Henry Menasco Wade, district attorney of Dallas County from 1950 to 1986, was born on November 11, 1914, in Rockwall, Texas, to Henry M. and Lula (Michie) Wade. Known as “The Chief” at the Dallas County Courthouse, Wade never lost a case that he personally prosecuted. He rose to national prominence in 1964 when he tried Jack Ruby, who shot and killed President John Kennedy’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (seeKENNEDY ASSASSINATION). Wade’s name returned to the national spotlight in 1973 when he was the defendant in Roe v. Wade, the landmark U. S. Supreme Court decision.
Wade attended law school at the University of Texas in Austin where he graduated with honors in 1938. That same year he won the election for district attorney in Rockwall County. Wade served in this role until 1939 when he took a position as an FBI special agent. In 1943 he joined the United States Navy and served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He served aboard the aircraft carriers USS Hornet and USS Enterprise and participated in the invasions of the Philippines and Okinawa. He returned to Dallas in 1946 and practiced law at a private firm. Wade ran for district attorney in 1947 but lost to Will Wilson. However, Wilson appointed Wade assistant district attorney soon after winning in a run-off election. Henry Wade married Yvonne Hillman on February 27, 1948.
After three years as assistant district attorney, Wade launched a second campaign for district attorney. He won and was subsequently re-elected nine times. As district attorney, Wade gained a reputation for his competitive spirit. “He was all about winning,” recalled attorney Kenneth Holbert. “He was a brilliant attorney….The maximum is always what he got.” In Wade’s first year in office, he secured 1,002 convictions and only seven acquittals.
Wade achieved one of the lowest acquittal rates in the country, but his methods resulted in a number of wrongful convictions. In 1989, three years after Wade had retired, two of his cases, one resulting in a life sentence and one whose defendant sat on death row, were overturned when it was determined that Wade had deliberately withheld vital evidence. More recently, DNA evidence has helped overturn at least twenty-five convictions secured by Henry Wade. From 2001 to 2008 DNA testing exonerated more defendants from Dallas County than any other county and all but three states.
Many blame a culture of “win at all costs” for the high number of wrongful convictions. “Henry Wade wouldn’t intentionally try to convict someone he knew to be innocent,” explained former Dallas Assistant District Attorney Edward Gray, “but even in cases where evidence was weak, he would go all out, go for broke, be super-competitive.” While exonerations have called Wade’s record into question, former colleagues and the Innocence Project of Texas credit Wade with preserving evidence in every case. This practice facilitated the reopening of investigations and the freeing of innocent men.
The high rate of exonerations in Dallas County brought national attention to Henry Wade, but his first foray into the spotlight involved the case of Jack Ruby. In 1964 Wade secured a murder conviction against Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald after Oswald’s arrest for the assassination of President Kennedy. The Texas Court of Federal Appeals overturned the conviction in 1966, but Ruby died of cancer before retrial.
Wade’s name returned to national focus in 1973 when the U. S. Supreme Court issued the landmark decision upholding a woman’s right to abortion. In 1970 attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee sued Wade’s office on behalf of Norma McCorvey, a pregnant waitress identified as Jane Roe in court documents, and sought to keep the district attorney from enforcing Texas law that outlawed abortion except when a woman’s life was in danger. The case eventually reached the U. S. Supreme Court where seven of the nine justices held that the personal freedoms defined by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution included the right to an abortion.
Henry Wade died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on March 1, 2001, in Dallas, Texas. He was eighty-six. His wife Yvonne preceded him in death in 1987. He was survived by three daughters and two sons. He was buried in Sparkman Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas.
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The Associated Press, March 2, 2001; May 29, 2008. Jim Atkinson, “The Law and Henry Wade,” D Magazine, June 1977. Edward Gray, Henry Wade’s Tough Justice: How Dallas County Prosecutors Led the Nation in Convicting the Innocent (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2010). The Guardian (London), March 2, 2001. Mary Mapes, “When Henry Wade Executed an Innocent Man,” D Magazine, May 2016. “A New Day for Dallas Justice,” The Innocence Project. July 29, 2008 (https://www.innocenceproject.org/a-new-day-for-dallas-justice/), accessed October 28, 2020. New York Times, March 2, 2001.
Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
Civil Rights, Civil, and Constitutional Law
Criminal Law and District Attorneys
Texas Post World War II
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Wade, Henry Menasco,”
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