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William Sessions, Former FBI Director And Western District Judge, Dies At 90

Former judge, prosecutor, and FBI Director William Steele Sessions died from heart problems in San Antonio on Friday. He was 90.

A career stretching over six decades took him from quiet life in Waco to the harsh political spotlight in Washington, D.C., where he stood next to three presidents, oversaw an FBI struggling to grapple with domestic and foreign terrorism and returned to Texas politically discredited and disgraced.

In 2001, NPR included him in a series of profiles of FBI directors.

Sessions was born May 27, 1930, in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He served in the Air Force until 1955, and then earned undergraduate and law degrees from Baylor University.

He practiced law in Waco until 1969, when he joined the Justice Department, starting in the Criminal Division's Government Operations Section, according to his official FBI biography. He then served as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas from 1971 to 1974.

In December 1974, President Gerald Ford nominated him to fill a seat on the Western District court, and the Senate confirmed him days later.

"As a district judge in Texas," NPR reported, "the teetotalling, non-smoking Sessions expected to be addressed as 'Your Honor,' and required suits and ties for men in his courtroom and dresses for women."

Sessions rose to become chief judge in 1980. He presided over the trials of Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody Harrelson, and others who took part in the 1979 assassination of U.S. District Judge John Wood, who was gunned down in his Alamo Heights driveway.

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Credit C-SPAN video screen grab
Sessions and President Ronald Reagan

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed Sessions director of the FBI. He continued as director under President George H. W. Bush.

His directorship was punctuated with historic controversy and tragedy. "In August 1992," the NPR profile explained, "an FBI sniper shot and killed the wife of federal fugitive Randall Weaver during a standoff in Idaho."

"Eight months later," it continued, "agents sought to end a 51-day standoff with members of the heavily armed Branch Davidian religious sect, who had killed four officers of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But during the final push to occupy the Davidian's compound, the sect’s complex of buildings burned to the ground, killing 80 people."

In January 1993, during the final hours of the Bush administration, Sessions was accused of using his office for personal gain, including financial irregularities and using government vehicles for personal travel. The investigation was led by Bush's attorney general, William P. Barr, who is the current attorney general in the Trump administraion. Sessions denied any wrongdoing.

Bush left it to the new president, Bill Clinton, to handle the matter. Clinton asked his new attorney general, Janet Reno, to meet with Sessions and ask him to quietly resign. Sessions refused.

So in July 1993, Clinton fired Sessions. The incident returned to the news and resonated historically in May 2017 when President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.

Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A History of the FBI, an examination of the FBI's role in fighting terrorism in the years before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, was critical of Sessions.

"Sessions had no experience in running an organization or overseeing investigations," Weiner wrote. "He spent nearly six years as director without ever gaining command of the institution or winning the loyalty of his underlings."

But NPR's evaluation of Sessions in 2001 was more generous, pointing out that he was "recognized as making significant efforts for broadening the FBI to include more women and minorities. ... [He also] won respect early on even among liberals for combining tough direction with fairness."

In 1993, at the Clinton press conference, a reporter asked the president if Sessions might've been the target of "an internal vendetta" because of his attempts to bring diversity to the agency's ranks.

Clinton commended Sessions in his response. "I think that will be remembered as the best thing about his tenure," Clinton said, "and he deserves the support and thanks of the American people for trying to broaden the membership of the FBI, to make it look more like America and to follow the lead of some other agencies and the United States military."

Sessions returned to private practice in 1995 and retired in 2016.

He served on the Board of the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C., and on committees of both the State Bar of Texas and the Judicial Conference of the United States.

His wife Alice died in 2019. Sessions is survived by his daughter and three sons, including Pete Sessions, a former North Texas congressman. Funeral arrangements were pending.

Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at Brian@TPR.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian.