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Henry Wade, Texas prosecutor, dies at 86

Henry Wade, who in nearly four decades as district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, became the very symbol of law and order there and is perhaps best remembered for the prosecution of Jack Ruby and as the Wade in Roe vs. Wade, died Thursday at an assisted-living center in Dallas. He was 86.

Wade's cigar chewing, his drawl, his love of dominoes and his puttering around his farm near Dallas gave him an artfully deceiving image. His folksy manner masked a keen legal mind, a fiercely competitive streak and a relentless faith in the efficacy of punishment.

He was district attorney from 1951 to 1987, and during the early years, when his office was relatively small, he often prosecuted cases himself. He never lost one. As a prosecutor in those years, and earlier during three years when he was assistant district attorney, he asked for death sentences on 30 occasions, and got them on 29. As a whole, defense lawyers engaged against his prosecutors achieved one of the lowest acquittal rates in the country.

Wade's office was itself sued in 1970 by a pregnant waitress, Norma McCorvey, identified at the time as Jane Roe. (The plaintiff in a companion suit had already taken the name Doe.) McCorvey, a Dallas resident, sought to keep the district attorney from enforcing a Texas law that prohibited abortion except when a woman's life was at stake.

At trial, where one of Wade's assistants argued his case, the law was declared unconstitutional. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which in 1973 issued the landmark decision affirming a woman's right to abortion.

Wade had previously come to national attention in 1964, when he led the prosecution of Jack Ruby. Ruby had killed Lee Harvey Oswald, President John F. Kennedy's assassin, and it took a jury less than two hours to convict him and sentence him to death. A Texas appeals court overturned the conviction in 1966, citing reasons that included failure to move the trial from Dallas, but Ruby, by then suffering from cancer, died before a new trial could be held.

The trial that led to Ruby's conviction was punctuated by testy exchanges between Wade and the defendant's lawyer, Melvin Belli. Belli called Wade "a country bumpkin." Wade, for his part, insisted on pronouncing Belli's name BELL-ee rather than BELL-eye, until the judge put a stop to it.

Henry Menasco Wade was born on Nov. 11, 1914, in Rockwall, Texas, near Dallas, the son of a judge. He graduated from the University of Texas, received his law degree with highest honors there and was admitted to the Texas bar.

After serving as an FBI agent, he was named an assistant district attorney in Dallas in 1947. He was elected district attorney three years later. Having held the office for 36 years, he retired in 1987 and became counsel to a Dallas law firm.