 years, and I owe it all to Tim. What a great man and boss he was.
D. August Boto
Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention in NashvilleViewing Tim from afar, so to speak, I could only have a view that is iconic rather than personal, fitting the mold of Henry Wade, Ronnie Earle, and Johnny Holmes of the metropolitan counties or Cappy Eads, Marc Taylor, and Jack Skeen in the more rural. I am talking about men for whom prosecution is a calling and who prefer the company of others similarly inclined. For such men, there is no better service to be rendered, no more worthy occupation undertaken, than to see justice done fairly, competently, and persistently. Variations of personality or technique aside, the strain of character running through such men that causes them to devote so much of their lives for so thankless a task as prosecution makes them noble. We need more such prosecutors who see protection of the weak and preservation of the rule of law as not only a duty, but a joy.
J. Greg Shugart
Business Manager, Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s OfficeI have been the business administrator for the DA’s office for over seven years. I tell the staff here that I’m the person who keeps their copiers working and their legal pads and paper clips supplied so that they can do their work. But I also worked daily with Tim Curry to keep our $33-million-budget office ticking efficiently. I saw firsthand how Mr. Curry diligently sought to save jobs in our narcotics and check departments as grant funds and check fees dwindled. Many of my administrative tasks required sophisticated negotiations with the commissioners court and county administration. Although I often felt clumsy when accomplishing his goals, Mr. Curry always backed me up, just as he supported any of his staff following his directives.
Mr. Curry’s strong work ethic and humble style repeatedly reminded me of Plato’s Greek classic, The Republic. His style emulated the guardians of civic justice that Plato described. Mr. Curry stayed in-formed; he always focused on what was right and just; his loyalty was legendary. And Mr. Curry never sought praise for any of the myriad deeds he accomplished. Those of us who worked for him will strive to follow his example.
Former 18th Judicial District Attorney and Chair of the TDCAF Advisory CommitteeOn April 24, Texas lost a great prosecutor and many of us lost a great friend when Tim Curry passed away.
I had the good fortune to know Tim for over 30 years. During this time, Tim served as President of TDCAA and received many awards, but he never cared about public acclaim. He put the public and law enforcement first, and politics came in a distant second. Tim was a public official who did not like politics, events, and public speaking, but he was elected district attorney as a reform candidate in 1972 and re-elected nine times because the public recognized him as an honest, hard-working prosecutor whose integrity was beyond question.
Tim was a great prosecutor but more importantly, he was a good man, a dear friend, and an example to all those who worked with him over the years. He will be missed and remembered fondly by all of us who knew him.
Judge Robert Mayfield
County Court-at-Law No. 1 in Johnson County and Former Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Tarrant CountyTim Curry was a powerful man. As the Criminal District Attorney of Tarrant County, he made decisions and set policies that directly impacted the lives of people all over the state. Yet he never sought the spotlight or felt the need to have a media presence. Instead, he remained in his office and spoke in a soft, measured drawl that always cut to the heart of the matter concerned. His manner was the same regardless of the rank of the person speaking with him. He would listen, ask pertinent questions, then give guidance.
Tim Curry was a politically adept man. His unblemished record of successful elections covered four decades and two political parties. However, when he died, the Fort Worth Star Telegram newspaper wrote that he was known for keeping politics out of the district attorney’s office, and a well-known defense attorney called him a “nonpolitical politician.” “Do what’s right” and “honor your agreements” were the philosophical touchstones he imparted to his staff.
Tim Curry was an uncommon man, one who spoke little but accomplished much. After 36 years, he has now left the district attorney’s office, and we are all better for him having been there.
Richard B. Roper
Former U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Texas, now at Thompson & KnightI started at the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office as a college volunteer intern, later returned as a law clerk, and finally was lucky enough to be one of Tim Curry’s prosecutors. Tim built an of-fice grounded on professionalism and ethics and gave his prosecutors the discretion and strong support needed to achieve justice. Working for Tim simply made us better lawyers. I can attest that his legacy of professionalism followed me as a federal prosecutor and later served as my guide during my term as United States Attorney.
