Editor’s note: Carol Vance, who served as the elected District Attorney in Harris County from 1966 to 1978, passed away in June at the age of 88. Mr. Vance was seminal in the formation of the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, he served on the Texas District & County Attorneys Foundation’s Advisory Committee from its inception in 2006 until his death, and he was ahead of his time when it came to training prosecutors, serving crime victims, and creating efficiency in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors across the state owe much to Carol Vance, his leadership, and his innovative ideas. We asked four of his former colleagues to write about their memories of him, not only as a prosecutor but also as a man and friend.
Former Assistant District Attorney in Harris County
I am honored to write about my former boss and good friend Carol Vance. I first met Carol when he hired me as an Assistant District Attorney in October 1969, and I worked for him until he went into private practice at the Bracewell & Patterson law firm in 1979.
Carol was one of those rare people who was intelligent, honest, ethical, decisive, and compassionate, and he was also a good politician. We at the office were happy for the last trait, although looking back, it seems we lived in a charmed time and place because I do not remember anyone ever asking which party I belonged to or feeling any pressure to support one party or the other.
“Just do what you think is right and don’t only seek convictions” was what we were taught in Harris County, and that started at the top with Carol.
He lived up to that creed in the Joe Campos Torres case in 1977, which drew national attention. Houston Police Department officers were called to the scene of a disturbance where, during their attempt to arrest Torres, he received a cut on his shin. Rather than follow procedure by taking him to the hospital and then to jail, the officers took him to Buffalo Bayou, where they beat him and told him to swim for his freedom. They forced him into the bayou with his boots on, and he drowned. A rookie officer at the scene, greatly disturbed by his fellow officers’ conduct, broke the traditional code of silence prevalent at that time and reported the crime to his Chief of Police, Pappy Bond, who then reported it to Carol.
Carol took the allegations very seriously and assigned the case to me as lead counsel with then-ADA Ted Poe’s assistance. As the case progressed from indictment to trial, Carol was under intense pressure. On one hand, some in the Hispanic community adamantly believed that Torres had been intentionally murdered, and they were deeply skeptical that the DA would fully prosecute his law enforcement partners. On the other hand, some in the police department were concerned that Carol was scapegoating the accused officers to placate the Hispanic community.
Despite all these concerns, Carol was always supportive of Ted and me, never wavering from his guideline that we should do what we believed was right according to the evidence.
The case landed in Walker County on a change of venue where legendary Harris County prosecutor Erwin Ernst was the recently appointed District Attorney. Carol reached out to Ernie, his good friend and mentor, and secured his presence at our counsel table to enhance our credibility and effectiveness during the five-week trial. We asked the jury to convict the officers of murder, but the jury instead convicted them for criminally negligent homicide. It had been difficult to prove the officers’ intent to kill because Torres had been alive and swimming without restraints after he went into the water, but he then went under before reaching the other side of the bayou.
In those days, it was tough to convict a peace officer for anything, so obtaining even a lenient jury conviction in the case opened a new era. Carol and Chief Bond’s stalwart stand for justice in the landmark Torres case led to the creation of the Civil Rights & Police Integrity Divisions in our office and the Internal Affairs Division in the Houston Police Department. From then on, the Harris County District Attorney had immediate prosecutorial oversight of every incident in which a police officer used deadly force.
Carol came up through the ranks as a trial lawyer. As the elected district attorney, he had less time available for personally trying cases, but he made some exceptions.
In 1976, Garth Bates was the sitting judge of the 174th District Court in Harris County, and he was caught by our Special Crimes group taking a large bribe from a defendant in exchange for a lenient sentence. Carol tried that case as lead counsel with Johnny Holmes, who would become his successor as DA. They obtained a conviction from the jury and an eight-year penitentiary sentence. [Editor’s note: Read more about that in Johnny Holmes’s remembrance of Mr. Vance on page 24.]
While out of state attending a 1973 National District Attorneys Association conference, Carol got a call from ADA Mike Hinton back in Houston about what The New York Times called “the largest mass-murder of the century.” Returning to Houston immediately, Carol assumed personal control of the investigation into the murder of 27 teenage boys in Harris County. Elmer Wayne Henley, Jr. and his accomplice, David Brooks, were indicted for murder. As lead counsel in the Henley trial, Carol obtained a guilty verdict from the jury that eventually resulted in six life sentences for Henley (the death penalty had been declared unconstitutional in Texas at that time). Brooks was tried later and also received a life sentence.
Carol also deeply cared about giving lawyers the opportunity to become career prosecutors. When I started at the DA’s Office, most citizens and attorneys considered the job merely a training ground for young attorneys to obtain trial experience before quickly moving into private practice. Carol wanted good lawyers to stay, so in the early 1970s, he used his position and influence with big firms and civic leaders to convince the county commissioners to raise prosecutor pay significantly enough that it would modestly support a family.
