January-February 2013

A fresh start to the new year

David Escamilla

County Attorney in Travis County

I want to thank the members and leadership of TDCAA for the honor and privilege to serve as TDCAA President. Believe me, I recognize this new obligation as a serious and important one. The mission of TDCAA is “to promote the improvement of prosecution and government representation in the State of Texas, by providing educational and technical assistance to prosecutors and their staffs, by providing educational and technical assistance to the law enforcement community, and by serving as a legislative resource in criminal law and government representation matters.” That’s more than a mouthful, and I’m pretty sure our mission statement contains more words than the oath of office I recited when I became an elected prosecutor. With its wealth of programs and services, including the quality training and publications, TDCAA is the foremost support resource for Texas prosecutors. Thanks in large part to the stewardship of past president Lee Hon, I take leadership of an organization that is at the top of its game, and it is my sincere hope and mission to maintain its excellent reputation.
    But the true value of the organization lies in it members. With current membership exceeding 5,800, TDCAA is the largest statewide association of prosecutors in the nation. I first became a member of TDCAA over 27 years ago, and soon thereafter expanded my involvement by serving as a conference speaker, then as a member and subsequent chairperson of the Civil Committee. After taking office as Travis County Attorney in 2003, I continued my TDCAA relationship as a board member, officer, and now, president.
    My longtime affiliation with TDCAA is in no way unique. Over the years I have come to know and work with many members—electeds, prosecutors, civil lawyers, investigators, and professional staff—with longer and deeper ties to the organization. TDCAA’s ability to continue to serve and benefit its membership relies more on the involvement of its diverse membership than any other factor. I’ve been involved with several other established membership organizations and, due to the long tenure of the other volunteers and/or board members, sometimes found it intimidating to presume that I could contribute to the success of that organization. This is not the case with TDCAA. For any of you considering increasing your involvement, you will find open arms. Whether contributing to its website discussions, speaking at a seminar, or even serving on one of our many governance committees, TDCAA is dependent upon the experience and expertise of our membership to sustain its high standard of service to our profession. I’m still new to the job, so I’m particularly open to new ideas about how TDCAA can better meet your needs. Go ahead and hold me to it—I’m anxious to hear from you.
    TDCAA remains an efficient and financially stable organization. This past year we were able to purchase 505 West 12th St., the same building in which we have leased office space for the past several years. For those of us that were involved in the sale of our previous building in 2007 and nervously wondered if we would ever find our next permanent home, the extended wait was worth it. With our space needs for the immediate and foreseeable future now secured, we can resume our focus on serving our members.
    Our affiliate organization, the Texas District and County Attorneys Foundation (TDCAF), continues to grow and enhance its program to support TDCAA. Thanks to the efforts of its board of directors and development director Jennifer Vitera, TDCAF has raised over $145,000 (in 2012) and $2,166,000 (since its inception) to support the mission of TDCAA. Among its accomplishments, TDCAF has underwritten the costs of an on-staff victim services director and senior appellate attorney for TDCAA. Please consider supporting the work of TDCAF by participating with your dollars in the 2013 Annual Campaign.
    But the path ahead is not without challenges. While Texas has been spared the more extreme ravages of our nation’s stressed economy, federal and state grant funding has diminished and local governments have faced the dilemma of doing more with less. And prosecutors’ offices have not escaped the financial downturn. Many offices have endured staff layoffs and hiring freezes. My office recently lost two attorneys in our family violence division due to lost grant funding and, together with the district attorney, successfully petitioned the commissioners court to continue the positions with county funding, at least for the remainder of this budget year. Other than an improved economy, our salvation might lie in working together to share and communicate our financial needs and concerns with legislators to avoid future cuts as well as identify alternative funding sources. TDCAA can help in this effort.
    And while we’re on the topic of the legislature and impending challenges, we have a very important issue before us. In some corners, we currently face accusations that Texas law provides inadequate oversight of Texas prosecutors resulting in increased instances of prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions. Among the “fixes” suggested is ending our longstanding prosecutorial immunity. While others might have expected our association to respond with vivid denials and indignation, TDCAA instead welcomed the discussion. In late 2011, the board of directors created an ad hoc subcommittee to “study emerging issues in criminal justice and make recommendations for addressing them.” The result was the publication of a report entitled “Setting the Record Straight on Prosecutorial Misconduct” that, in addition to finding that “claims of widespread prosecutorial misconduct are vastly overstated,” provided several recommendations in which prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system can prevent future wrongful convictions.
    If you haven’t already, it is very important that you read this report. (You can find the download link on TDCAA’s main web page at www.tdcaa.com.) As is the case with most public policy debates, it is imperative that the discussion is driven by facts instead of emotion. And as leaders in the criminal justice system, prosecutors must remain prepared to respond to questions about deficiencies in our system of justice, both real and imagined. This public debate will be continued in the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature, and we all have an obligation to ensure that any legislative response is deliberative and constructive. TDCAA has, and will continue to be, an integral participant in the discussion and will depend upon the expertise and support of its members to achieve justice for crime victims and society at large. It just seems that each successive legislative session is increasingly important to us. But don’t be fooled to think that Executive Director Rob Kepple or Government Relations guru Shannon Edmonds alone can carry this load for us. They can help strategize and fashion our message but, let’s face it, our legislators expect to hear that message from us. You can help by staying informed on the legislative issues that impact your work and collaborating with TDCAA to communicate your concerns and solutions to the legislature.
    I hope that you agree with me on the importance of our profession. I didn’t start my legal career with an ambition to become an elected prosecutor. In fact, my grand plan was to gain three years’ experience as an assistant county attorney before moving on to bigger and better lawyer work. Fortunately for me, I discovered that there was hardly anything bigger and better than working in a prosecutor’s office. And almost 28 years later, I still believe that to be true. Over the course of this year I expect to write about incidents and events that tend to challenge or confirm that belief. (I never said it was easy!) And I sincerely invite you to call me or search me out at the next TDCAA event. I would love to hear your story.