Judge Scott Wisch, 372nd District Court, “Tim Curry School for New Lawyers, Class of ’81”I remember the first time I met Tim Curry. I was in Arlington visiting family and got a call to come interview with the Tarrant County DA’s office. After an initial interview with the hiring committee, which included prosecution innovators Chris Marshall, Steve Chaney, and L.T. “Tolly” Wilson (all of whom sadly preceded in death the man who hired them), I was snagged as I was leaving the building and asked if I could come back later for an interview with the “boss.” I agreed and was taken to the office of Tim Curry.
Having heard while a law student in Austin of Tim’s pioneering policies and reform of the Tarrant County justice system, I expected to meet a larger-than-life man of steel in a Hart Marx suit. Instead, I met a man of average stature in blue jeans and a Western work shirt who extended his hand as if greeting a longtime friend. During the half-hour conversation, Tim didn’t talk prosecution; he talked about ethics, responsibility, and personal initiative, about having the courage to make tough decisions, about knowing you can’t be right 100 percent of the time but that you can always try to do right 100 percent of the time. After a little talk about hunting (his office at the time did look somewhat like Cabela’s), he offered me a job. I took it and have never since made a smarter professional decision.
Davy Crockett had a motto: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” In his own way, the boss emphasized that same motto in the practice of law. Tim’s encouragement to evaluate, then to make the tough decisions served me well as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and now as a criminal trial judge. I will always appreciate and honor that legacy.
Assistant Chief Investigator, Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s OfficeWhen Tim Curry was elected Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney in 1972, I had just recently been promoted to detective at Arlington Police Department. At that time the law enforcement community in Tarrant County had suffered through some pretty tough times under a couple of very weak, and some even considered corrupt, district attorneys. Local law enforcement had a big hand in electing Mr. Curry, and I think he always felt a special bond with peace officers.
In 1979 I came to work in the Special Crimes Unit of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, and over the years I have witnessed how Tim Curry worked to improve relations between the DA’s office and local, state, and federal law enforcement. One such example was his election (by the county’s police chiefs) to chair the narcotics task force. They felt he would be an impartial leader and could fairly represent their opinions relating to local narcotics enforcement. I served for eight years as the assistant commander of the task force and witnessed numerous times that Mr. Curry stepped up to the plate for them. Over the years I have personally heard him defer to law enforcement leaders and officers as the experts and offer his support to them instead of letting his ego dictate to them from his powerful position.
He liked to be called Tim, and his door was always open. I found his counsel always wise and backed by common sense and experience rather than by a wish to make himself seem more important than the citizens he served. Self-promotion and self-importance were not part of Tim Curry’s personality.
I called Tim Curry “Boss” when I addressed him. In 40 years of service to the State of Texas as a peace officer, I have worked for many individuals I have liked and respected but only one I called Boss.
Tanya S. Dohoney
Assistant Criminal District Attorney, Tarrant CountyGratefully, I worked for Tim Curry for over 18 years. But I learned of his office’s excellent reputation long before I came to Tarrant County. When I worked at the Court of Criminal Appeals during the 1980s, the reputations of the various DA offices and the attorneys within them was a constant topic of conversation among law clerks, court clerks, staff attorneys, and judges. Tarrant County’s office was universally held in high esteem by those working at the “supreme court” for criminal cases. Over and over, those of us who were recently out of law school heard the advice: “The best place to go to be a prosecutor was with the Tarrant County DA’s office.” We were told that you would receive good training, enjoy decent pay, have a manageable caseload that would allow professional growth, and learn how to prosecute in an office with high standards of integrity.
Life did not take me to Fort Worth right away, yet Mr. Curry’s office still impacted my career. From Austin, I moved to central Texas and commuted to McLennan County, prosecuting there for three and a half years as the sole appellate attorney while carrying a small misdemeanor, then felony, caseload. I instantly adopted Tarrant County’s appellate forms and protocol for my brief writing. My first CLE credits came from attending a Tarrant-County-prosecutor-led seminar in Fort Worth on trying DWIs. Our Waco office took many cues from Tarrant County over those years. For instance, when a former bank-exec-turned-capital-murderer claimed indigency, we followed Tarrant County’s lead from one of their highly publicized trials and contested the murderer’s indigency, saving the taxpayers a significant chunk of change.
