SAN ANTONIO -- The past and future of William Steele Sessions seem to come together here in a few downtown blocks.
There is the Alamo, a touchstone for many Texans but a particular favorite for Sessions, who likes to bring his out-of-town guests here to view the crumbling ruins where 188 men chose to fight to their death rather than escape as they tried to hold off 4,000 Mexican troops.
Several blocks away is the federal courthouse, where Sessions earned a reputation for his own form of modern Texas courage. Here, in the early 1980s, he presided over the murder trials of the men who killed Judge John H. Wood Jr., a friend and colleague who was shot in the back as he left home to preside over their drug trial. For the 20 months after the murder, Sessions and his family received 24-hour protection for fear the killers would strike again.
Across the street is the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On Friday, the Senate voted 90 to 0 to confirm Sessions for a 10-year term as FBI director, placing him in charge of this office and 480 others that are the nucleus of the nation's premier law enforcement agency.
When Sessions was nominated in July to be the agency's fourth director, Attorney General Edwin Meese III said the administration had sought a "clone" of William H. Webster, the man he is succeeding, and indeed the similarities between the former federal judges, both Republicans, are striking. In Sessions the FBI gets a quiet, straight arrow who wins unusual praise from across the political spectrum for his toughness, courage and fairness.
Asked at his first meeting with the Washington press corps last July about his reputation as a "West Texas tough guy," Sessions, who was born in Arkansas, smiled as he answered: "I love the accusation. I don't wear a gunbelt, and I don't have any cowboy boots to my name. If I'm a West Texas tough guy, it's simply because we have dealt with some very difficult problems out there."
Colleagues said he is a "hands-on" administrator who is aware of some of the shortcomings of the FBI and will resist any attempts from inside the bureau hierarchy to manipulate him or insulate him from its daily operations.
Sessions' strictness and concern for propriety are legendary. In Sessions' courtroom, men wear coats and ties, chewing gum is forbidden, and spectators caught reading newspapers are removed by the U.S. marshals.
"He sits at the edge of his seat, with a straight back," said U.S. District Court Judge Ed Prado. "There is no humor in his courtroom."
Ray and LeRoy Jahn, husband and wife prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office here, recall running into Sessions and his family on the street near their house during the Wood murder trial. The families had been friends for more than a decade, but there was no casual conversation that day. Their daughters, born two days apart, were best friends and hugged each other as the parents stood by stiffly. The next morning, Sessions dutifully announced in court that the ex parte contact had occurred.
When Sessions was named a U.S. District Court judge in 1974, according to the Jahns, he stopped socializing with prosecutors and defense attorneys, except for bar association functions, to avoid any possible compromise.
Those who know him said his strictness is not a manifestation of arrogance or eccentricity. Rather, it reflects Sessions' belief that the federal judicial system is sacrosanct and that defendants deserve the full respect of the court.
"He's firm, rule-oriented, strict. But he's very compassionate. He may give a strict sentence, but he does so with a bit of sorrow to it," said U.S. Magistrate Jamie Boyd.
Gerald Goldstein, general counsel of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, added, "I can't think of an incident in which he broadly expanded a defendant's rights, but he has been as fair as any judge I've ever seen . . . . Even though he was a prosecutor, he doesn't let the government muscle the defendant . . . . If I had a shot of winning, I'd as soon try it there as anywhere in the country."
Off the bench, friends and colleagues said, Sessions is a different person. He is described as bright and funny, with broad interests, ranging from mountain climbing, space exploration and the San Antonio Spurs basketball team to reading poetry and playing Scrabble and Monopoly with his family. Every Wednesday at noon, he goes to the Rotary Club.
He is anything but pretentious. Sessions is often seen mowing his lawn or scrubbing his car, a blue 1969 Chevy Malibu that he bought new. Instead of frequenting fancy restaurants, he most often has lunch at Schilo's delicatessen near the courthouse, rushing over at what his colleagues call "warp" speed, tilted forward with his arms swinging.
And in stark contrast to the somber gray pinstripe suits he regularly wears beneath his judicial robes, Sessions is often spotted after hours in striking plaid pants that have become legendary. According to one judicial colleague, they are are "so bright that they glow in the dark."
Those who know Sessions say that while he is a Republican, he may surprise the administration that appointed him.
Even during his confirmation hearings, Sessions made it clear he does not agree with the administration on everything. He testified that he supports the exclusionary rule barring from a trial evidence that has been obtained improperly by police. The administration wants a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. Sessions also supports the Miranda rule -- which Meese has criticized -- requiring that suspects be advised of their legal rights.
Boyd added, "When it comes to civil rights, he's extremely liberal. He ordered the El Paso County commissioners to build a new jail and offered to put them in jail if they didn't." Sessions also is known in his judicial district for ordering a new prison for San Antonio and a limited busing plan to desegregate the El Paso schools.
