Joe Drago III

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Joe Drago III

Postby Lyn Breaux » Tue Jan 11, 2011 8:50 pm

Retired state District Judge Joe Drago dies (BBHS Class of 1958)

Former state District Judge Joe Drago III, whose high-profile cases included the love-triangle murder trial of Naval Academy Midshipman Diane Zamora, died Friday at his home in Fort Worth. He was 70 and had battled throat and lung cancer for a decade, his wife said.

Fellow retired Judge Don Leonard said Judge Drago was such good company that he could "sit down with a bunch of cannibals and just bond."

And he was always there for his family. He balanced the ugliness he saw from the bench with a warm and protective love for his family, relatives said.

"A lot of people get to the top of their profession, which is what I consider Dad did as a judge," said son Jon Drago, tournament director for the Byron Nelson Championship. "A lot of people that get there abandon their family to do so or aren't able to have a relationship with their family."

His father took time for his family "almost in spite of" the success, he said.

Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon met Judge Drago in the 1960s when the jurist was a city prosecutor in Fort Worth. He recalled a fair man who took his job seriously but was relaxed enough to wear a golf shirt under his robes from time to time with a tie that was cut off at the neck. The judge was known for noontime naps and his old Volkswagen Fox.

"He was ... the kind of a person that you would hope every judge would seek to emulate," Shannon said.

In 2002, the year he retired, Judge Drago won the Silver Gavel Award from the Tarrant County Bar Association.

Yet it was almost not to be, said his wife, Diane.

Joe Drago was one of four children, all of whom worked at their father's hardware store in Port Arthur. He was headed to medical school when he suddenly switched to law at because of a physics course, his wife said.

"He just decided," she said.

Judge Drago came to Fort Worth in the mid-1960s after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin. He worked as a city prosecutor and judge in Fort Worth before joining the district attorney's office. There, he headed the county's misdemeanor unit before prosecuting many felony trials for the county, Shannon said.

"Then he got on the bench and did a great job," he said.

Judge Drago was appointed a judge by Democratic Gov. Mark White in 1985 and won elections in 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1998, his wife said. In 1989, he switched to the Republican Party.

Judge Drago called the county's first night court into session in 1987.

In 1990, he presided over the trial of Ricky Lee Green, who was convicted of the sex-torture slaying of a KXAS/Channel 5 executive.

In 1998, he tried Zamora, whose case was nationally televised after being the subject of a made-for-TV movie.

Judge Drago was so emotionally drained by the high-profile case that he asked Leonard to conduct the trial of Zamora's accomplice, Air Force Academy Cadet David Graham, in the killing of her teenage romantic rival, Adrienne Jones. Both Zamora and Graham received life sentences.

"It took me a long time to get over that trial -- the stress and the media attention of everybody watching everything you did," Judge Drago said a year later.

Nevertheless, he wrote a 2002 op-ed article urging that trials be telecast "because court cases are the public's business. We should do all we can to let the public see the justice system at work."

For his family, it was the strong father and husband who will be missed. Judge Drago bought his children new cars and drove hand-me-downs himself. He was the kind of dad who waited up for his daughter, rarely if ever lost his temper and when his eldest son went on a date for the first time, followed his son's car to a dance to make sure he arrived safely.

Elder son Joseph Drago, a civil attorney, said little memories welled up in him Saturday as he recalled his father. He remembered playing baseball in high school and his father coming to every game.

One time he stood behind the backstop at home plate and his son heard him say, "Hit it to right field."

"I hit the next pitch to right field for a triple," he said.

"He was probably one of the most honest people I know," Joseph Drago said. "Everything I learned I pretty much learned from him as far as how to act and conduct myself with honesty and integrity."

Jon Drago said his father was "just as comfortable at a dinner speaking to 500 people as he was at a backyard barbecue." He was the type of person "who could fit in no matter what the environment was."

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said it's another loss for the county after the shooting of an Arlington police officer and the recent death of former Tarrant County Judge Tom Vandergriff.

"It's been a tough year so far," Whitley said.

He is also survived by his mother, Josie Drago, daughter Sarah Goggans and six grandchildren.

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Lyn Breaux
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