Tarrant County’s influence in the McLennan County Criminal District Attorney’s Office increased with the arrival of a new McLennan County DA, Paul Gartner. Paul had cut his prosecution teeth working for Mr. Curry. Once Paul led the office, everything we did in McLennan County was patterned after Tarrant County—policy, prose, and procedures. Members of the McLennan County office routinely headed up I-35W to Fort Worth for training on DWI prosecution, evidentiary issues on child cases, organizing a hot check department, and more. I received especially helpful instruction from Tarrant County regarding capital habeas litigation.
While working for Paul, I met Tarrant County prosecutors, and that’s how I ultimately landed in Tarrant County years ago in 1991. The solid reputation I had heard about during the ’80s remained intact, thanks to Mr. Curry’s strong leadership and the many experienced prosecutors he had cultivated as office leaders through the years. Mr. Curry’s motto remained, “Hire good people and then let them do their work.”
Over eight years ago, my duties shifted; at the suggestion of two senior staff and with misdemeanor chief Richard Alpert’s blessing, I moved my office down to the misdemeanor section, allowing me to advise our misdemeanor staff on legal issues as they arose—another outside-the-box idea implemented by the Tarrant County DA’s office. I am thankful that, in this capacity, I had repeated occasion to seek out Mr. Curry to obtain his signature for state-appeal notices. He always showed interest in the details of the legal issues we wanted to challenge and reiterated his characteristic desire for us to pursue what was right, knowing that we were entitled to reply on the letter of the law.
People who worked for Mr. Curry will continue to follow his good example. And while we have new leadership (who worked for Mr. Curry for years), we will still have Mr. Curry’s name on our business cards because the county just aptly renamed our building the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Building.
Misdemeanor Chief, Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s OfficeFor just over 22 years, I had the honor of working for Tim Curry, and I can’t imagine anyone having a better boss. Tim always put his employees first and took pleasure in our accomplishments while never taking the credit. Walking into a courtroom to prosecute a tough case is never easy, but knowing, win or lose, we had the support of our boss removed much of the pressure and taught us that being a good prosecutor meant more than the tally of our wins and losses. My family has collected an assortment of Tim Curry election T-shirts over the years, and one of the most exciting days for two of my children is when they got to meet Tim at a campaign party. Every professional success I have achieved was made possible through the support of this great man, and I will do what I can for the rest of my career to keep his legacy alive.
District Attorney in Johnson County and Former Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Tarrant CountyI’ve always been humbled and proud to have been a part of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office. Working for Tim Curry from 1975 to 1979, I was first assigned to intake, then juvenile, then grand jury, then misdemeanor, and finally felony courts. That was Tim’s program. It called for young assistant DAs to become skilled at the duties of each section before moving on to positions of greater responsibility, and for that I am grateful. He called those times “character builders.” It was what I needed, and it worked well for me even though I didn’t understand it at the time.
Under Tim’s leadership, as a young prosecutor I worked with the highest quality of assistants in each section who not only taught me the skills and judgment needed to be a trial lawyer, but who also motivated me to be an elected prosecutor (first county attorney and now district attorney) in my home district, Johnson County, where I was born and raised and which is adjacent to Tarrant County.
Tim had the respect of his assistants, office staff, and defense attorneys because of the steady hand with which he headed what I considered to the leader among DA’s office in the state. Tim was a mentor by example not only to me but to the hundreds of other assistant district attorneys who passed through his office during his 36-year tenure. Under Tim’s leadership his office set the standard by which all offices in the state are judged.
As an elected prosecutor for the past 20 years, when I consider what a legacy Tim Curry has left, I am envious. We should all leave such a legacy. Tim had quite a good run and will be greatly missed. We can only strive to leave such a lasting mark on our criminal justice system.
I have no doubt that newly appointed District Attorney Joe Shannon will continue to lead this office in providing excellent prosecution with the highest degree of integrity and professionalism.✤