May-June 2013

A difficult column to write

David Escamilla

County Attorney in Travis County

In my last column I wrote about my belief that there was hardly anything better or more personally satisfying than working in a prosecutor’s office and that, in future columns, I planned to write about incidents and events that tend to challenge or confirm that belief. Truthfully, I had intended to use the next few columns to continue recounting the highlights of being a prosecutor. Tragically, the last few months have instead focused our collective attention upon the dangerous risks that accompany our profession.
    This column was very difficult for me to write. Over the course of the past week I’ve found so many excuses to avoid having to face the task. Writing this piece requires me to think about a topic that, up until now, I’ve felt was better ignored. And that’s exactly why it needs to be faced.
    In March, Kaufman County Criminal District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were murdered in their home. This heartbreak followed, by less than two months, the ambush and murder of Kaufman County ADA Mark Hasse while walking from his car to the courthouse. All three were specifically targeted and killed, that much we know. And while it is still too early in the respective investigations for us to know the details or motive for these egregious acts, it is likely a safe assumption that they were killed because of Mike’s and Mark’s chosen profession. That is to say, they likely died because they had sworn to uphold the laws of Texas and the United States and had undertaken the duty to see that justice was done.
      Mark and Mike were very much like the overwhelming majority of prosecutors in Texas; they were sincere and hard-working professionals seeking to make a difference in their community. Mark was a career prosecutor and, after rising through the ranks in the Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, rallied from injuries sustained in a traumatic flying accident to return as an assistant district attorney in Kaufman County. Mike came to prosecution more recently after earlier careers in the military and as a clinical psychologist. The common element of his several career choices was a desire to help and protect others.
    According to statistics maintained by the National District Attorneys Association, such incidents are rare, as they represent the 12th and 13th prosecutors to be murdered in connection with their jobs. And data behind those statistics confirm that a majority of those prosecutors were killed by someone that they had either put in jail or were seeking to do so. But ours is nowhere near the most dangerous of professions. Those serving in our armed forces and deployed in combat zones put their lives on the line each and every day. And when compared to our law enforcement brethren, who annually suffer several casualties in the line of duty, prosecutors are relatively safe from actual violence committed in retaliation for performing their duty. All the same, as is evident from recent events, we are not immune to such violence.
    I once heard the story of a longtime elected prosecutor who had decided not to seek re-election. When asked his reason for finally calling it quits, he responded that being an elected prosecutor was just a long and slow method of earning the animosity of everyone in his local community. While certainly an exaggeration, there is still an underlying truth to the assertion. And it’s the nature of our profession—it comes with the job—that we often evoke an angry or emotional response from those we prosecute. Anyone involved in depriving another of his or her liberty can anticipate a negative reaction in return. We all know that most defendants suffer from a lack of good judgment and many continue exhibiting that mental deficiency by focusing their anger on the wrong things and, worse yet, the wrong people.
    In almost 28 years working in a prosecutor’s office I’ve never received a threat of violence specifically aimed at me. Nevertheless, we remain vulnerable to the risks of violence directed against us. I am aware of several threats, direct and indirect, targeted at co-workers during that same time span. I’ve also participated in too many discussions with lawyers and other employees on the receiving end of these disturbing and intimidating threats, assuring and consoling them while at the same time advising they take appropriate steps to enhance their personal security. It’s yet another sign of our changing society, albeit one that we too often ignore.
    For many of us, closing our eyes to the prospect of danger has represented the most effective method to cope with this unpleasant aspect of our job. The murders of Mark Hasse and Mike McLelland were a sobering wake-up alarm for us all. At least for me, the time has come to recognize the full reality of our profession, the good as well as the bad. But this doesn’t mean that fear must infect a significant part of our lives. As TDCAA Chairman (and Criminal District Attorney in Polk County)  Lee Hon said in a recent New York Times article, “There’s a fine line between being careful and being paranoid. One will drive you crazy.” And regardless of any motivations for these killings eventually revealed by the investigations, it’s time for prosecutors as a group to discuss job safety in a reasonable and responsible manner.
    Fortunately, we have a treasure trove of resources available to assist in increasing our personal safety and security. Many agencies, state and local, have reached out to prosecutors with opportunities and suggestions for greater protection. Within hours of the news of Mike McClelland’s murder, sheriff’s offices and police departments around the state were contacting prosecutor’s offices with words of support and offers of personal protection. The Texas Department of Public Safety has similarly communicated with TDCAA regarding initiatives to assist in our general protection.
    It’s not prudent to discuss specific suggested security ideas in this column, but TDCAA quickly moved to gather and disseminate safety information and recommended practices that would enhance security for prosecutor offices and employees. This material was sent to all elected prosecutors along with the suggestion that it be shared with office employees. We should all take the time to become familiar with this safety information and make choices to implement those practices and recommendations that we deem appropriate in our personal lives.
    While there are certainly many personal changes that we could each apply that would serve to bring us a greater sense of security, there is unfortunately no panacea to guarantee our permanent safety. I’ve read that Mike McLelland implemented several safety precautions following the murder of Mark Hasse. Tragically, these precautions were not enough to counteract the evil directed against him. And still, we all must take proper precautions. I have not waivered in my belief that few occupations are more personally satisfying than working in a prosecutor’s office. I hope most of us can still agree on that.
    Governor Rick Perry has vowed to bring the killers to justice. And after he makes good on that promise, prosecutors will be there to assure that justice is done. Because it’s our duty. Mark Hasse and Mike McLelland would expect no less from us.