The death penalty and leadership in office are at the forefront of a hotly contested Denton County district attorney’s race, with incumbent District Attorney Paul Johnson facing two challengers in his bid for re-election this year.
Lantana attorney Karen Alexander and Denton attorney Henry “Hank” Paine are each hoping to unseat Johnson in the March 4 Republican primary election.
Johnson said he wants to continue to use his passion and knowledge of the office to serve and protect county residents, but Alexander and Paine are hitting hard at Johnson’s lack of death-penalty cases, leadership and efficiencies in the office.
No Democrat has filed for the office. Early voting begins Feb. 18 and runs through Feb. 28.
Johnson, 55, has served seven years in office and has 30 years’ experience as an attorney. He said a broken upbringing gives him a way to relate to victims of crime who need help navigating the criminal justice system.
Johnson went from a paper route and mowing yards as a kid to landing a job and working his way up through the Denton County District Attorney’s Office and working in private practice for eight years, and he said his expertise will continue to flourish if he is re-elected.
Alexander, 37, was an intern under former District Attorney Bruce Isaacks before she was offered a job as a prosecutor. She worked for the department for 18 months before accepting a job with a private law firm.
In 2004, she opened a one-room law firm, Alexander & Associates, to practice family law and criminal defense in Lewisville. She has now been in business for 10 years, and said her management and leadership skills have led her to expand the business in Denton County and into Collin County.
Paine, 61, said he worked his way through school with his own business, Paine’s Produce and Trees, and has been working as an attorney for 33 years, including the past 25 years as a board-certified attorney in criminal and juvenile law.
He is a managing partner at Marsh, Paine & Waddill, a Denton-based firm. He said his honesty and many years of experience in law would benefit the district attorney’s office.
The district attorney serves a four-year term and earns $190,839 a year, according to Donna Stewart, the county budget director.
The district attorney’s office represents the state in criminal cases while working alongside law enforcement in the investigation and preparation of cases to be heard before the criminal courts. In addition, the district attorney represents the state in misdemeanor cases and prosecution of juvenile offenders, represents victims of violence in protective orders and represents the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory services in removing children from abusive households.
In Denton County, the district attorney’s office also serves as a county attorney, providing legal advice to the Commissioners Court and other elected officials, and oversees management of the office.
Johnson hasn’t sought the death penalty since he has been in office, but he said that’s for good reason.
“There are things you have to do and when you learn all the facts on a particular case — because we research not just that incident before us but as far back as kindergarten at times — and sometimes by letting one just get life in prison, they help you to get a second man linked to the same crime sent to life in prison, as well,” he said.
He said many other counties are also seeking life sentences after state law changed to allow jurors to select a sentence of life without parole instead of the death penalty.
Alexander, who describes herself as a strong Christian Republican, said she is pro-death penalty and sometimes a case warrants the ultimate punishment.
“There is no excuse to not seek the death penalty,” she said. “It’s a case-by-case basis, but I am going to be hard on criminals.”
Johnson said he has created a death penalty review board, made up of himself, First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck and the chiefs of the intake, felony and appellate divisions, and the lead prosecutor on the case.
The death penalty is an option under state law generally in cases in which a person is killed during the commission of another crime, such as an armed robbery or assault.
“Ultimately I have the final say, but the board is helpful in making a decision. That way nothing is getting overlooked,” Johnson said. “I am actually looking at seeking the death penalty in a case right now and it’s for a case I have had to do quite a bit of documentation for.”
Paine said he believes the death penalty should have been sought by Johnson already.
“It’s easy to second-guess when you don’t have all the facts,” Paine said. “I believe the death penalty was warranted on at least two or three cases in the current DA’s administration, and I am willing to make that decision.”
Alexander and Paine are also challenging Johnson’s leadership in office.
Johnson said he hasn’t taken anything for granted during his seven years in office and he has a lot more to accomplish.
“I appreciate bringing justice to victims and their families,” he said. “I can say by choice I haven’t been a defense attorney.”
Paine said he wants to provide an open office with integrity and character.
“I am going to be honest,” he said. “Everyone deserves to know who I am, not just who people want to think I am.”
Alexander said she would bring her management experience from her law firm to try and rid what she calls cronyism in the current administration.
“His [Johnson’s] inability to lead has been shown,” she said. “I am a taxpaying citizen and a mom and [I am running because] I am just not happy.”
All three candidates agree that continuing education is key to improving the office.
Paine said he would like to keep resources in-house to save taxpayers’ money.
“I think a mentorship program would be ideal,” he said. “New prosecutors could really use the assistance and having someone to bounce ideas or questions off to isn’t a bad thing, and we need to keep everyone updated on new laws as they are brought into effect.”
Johnson said he sent an attorney to train at the FBI forensic lab in 2008, and the partnership enabled the office to bring Denton County cases to the front of the line.
“I am blessed to be elected and bringing justice to the citizens of Denton County, but it’s really all accomplished with the support of a great 120-member staff,” he said.
Alexander said she would like to drive education home to keep everyone on top of new and changing laws.
“Right now as far as transparency goes, open records are good with the office, but there isn’t any accountability,” she said. “We need to look at educating staff in order to be a good work product as a whole.”
DENTON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY CANDIDATES
Hometown: Lantana area
Prior political history: Has not held office before.
Background: Worked in Denton County district attorney’s office, first as an intern and then as an assistant district attorney; worked for private law firm; opened private practice, Alexander & Associates, in 2004 to handle family law and criminal defense cases; now has offices in Collin and Denton counties.
Top priorities for the office: Address issues with leadership, professionalism, inefficiency, broken promises and a loss of confidence among the community; to take swift and decisive action when needed; take personal responsibility and hold others accountable for their actions; raise standards for competence and performance; restore the public’s trust in the district attorney’s office.
Online: www.karenalexanderforda.com; on Twitter, @karenforda; www.facebook.com/karen.t.alexander.3
PAUL JOHNSON (I)
Hometown: Highland Village
Occupation: Denton County criminal district attorney
Prior political history: Elected district attorney in 2006 and re-elected in 2010; served as precinct chairman in Highland Village for six years before running for district attorney; ran unsuccessfully for County Criminal Court No. 3 in 1998.
Background: Criminal district attorney, 2007-present; assistant district attorney in Denton County for 15 years; private practice in Law Office of Brad Freeman, 1985-87, and with Haire and Johnson, 2003-06; serves on the boards of the Children’s Advocacy Center for Denton County and University of North Texas Criminal Justice Advisory Council; coaches sports at the YMCA and previously with Greater Lewisville Area Soccer Association.
Top priorities for the office: To seek justice for crime victims, hold violent offenders accountable for their crimes, safeguard taxpayers’ money and continue a good working relationship with law enforcement agencies.
HENRY "HANK" PAINE JR.
Occupation: managing partner of Marsh, Paine & Waddill
Prior political history: Elected trustee, Denton school board, 1995; prior candidate for Precinct 106 chairman in Denton County; City Council candidate, La Grange, 1974; Republican candidate for district attorney, Brazos County, 1984.
Background: Assistant U.S. attorney, Eastern District of Texas; special prosecutor; criminal defense lawyer; adjunct law professor at Texas Woman’s University; owned and operated Paine’s Produce and Trees; served as county coordinator for Fayette County; serves as a volunteer at the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival and Denton Lions Club.
Top priorities for office: To bring 33 years of experience dealing with lawyers, judges, law enforcement and governmental entities to the district attorney’s office; to meet the office’s mission to “see that justice is done;” to restore respect to the district attorney’s office.