Carol noticed that we were mostly hiring people from Harris County law schools. Wanting to expand the pool of available talent and the diversity of our applicants, in 1977 he created a Deputy Chief of Misdemeanor position to serve as the office’s hiring recruiter and assigned a young Rusty Hardin to fill it. Rusty suggested approaching some applicants in each Texas law school a year before they would graduate, just as the big civil firms did, and offering those considered the best a job in advance of graduation and the bar exam. Thus, the first “precommit” program for prosecutors was created.
When Carol saw inefficiencies in the criminal justice system, he fixed them. For example, there were no programs to assist victims and witnesses until Carol approved Jim Larkin and Suzanne McDaniel seeking a grant for Suzanne to become the first Victim Witness Coordinator in the state. After starting the state’s first victim services program, Suzanne went on to become a leader in victims’ rights in Texas, in the Attorney General’s Office, and later as TDCAA’s first Director of Victim Services before her death in 2012.
Carol also loved sports (probably fourth only to his faith, family, and country). He formed office teams in softball and football and maintained an office tennis ladder where he remained on top until he hired Mike McSpadden, who happened to be a Big Eight (now Big 12) Conference singles champion. Carol promptly made Mike his doubles partner and they ruled together for years. Carol was quick to explain to any skeptics that Mike was hired for his legal skills first and foremost, and Mike’s record bears that out as he rose through the ranks to become a formidable chief felony prosecutor and a respected district court judge.
Carol was an exceptional athlete and competitor and won many senior tennis championships as he grew older. He would not stop competing. We once had an office picnic where Carol insisted on playing a touch football game before supper. It was the felony prosecutors versus the misdemeanor prosecutors and Carol, of course, was the quarterback for the felony team. He pronounced that there would be no stoppage until one team was ahead by two touchdowns. As hunger ate at us and darkness approached, we played on and on. As probably the hungriest person on the field, I suggested we call it a draw, but Carol said no. I then went to the opposing misdemeanor huddle and asked them to throw an interception so we could eat. They rejected my offer, the game continued, and although I have forgotten the final score, Jack Frels says his misdemeanor team won. Regardless, there were no quitters on either team, although I tried.
In later years, Carol took up golf and quickly became a force to be reckoned with at our semi-annual Ted Busch Golf Tournament that Busch, Larkin, Tommy Dunn and I started in 1976. That tournament had a side benefit of including young new prosecutors each year and infusing their energy and fresh outlooks into the tradition of the old-timers. Carol always enjoyed the weekend, and the youngsters enjoyed his stories at dinner.
Carol accomplished so much in his professional life, and the profession of prosecution owes him much thanks. He was so driven to compete in all phases, but he did all that with such grace and honesty that he inspired those of us on his team to do our best for justice while leaving it all on the field. I feel forever grateful and lucky that Carol hired me, and especially that he did it before he dreamed up his hiring committee. Rest in peace, my good friend.
Former District Attorney in Harris County & TDCAF Board President
In Harris County and throughout the state of Texas, Carol Vance’s name takes on mythic proportions. However, it was not until his passing in June that I really considered the full impact of his life and legacy, both on the profession as a whole and on myself personally.
In 1976, Carol hired me as a fledgling member of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Eager to try cases, I knew that the DA’s office would provide me with the necessary experience and skills. What I quickly realized, though, was that the reputation and expertise of the office had less to do with the individuals who worked there and more a result of Carol’s leadership. He cultivated an atmosphere of excellence where prosecutors strove to be at the top of their game. Like a coach leading a team, he encouraged detailed and complete preparation, healthy competition, and good sportsmanship among his lawyers. Carol was interested in cultivating the individual players as well. Never judgmental or angry, he mentored us and helped us to grow better as prosecutors. He expected us to perform at our best and to pursue excellence. We strove to meet his expectations, to elevate the office, and to well-represent the State of Texas. We never feared his censure or his anger—only that we would disappoint him.
As a result of his leadership, the courts knew that they could expect prosecutors at the top of their game, skilled in courtroom tactics, and ethical in their behavior. The public trusted him as well, electing him to office four times. Carol brought faith to the criminal justice system: If a case was brought by his office, it was because the facts and the law supported it, not because of political considerations, emotional reactions, or personal ambition. The public trusted that justice was being served and that all parties were represented fairly within it.
Carol Vance fostered openness and transparency before they were corporate tag phrases. He lived to “do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.” He believed that everything was done on the record and advised me to make each difficult decision as if Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” had a camera in my face. That attitude and those words carried him throughout his years but also resonated throughout my own 41 years in public service.
