Executive Director's Report
September-October 2020

2020 Annual award winners

2020 Annual award winners

By Rob Kepple
TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

With our Annual Criminal & Civil Law Conference moving online this year, we won’t have a chance to congratulate several people within TDCAA’s ranks for winning awards—not in person, anyway. But I am listing them here to give them the recognition they deserve, even if we can’t give them a round of applause and a plaque at our Annual Conference. Please join me in celebrating these folks for doing their jobs exceptionally well this year.

State Bar Criminal Justice Section Prosecutors of the Year

This award recognizes a prosecutor who has distinguished himself or herself in the profession. This year, the award went to not just one person but the whole team who prosecuted former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger for the murder of her neighbor, Botham Jean: Jason Fine, Douglas Gladden, Jason Hermus, Thomas Le Noir, LaQuita Long, Bryan Mitchell, and Mischeka Nicholson.

            You may remember from all of the media coverage that this crime read more like a law school exam question than an actual case. An off-duty police officer, thinking that there was an intruder in her apartment, shoots him twice—only to discover that she had gone into the wrong apartment. In a trial that gripped the nation, the prosecutors showed focus and poise at every turn and secured justice for the victim and his family.

Lone Star Award

This award seeks to recognize someone in the ranks of prosecution, whether a lawyer, investigator, key personnel, or victim assistance coordinator (VAC), who has shown true dedication to the profession yet may not always get the recognition they deserve. The two people who are honored this year truly rose above at a critical time to protect victims of crime: VAC Sally Madrid and ADA Sarah Moore, both from the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office. You may have read about them in my column in the May–June edition of this journal. Sally just happened to see a domestic violence victim whom she was working with in the courthouse hallway when there was no case setting. It turns out the defense attorney had subpoenaed the victim in a non-trial setting to take her phone from her and search it for evidence. Sally quickly alerted Sarah, who immediately sought court intervention.  That intervention ended up in an Eighth Court of Appeals decision banning such use of a subpoena. Sally and Sarah’s quick thinking will protect victims of crime well into the future!

Oscar Sherrell Award

This award, named after an investigator who helped TDCAA move into the computer age, recognizes service above and beyond to the association. We are thrilled that this year’s recipient is Lisa Peterson, the longtime County Attorney in Nolan County. Lisa is completing her 30-year career at the end of 2020 and has been a true mainstay at TDCAA conferences and as support for county attorneys around the state for her entire tenure. We are surely sad to see her go—and we hope to hear from the next county attorney who is going to step up as the “queen of county road law.”

C. Chris Marshall Award

The C. Chris Marshall Award is named for an assistant CDA in Tarrant County who was a tremendous contributor to TDCAA training. It honors exceptional TDCAA faculty. This year, by virtue of a tie in the voting, the award goes to two great contributors to our work to bring you timely, relevant, and accessible courses:  Brian Baker, First Assistant DA in Brazos County, and Tiana Sanford, ADA in Montgomery County.

            Brian serves on TDCAA’s Training Committee and has been a faculty member of the Advanced Trial Advocacy Course for years. He also has a reputation for always being available to assist prosecutors all over the state with any issue they face. And Tiana is the Training Committee Chair. She’s been instrumental in diversity outreach and bias curriculum development, and she has been a great mentor to numerous young prosecutors.

            Congratulations to all recipients of these much-deserved awards!

Another award winner

When our Civil Law Conference, which was scheduled for May, was cancelled, I didn’t get to congratulate the winner of the Gerald Summerford Civil Practitioner of the Year Award. It is given by the Civil Section to recognize the outstanding civil practitioner.

            Here is my chance to congratulate 2020’s winner, Leslie Dippel, the Director of the Civil Litigation Division of the Travis County Attorney’s Office. Leslie is a trial specialist with deep experience in employment law. She has been a frequent TDCAA speaker and resource and a past chair of our Civil Committee. She is also on the State Bar Board of Directors, serving District 9. Thanks for all you do, Leslie, and congratulations on this honor!

An eye toward criminal justice reform

As discussions about criminal justice reform continue nationwide in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers, some common themes are emerging. One seems to be more comprehensive discovery in criminal cases. Here in Texas with the Michael Morton Act, we can say “check” to that one.

