After Le Affaire Rosenthal and the ensuing change at the top levels of the Harris County District Attorneys Office over the past couple of years, it’s easy to forget that the local D.A’s office was a model of stability and excellence during the previous generation.
Johnny B. Holmes, who ran the D.A.’s office for 21 years before retiring in 2001, is still relatively well-known to many Houstonians. But less well-known is that Holmes inherited a well-organized D.A.’s office from Carol Vance, who was D.A. from 1966-1979 and literally transformed the local office from a small-town outpost into one that other major cities copied.
I pass this along because I just finished reading Vance’s autobiography, Boomtown D.A. (White Caps Media 2010) (it’s not available through Amazon at this time, so I bought my copy through the publisher’s site). For any long-time resident of Houston, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read. And for any attorney practicing in Houston, it is an essential read.
Vance was involved in his share of juicy cases, so the chapters on those cases are the meat of the book. Vance’s big cases include the John Hill case of Blood and Money fame, the cases arising from the TSU race riot of 1967, the prosecution of two corrupt judges (District Judge Garth Bates and Supreme Court Justice Don Yarbrough), the amazing transformation of former UH professor Gerry Phelps, and the prosecutions of Elmer Wayne Henley and David Brooks, who were the sidekicks to the worst serial killer in Houston history.
Moreover, just as interesting to me as the big cases is Vance’s explanation of how the D.A.’s office grew from a relatively small office that was easily overwhelmed by a big case into one that could take on virtually anything that was thrown at it. Vance had many people helping him with this task and he is effusive in his praise of those folks, many of whom went on to become successful judges and attorneys in Houston after leaving the D.A.’s office. And Vance has a field day describing his interactions with Houston’s formidable criminal defense bar, including such legends as Percy Foreman and Richard “Racehorse” Haynes.
But most impressive is Vance’s description of his efforts after leaving the D.A.’s office in becoming one of the leaders of prison care and reform in Texas. The Carol Vance Prison Unit in Sugar Land is named for him and has one of the lowest recidivism rates of any prison in the U.S., a result of that unit’s robust Christian ministries that Vance nurtured and promoted.
Carol Vance is a remarkable man who became Harris County District Attorney at a key time in Houston’s history. We are all the better for that. Check out his book and learn why. You won’t be disappointed.
Update: The book’s editor, Kit Sublett, passes along that Carol Vance will have a book signing at Brazos Bookstore on July 22nd, and that the book signing scheduled for July 31st at Murder by the Book has been postponed. Mr. Sublett also advises that the book is available at all Houston-area Barnes and Noble stores and the Barnes and Noble website.