In today’s world where the criminal justice system and its fairness are open to question, DAs might well reflect upon Carol’s example and remember the duty of all prosecutors: to secure justice, not convictions. Carol’s leadership provided a model that I and others followed. The world is a better place because Carol Vance lived in it.
John Holmes, Jr.
Former District Attorney in Harris County
Carol Vance was a perfect example of what a district attorney should be. I am proud to have been an on-scene observer.
He served as an assistant district attorney for eight years before being appointed the elected official in 1966. One of the implementations he created during his service was a hiring committee. He assigned assistant district attorneys to this committee to interview applicants, answer their questions, and review their qualifications. The committee then recommended to Mr. Vance who should be hired as an assistant. Carol observed that this procedure was much more efficient than if he performed the task himself, and more importantly, the staff participated in whom they worked with as fellow employees. He felt that this was a most important factor and rarely overruled the hiring committee, although it was fully understood that he could certainly do so where he felt it appropriate.
Another Carol Vance innovation was the Harris County District Attorney Operations Manual. This was a lengthy manual that explained and described the rules with respect to the disposition of cases, recommendations, a prosecutor’s discretion, and other matters that prosecutors deal with daily. One example was homicides. The manual provided that no prosecutor shall recommend probation in a homicide unless and until the district attorney approved the recommendation for good cause. Otherwise, probation was a jury or judge decision, not a recommendation of the State of Texas through the prosecutor. Where a rule didn’t fit a particular case, the prosecutor was encouraged to seek supervisor approval of a change. There were plenty of other rules in this manual that provided stability and consistency in the disposition of criminal cases.
For ages, the practice of filing charges in the State of Texas, certainly including Harris County, was that a law enforcement officer would present his reasons to believe a crime had been committed to a justice court, and the court would cause a complaint to be filed and an arrest warrant to be issued. The downside of this practice was that the decision as to whether an offense had been committed and that probable cause existed to believe the person alleged was the offender was made not by the justice court, but rather by the judge’s clerk. This circumstance did not ensure that a judicial official made the charging decision based upon probable cause, and the result was that the charged person was jailed and the case dismissed if probable cause did not exist. Mr. Vance believed this process was deficient and could be significantly improved.
His improvement became known as Central Intake. He created a 24-hour operation where prosecutors were assigned to screen cases that officers wanted to file against a suspect. The initial location of this process was the ground floor of the Houston Police Department. It was unpopular, at least initially, with peace officers, who now had someone grading their papers before anyone was charged or jailed. The result of this procedure was fewer cases dismissed at the trial level. One case that I specifically remember is a person who spent several days in jail for possessing a zipper bag of Tide detergent.
Once when I was an assistant DA assigned to the Special Crimes bureau, we got word of a possible bribery of a district judge. I began an investigation of the matter and ultimately made a case on District Judge Garth Bates. He wanted $60,000 to give a hijacker probation. We attempted telephone contact with the judge via the snitch, but the judge wouldn’t talk to him about it. We put the money in a safety deposit box, and we were on the scene when the judge picked up the money—but there was a problem. I had gotten the money from our county judge, and it was in hundred-dollar bills. Rather than having to write down the serial number of each bill, I decided to photocopy them in the office before 5 a.m. of the drop day. While we were sitting at the bank where the judge was coming to get the money, I got a call on the radio. One of our special crimes prosecutors, who always came to the office early, asked, “Unit 30, did you leave something in the Xerox machine?” Apparently, I forgot to remove the last page of 10 $100 bills when I had completed copying, and thus we were $1,000 short of the $60,000 the judge was expecting in the safety deposit box.
It turned out to be fortunate because it gave us the opportunity to have the person bribing the judge to call and say that he had accidently shorted the safety deposit box by $1,000 but that he would replace it when convenient to the judge. That was the first time the judge let his hair down on the telephone and admitted to the elements of the offense. Of course the call was made in our offices and was completely recorded.
Carol Vance insisted that I try the case because I had worked so hard on developing it. This was not an unexpected position from him, and I frankly expected it. I told him that I would sit with him but that he should try the case because anyone other than the elected prosecutor trying the case might suggest that there was something wrong with it. He ultimately agreed with me, and we tried the case together. The judge was sentenced to time in the Department of Corrections (now TDCJ). His appeal didn’t work either. So many elected prosecutors don’t try cases. Carol was not that way.
There are many more examples of Carol’s contributions to the criminal justice system, but time and space cannot include them all. Carol Vance was an outstanding district attorney, and I was very proud to be a part of his office.
Former Assistant District Attorney in Harris County
I had the great privilege of working for two law enforcement icons: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Harris County District Attorney Carol S. Vance. I was hired by Carol in 1969 after serving four years as a Special Agent and Legal Advisor in Hoover’s FBI.