            A second major proposal, however, is one that I believe Texas prosecutors will be behind: a statewide database of police officer disciplinary records. Many jurisdictions now have their own such databases, but we are still at a disadvantage in identifying the cops who get into trouble, agree to resign in lieu of discipline, and show up at the next department ready to repeat the bad behavior. At one time, Austin police officer disciplinary findings were online and available to the public, which was an exercise in transparency. It was good, too, that defense attorneys could easily access potentially relevant and material impeachment evidence. The idea that the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) be given the mandate and resources to create and maintain such a database for the integrity of criminal prosecutions seems intriguing. Stay tuned this upcoming legislative session; I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some proposed bills along these lines.      

‘How to make meetings less terrible’

A weird thing happened this spring: We weren’t together in offices, but we were suddenly having more meetings than ever before because, well, it was easy to get together over Zoom.  Sometimes it feels like I am in a Zoom meeting to plan when to have a Zoom meeting. 

            In an effort to find out how to hold an effective meeting, I  found an excellent podcast on the subject: Freakonomics Radio Podcast Episode 389, which is titled: “How to Make Meetings Less Terrible.” Americans hold 55 million meetings a day, and most are woefully unproductive. In true Freakonomics style, the podcast teaches about meetings by studying something unexpected—in this case, African wild dogs and their “rally events.”  The podcast will educate listeners on all the things that make most meetings, well, pretty terrible, and it will help transform meetings from a passive-aggressive time waster to a well-oiled, decision-making machine. Four hints I took away from the podcast: Have a timed agenda, decision points, and a small invite list—and feel free to end early if you are actually done with the discussion.

Implicit bias training and Texas lawyers

Many of you have received an email from the State Bar discussing the results of a long board meeting held on July 27 to discuss the social media comments of the State Bar President, Larry McDougal, regarding Black Lives Matter. Larry apologized for his comments, and the board announced a number of action items after listening to testimony from dozens of interested lawyers and citizens. Two involved implicit bias training, one requiring the board to complete such training by the end of the year, and the second to consider that the Bar mandate MCLE training on implicit bias for all lawyers.

            To both of which I say, “Welcome to the party!” I am proud that our leaders and trainers recognized years ago that CLE on cognitive and implicit bias is essential for our profession. Two of our excellent speakers, Jarvis Parsons, DA in Brazos County, and Bill Wirskye, First Assistant CDA in Collin County, put together training tailored to prosecutors, and with financial support from the Texas District and County Attorneys Foundation, that course is now a consistent part of our menu, including sessions at our Prosecutors Trial Skills Courses for people just entering the profession. 

A career change for a former TDCAA Research Attorney

Many of you recall Markus Kypreos, one of a long line of excellent research attorneys we have had here at TDCAA; he worked for us from 2004 to 2006. Markus is certainly an energetic person with lots of varied interests. He staked out quite a reputation while here as the guru of Texas gambling law, and he went on during his law practice in Fort Worth to become a frequent expert legal commentator on a variety of subjects. But as if to prove that there is life after law, Markus has now launched a venture that has captured quite a bit of attention in the Metroplex: Blackland Distillery, maker and purveyor of spirits. As with everything Markus does, excellence seems to be at the heart of it. You can read more here: www.fwweekly.com/2019/01/16/blackland-distillery-arrives.

A message from your NAPC president

Yes, that would be me! You may not have known, but there is a nationwide group of prosecutor associations—its full name is the National Association of Prosecutor Coordinators (NAPC). Almost every state has an association or governmental outfit that educates and assists its prosecutors, and I am proud to have been elected as the 2020–2021 NAPC president at our summer Zoom meeting. Our major function is to share information, particularly training ideas, and to support the nation’s Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutors (including TDCAA’s very own W. Clay Abbott). I am happy to report that TDCAA is one of the most robust associations in the nation when it comes to the amount of training and number of publications we provide our prosecutors. 

            Here is where I can be of particular help to you. Much like the master sergeant in the army, prosecutor coordinators aren’t the leaders in their states (the elected prosecutors are) but we have the contacts and information that are the cornerstone of a membership organization. Let’s say you need something from a district clerk in New York—a judgment and sentence perhaps—and the clerk really isn’t responsive to you. If you tell me about your need, I can call my counterpart in New York, who will in turn reach out to the local prosecutor, and bingo. The document you need is on its way. Really, it works like that all the time—it really is about who you know sometimes! So over the next year of my presidency, I can keep Texas prosecutors and staff informed on national trends in prosecutor training, but I can also be of immediate help if you need something from one of our sister states.