Who Was Wade in Roe v. Wade?

Looking back at the accidental defendant

 

Photo Credit: Brian Stansberry

Wade, as a symbolic force and active agent, straddles both the disciplining of women’s bodies through law and medicine and the brutalization of a criminalized underclass, largely delineated along racial lines, through the prison industrial complex. Wade’s surname, depersonalized, is now a metonym for patriarchy, but the association ought to extend to mass incarceration and white supremacy as well.

—From the Exhibit “Cottage Industry” by Mary Walling Blackburn and Rafael Kelman, The Booklyn Art Gallery, Brooklyn, New York (November 13–December 29, 2015).

A tantalizing glimpse at Henry Wade has found its way into an exhibit in a Brooklyn art gallery. But who was he? We know that “Jane Roe” in the Roe v. Wade class-action lawsuit filed by attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee was Norma McCorvey, a young, down-and-out Dallas waitress who couldn’t get an abortion and in fact never got an abortion because the lawsuit dragged on until terminating the pregnancy was no longer a possibility. She later became an anti-abortion activist, and in 2003 she sued the Dallas district attorney in a futile attempt to overturn Roe. v. Wade, claiming that she didn’t understand what an abortion was when she signed on as a plaintiff in 1969.

Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade was an accidental defendant. If Coffee and Weddington had found a client in El Paso or Houston, Henry Wade wouldn’t be “Wade.” He didn’t even argue the Supreme Court case that made him a symbol of “the disciplining of women’s bodies through law.” The landmark lawsuit wrote him into the wrong historical narrative.

Wade made his name as a prosecutor. He holds the record for the highest felony conviction rate (92 percent) in a state that perennially ranks in the top five in percentage of residents incarcerated.

He was better than 92 percent. Early in his career, when he was prosecuting cases himself, he had a 100 percent conviction rate.

In capital cases, he asked for death sentences 30 times and sent 29 men to death row.

In 1969 he wrote a prosecutors’ manual that ensured that blacks in Dallas County were almost always excluded from criminal juries. The manual was cited in a 2004 Supreme Court decision that a granted a retrial to African-American defendant Thomas Miller-El, because one of Wade’s assistant district attorneys had excluded 10 of 11 African-Americans in the jury pool from the jury that convicted Miller-El of capital murder and sentenced him to death. In 2006, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, the first African-American ever elected to the office, began a systematic examination of Wade’s convictions. By 2008, Watkins’s investigation overturned the convictions of 19 men sent to prison by Wade’s office, three for murder and 16 for either rape or robbery. Ten of the men released are black.

After Watkins’s defeat by a Republican challenger in 2014, the Innocence Project of Texas continues to investigate false convictions. Five of nine men cleared by the Innocence Project were African-Americans wrongly convicted by Wade’s staff; one 2 was serving a life sentence for murder, three were serving life 2 sentences for sexual assault, the fourth had been sentenced to 99 years for sexual assault.

With 24 DNA exonerations, Dallas County has far surpassed all other counties in Texas in overturned convictions. The current Dallas District Attorney, Susan Hawk, a part of a concerted b Republican campaign to oust Watkins, has not pursued her predecessor’s examination of questionable convictions. Wade died in 2001. The Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center memorializes him in the city where he made his name putting men behind bars.

Sources: The Sentencing Project; The Texas Innocence Project; The Dallas Morning News; McCorvey v. Hill (U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, September, 2004.)