In an alternate world, Henry Wade may have been best remembered as the man who tried Lee Harvey Oswald for the assassination of John F. Kennedy and in doing so getting to the ultimate truth behind the mother of all conspiracy theories. But this one-time Democratic candidate for congressional office is instead immortalized on the losing end of one of the Supreme Court’s most controversial decisions. A single bullet from Jack Ruby’s gun was all it took to rob Henry Wade of history’s more spectacular, and possibly more sympathetic, spotlight.
Well, a bullet plus some dubious prosecutorial practices throughout his career. We’ll get to those momentarily.
Between his ascension to the position of Dallas County District Attorney in 1951 and 1970, Henry Wade had never lost a case that he prosecuted personally. He was the very model of a hard-nosed Texas lawman, a cigar-chomping ex-FBI agent known as The Chief with an aggressive style and a stratospheric conviction rate. He was not shy in asking for the death sentence and juries tended to comply − 29 times out of 30 during his early years in office.
As the official responsible for enforcing the state’s abortion laws, Wade was the named defendant when two University of Texas Law School graduates, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, contested Texas’s restrictive abortion statutes in 1970 on behalf of Norma McCorvey, alias Jane Roe. (The name Roe was used to avoid confusion with a related case unfolding contemporaneously, Doe v. Bolton.) While Wade’s reputation as a tough prosecutor was near legendary, he was not known to actively pursue abortion cases. Though he could have taken the Roe case himself, he assigned it to an assistant and it was argued in court by lawyers from the state attorney general’s office.
The District Court ruled the statutes to be unconstitutional but a broader injunction against enforcement of the State’s abortion statutes − the real goal of the plaintiffs − was not granted. Appeals followed. The case was heard by the Supreme Court in 1970 and eventually decided in 1973. The 7-2 decision in favor of Roe laid the groundwork for abortion rights that persist to this day.
What Happened First
By the time of the Roe case, Wade was already well known nationally as the prosecutor of Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being escorted out of a local lock-up two days after the assassination. The Ruby trial was a slam-dunk. Ruby’s gut-shot was witnessed on live TV by millions of horrified Americans. But the prosecution became a circus nonetheless, Wade memorably sparring with Ruby’s defense attorney Melvin Belli, a celebrity lawyer before they were in vogue (who was further “immortalized” playing an incorporeal evil being on the original Star Trek series episode “And The Children Shall Lead.”)
In oral history accounts, Wade is described as a “rough old lawyer,” who “could chew Belli up in a minute.” Belli was a “carpetbagger” with a red velvet briefcase and a cape with a velvet collar, like “Dracula or something.” Belli tried an insanity defense, further arguing that Ruby suffered from psychomotor epilepsy, a rare form of the disease that could cause him to act unconsciously. Wade defused that nonsense and effectively established premeditation, winning a verdict for murder with malice and a sentence of death.
The verdict was overturned on appeal two years later, on the basis that Ruby could not possibly have received a fair trial in Dallas County. Ruby died in prison before the new trial could be heard.
What Happened Next
Wade’s sterling conviction record, powered by a “win at all costs” mentality, started to tarnish as early as the 1980s. One infamous case involved a young black man named Lenell Geter who was freed after serving two years of a life sentence for robbery when Wade’s office first agreed to a new trial and then dropped the charges entirely due to lack of evidence.
An even more famous case came to light in 1988 with the release of Errol Morris’s documentary The Thin Blue Line which exposed the rampant flaws in the wrongful capital conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of a Dallas police officer. Adams’ death sentence was commuted to life in prison three days before his scheduled date of execution in 1979 and he was eventually freed 12 years later based on prosecutorial malfeasance.
In all, at least 15 defendants convicted during Wade’s tenure as DA have been freed based on DNA evidence.
Where Are They Now?
Norma McCorvey came to regret her role in the landmark Roe v. Wade and became a vocal anti-abortion advocate.
Henry Wade retired in 1986 and died in 2001, soon after being named one of the 102 most influential lawyers of the twentieth century by Texas Lawyer magazine. A juvenile justice center in Dallas is named in his honor.
In 1967, Henry Wade was involved in an ill-starred movie venture, providing consultation and access to records for a scripted documentary film meant to counter the negative image of Dallas that had emerged after the Kennedy assassination. The movie, called Countdown in Dallas, was to include many real-life characters playing themselves, including Marina Oswald as the putative star of the show.
Based on the opinion of some who had read the screenplay (sample opinion: “If you went to film school and took a class on documentary, this is everything you should not do”) it is fortunate for Wade that the film was never made. Overturned convictions are one thing for a man’s legacy. But pans from Hollywood wags? Now that hurts.