Carol was still a young man in 1969, having been appointed Harris County District Attorney by Governor John Connally three years earlier at age 32. Carol had been an assistant district attorney in the office for eight years prior to his appointment, so he knew what prosecution in a big city was all about, and he had his own ideas on what he wanted to do with the office and the policies he wanted to implement.
Carol was an extraordinary boss and leader. He was very friendly and laidback in his management style. He was not constantly looking over our shoulders. He hired quality lawyers, both male and female, and allowed them to handle their cases as they saw fit, always with his admonition of, “Do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons.” He felt that he had hired good people who were mature and honest enough to make their own decisions.
As an administrator, Carol selected the most honest, respected, and experienced assistants to serve as supervisors as the office grew and new assistants came on board. Carol instituted “Prosecutor School” to teach the new assistants the proper way to handle cases, and it was always governed by honesty, integrity, and fair play. We were there to see that justice was done. Carol had no problem if an assistant believed a case should be dismissed because it was a “dog case” and should not be prosecuted. Carol’s message, again, was “do the right thing for the right reasons.”
Carol also sent his prosecutors to the new (at the time) National College of District Attorneys, which started in 1970. This college was initially located at the University of Houston Law School and subsequently moved to Columbia, South Carolina. The college had a full curriculum of courses on prosecution, forensics, direct and cross examination, substantive criminal law, etc. In addition, the National District Attorneys Association would conduct seminars in major cities across the country and Carol would send his assistants to learn the latest updates in prosecution. We all felt that we were properly trained and up-to-date on all substantive and procedural criminal law.
Carol instituted many new programs as the population of Harris County dramatically increased, the number of district and county criminal courts increased, and our office numbers increased. He sought a grant from the federal government to create a Special Crimes Division to investigate and prosecute crimes that the local police departments were not set up for nor experienced enough to investigate, such as white collar crime, organized crime, and large narcotics conspiracies. Carol received funds for separate office space, cars, communications equipment, and salaries for four assistants and staff to conduct such investigations. I was honored to be one of the initial members, along with Mike Hinton, Bob Bennett, and Warren White. The division has continued and grown to be a major part of the office today.
During this time, Carol was very active in the county and state bar associations and was chosen as Outstanding Young Man of Houston by the Houston Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Outstanding Young Lawyer in Texas by the Texas Young Lawyers Association, and Outstanding District Attorney in the U.S. by the National District Attorneys Association. Carol, along with his First Assistant Sam Robertson and Assistant District Attorney Mike Hinton, were also very involved with the Texas Legislature in drafting a new Texas Penal Code, which was adopted in 1974.
Interestingly, Carol never drew an opponent in this elected position during his tenure. This goes to speak to the respect he had in the community. By the time he left for private practice at Bracewell & Patterson (now Bracewell) in 1979, Carol had created a reputation for integrity, innovation, and leadership of a major law enforcement organization that was on par with that of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. A fun fact: Carol told me his name had been mentioned in the search for a new FBI Director after Hoover died in 1972 and his replacement, L. Patrick Gray, had been sacked for destroying documents in the Watergate investigation.
Many of the lawyers who trained under and worked for Carol went on to be criminal district judges in Harris County; prominent criminal trial lawyers in the state, such as Dick DeGuerin and Rusty Hardin; United States Attorneys for the Southern District of Texas, such as Ed McDonough, Henry Oncken, Mike Shelby, Ken Magidson, and myself; and one of his assistants even went on to be the CEO of Delta Airlines. The lawyers who trained under and worked for Carol Vance are some of the best people I have ever met. Many are still close friends. We all take great pride in the fact that we worked for one of the best district attorneys in one of the best DA’s offices in the country. He made us all proud of being prosecutors and members of his office. The alumni who worked for Carol still get together and share memories and friendships.
One alumnus, Chuck Rosenthal, former District Attorney in Harris County, shared with the group an email he got from Carol in 2019—it was a reply to a message from Chuck telling Carol how much he appreciated working for him: “Chuck, Thanks for that nice note. I got appointed DA when I was 32 years old. That was a little scary, but I tried not to speak out unless I had something to say. The press and everyone in the office and out of the office seemed to want me to succeed. I was most fortunate. What a great bunch of lawyers who went through the office in my days. I loved being DA, much more than practicing law, although that was more fun than I first realized. Nothing is more fun than being a chief prosecutor and trying those Saturday night shootouts. I tried a lot of civil cases—got the highest verdict ever in Texas in a case against the Dallas Morning News and tried an antitrust case in London involving the big oil companies—but those Saturday night killings were the most fun to try. More excitement than I could stand at times. —Carol.”