And 1985 he incurred the wrath of the Immigration and Naturalization Service by ruling that illegal aliens detained by the federal government as material witnesses against alien smugglers must be provided attorneys if they cannot afford them. Sessions found that many were being held for months without any charges.
Colleagues said they know of no political ties or debts by Sessions, who has not been involved in politics in nearly 20 years. He served in 1969 as a member of the Waco city council, and worked in 1966 as the county campaign chairman for senator John Tower (R-Tex.), now retired.
Sessions, 57, was born in Fort Smith, Ark. His father was a Disciples of Christ minister. He met his wife, Alice, also a minister's daughter, during their sophomore year of high school in St. Louis. He worked part-time at the local A&P grocery store in his junior and sophomore years.
A graduate of Baylor University Law School, Sessions spent 11 years in private practice in Waco before joining the Justice Department in Washington in 1969 to head a section of the Criminal Division, prosecuting draft-evasion, pornography, election-fraud and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He went to San Antonio in 1972 as U.S. attorney, was named to the federal bench in 1974 and became chief judge of the district in 1980.
Friends said he does not drink or smoke. His social life revolves mainly around his family and his judicial and bar association activities. Their home in Alamo Heights, one of the nicest sections of San Antonio, is described by friends as warm and comfortable, furnished in oriental rugs and antiques.
The Sessions have three sons -- two are lawyers in San Antonio and the third works for Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. in St. Louis -- and a 17-year-old daughter who just completed high school and is studying to be a professional ballet dancer.
Alice Sessions, who earned a master's degree in technical theater after her children were born, is an accomplished costume designer for the San Antonio ballet and other dance companies. She also has been credited by the local media with setting up the first vegetable co-op west of the Mississippi.
Sessions has been an avid mountain climber since he was 18, and he canoes. Books on mountains and climbing are interspersed with the law journals that line his richly paneled judicial chambers.
Sessions had polio when he was 16 and acknowledges that he will never be a technically advanced climber. But he said he loves the challenge, and has made two treks, in 1976 and 1985, up to the 18,000-foot level of Mount Everest. The Everest climbs were strenuous enough that he lost 26 pounds on his first trip and 15 on the second. Sessions later explained to the Northside Recorder, his neighborhood weekly newspaper, that the thought of eggs cooked in yak butter is enough to make anyone lose weight.
His quest for challenges led him to apply to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in early 1986 to be one of the civilians chosen for a space flight aboard the shuttle. But NASA vetoed the idea.
Sessions has said a person should be able to weigh the risks, consider whether the outcome is worthwhile and then decide whether he is willing to face the risk of death. His colleagues said that belief was tested by the Wood case, an event that has shaped Sessions' career and much of his life.
In an interview last year with the San Antonio Light, Sessions acknowledged that the Wood case and all the months of protection by U.S. marshals "changes your life." And his wife added, "I never leave this house without looking for the things those marshals told us to look for."
Boyd, who was U.S. attorney then, said of the Wood killing and an attack several months earlier in which Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kerr escaped with minor injuries after 20 rifle shots were pumped into his car: "I've prosecuted all my legal career, and I've never encountered anything that brutal."
The case finally ended in March 1983 with Charles Harrelson, the convicted triggerman, standing in the John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse delivering a diatribe against Sessions.
Accusing Sessions of "unspeakable evil" and the government of "Gestapo tactics," Harrelson ranted in the hushed courtroom, "I think the court should consider a charge against itself for rape and murder. You have killed the Constitution of the United States and you have had carnal knowledge of every person in the United States who exercises those rights."
People who were in the courtroom that day said that Sessions never flinched or lost his temper. When Harrelson finished the attack, Sessions quietly sentenced him to two consecutive life terms for murder and murder conspiracy to be served after he finishes a 40-year state sentence for drug trafficking.
Law enforcement sources said that Sessions became aware of some FBI problems during the Wood case, when the investigation was disrupted by "internecine warfare" between the FBI offices in San Antonio, where the killing occurred, and El Paso, where the killers were based.
Those problems were finally resolved when John C. (Jack) Lawn, who now heads the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, took over the FBI's San Antonio office in 1980 and put an end to the bickering. Lawn, who became a close friend of Sessions, is expected to help him with the transition to Washington.
Several federal law enforcement sources said they plan to brief Sessions on problems the bureau has in dealing with U.S. attorneys offices and with other government investigative agencies. "He knows first-hand about FBI arrogance and lack of cooperation, and he'll be brought up to date," one official said.
"He won't change the general thrust of the bureau," added a prosecutor. "But he will make them do it the right way . . . . They'll have to cross every 't' and dot every 'i.' "