TDCAA’s training is still timely, relevant, and accessible

By Rob Kepple
TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

Tom Krampitz, my predecessor at the TDCAA helm and my mentor in this training business, preached that TDCAA needed to always deliver timely, relevant, and accessible training and services to our members. We live by that mantra here at TDCAA World Headquarters. Weekly case summaries, frequent legislative and interim updates, high-quality conferences, a must-read journal, online Brady training, and a live person always on the other end of the phone have been staples of the services we provide. Building on these examples, our Long Range Plan from 2016 included the development of distance learning (i.e., online courses) to take TDCAA training to a new level. I also talked about a potential podcast in the November–December 2019 edition of this journal.

            It looks like these new forms of training will be deployed sooner rather than later, due to the recent pandemic and ban on large gatherings of people. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the TDCAA training team, led by Brian Klas, and our Training Committee, chaired by Tiana Sanford, ADA in Montgomery County. On a dime, the team and committee pivoted their efforts from developing live conferences to focusing on a menu of online courses for Texas prosecutors and staff. We have the advantage of the Litmos training platform, which is already live on our website, www.tdcaa.com, and which all Texas prosecutors have used forthe online mandatory Brady training. And we recently completed the redevelopment of our TDCAA website, so it is modernized and ready to register people for web-based training.

            We are dedicated to offering essential training you need, and we are excited about the opportunity that this crisis has afforded to make our work even more valuable to Texas prosecutor offices. But don’t worry: We have no intention of abandoning in-person conferences. Live meetings are important for a host of reasons and will always be a big part of our training menu.

            Finally, as you read this article, we are just months into the development of these new courses and are always game for new ideas—if you’ve seen a great online course or heard an exceptional podcast, please share it with me. We are always looking to go to the next level!    

Honoring Ronnie Earle, a Champion for Justice

Texas lost a legendary prosecutor in April with the passing of Ronnie Earle, the former District Attorney in Travis County. Ronnie spent more than 30 years as the DA in the state capital and exerted state-wide influence with prosecutions by his Public Integrity Unit (after his retirement, the PIU was unfunded and jurisdictionally undercut by the legislature).

            When you talk to people who were in and around state government during Ronnie’s tenure, you get a mixture of reactions, all of them tending to be strong. Ronnie prosecuted some powerful people and from my view didn’t mind ruffling some feathers—that comes with the job. What I always saw in Ronnie was a prosecutor who felt strongly about justice for everyone, who was true to the ethos of a prosecutor to see that justice is done.

            Today we talk much in our profession about what it means to be a progressive prosecutor and how social policies interact with criminal justice policies. I believe that Ronnie was way ahead of his time on that score. He believed in community involvement in the criminal justice system and that the criminal courthouse could be a force of true change. In fact, I personally heard him repeat his mantra on more than on occasion: “We can reweave the fabric of society on the loom of criminal justice.”            

            I will venture that many prosecutors in more conservative jurisdictions didn’t share that philosophy, but their respect for Ronnie and his place in the profession was enormous, so much so that when Ronnie was roundly attacked by certain political folks back in the early 1990s, the TDCAA Board of Directors reacted by appointing him to a vacant board position.

            Finally, know that the Texas District and County Attorneys Foundation has recognized just three Texas prosecutor legends as Champions for Justice to date: Carol Vance (former DA in Harris County), Tim Curry (former CDA in Tarrant County), and Ronnie Earle. Thanks, Ronnie, for all that you did to advance justice in Texas.      

No changes to TDRPC Rule 3.06

Last September, I wrote about a proposal before the State Bar Committee on Rules and Referenda to amend Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 3.06(d) relating to post-verdict discussions with jurors. That rule states that lawyers should not ask questions or make comments to a member of the jury that are calculated merely to harass or embarrass a juror or to influence actions in future jury service. A committee member was concerned that in the criminal context, a prosecutor or a defense attorney might answer questions or discuss evidence that was not admitted under the rules of evidence and moved that speaking with jurors after a trial about evidence that was not admitted should be barred.

            TDCAA submitted a short memo to the committee penned by C. Scott Brumley, County Attorney in Potter County, and Scott Durfee, Assistant District Attorney in Harris County. In that brief we pointed out that the rule has a culpable mental state: Is a lawyer’s comment calculated to impact future juror service? And do we really think so little of our jurors that we are afraid to tell them about the rules of evidence and evidentiary issues? To encourage juror service, we should look to educate them about the law and the process, not give them a frustrating “I can’t even talk to you about what we were doing in the courtroom while you sat in the jury room for an hour” response. Why not educate the jurors about the rule of law? Enlightening them, in the long run, would honor their service and encourage future service.

            Good news: After plenty of input from many lawyers, including the civil bar, the committee elected to leave the rule as it is—a wise decision that honors jury service and the education of our fact-finders on the law. Good work by the committee.

Protecting victims’ rights

I can’t imagine how difficult it is for victims of domestic violence to feel safe and trust that they are protected during an often-confusing court process. So imagine the shock when Sally Madrid, a victim assistance coordinator (VAC) in the DA’s Office in El Paso, saw a victim of domestic violence in the courthouse without a setting of her case. This crime victim was there in response to a defense attorney subpoena that ordered her to appear at a non-court setting (without notice to the prosecutor) for the purpose of taking her cell phone. 

            Thinking quickly, Sally summoned prosecutor Sarah Moore from the courtroom, and Sarah intervened. A hearing on the ability of the defense to get a judge to order a victim to court “for subpoena purposes only” was held, followed by a mandamus action brought by the DA to prohibit such victim abuse. The Eighth Court granted the State relief in In re State, No. 08-19-00183-CR (Tex. App.—El Paso March 13, 2020). Put this case in your back pocket, and keep an eye out for this type of discovery abuse.

            Thanks to the El Paso DA’s Office for fighting for victims’ rights and safety.