A look back at what happened in 2017

Randall Coleman Sims

TDCAA President and District Attorney in Armstrong and Potter Counties

Wow! It is already the end of the year, and what a year it has been. Many things have taken place, some good and some not so good, and I thought this would be the right time to reflect on the year.
    We started 2017 with a wave of change in elected prosecutors, perhaps the biggest since I began in prosecution over 30 years ago. In my first President’s Column, I wrote about a few things I have learned, with or without pain, as a prosecutor: Always do the right thing no matter what the consequences; seek justice; be fair to all by giving them due process; find a mentor; and do not let the job go to your head.
    By the time that article came out, the legislature was in session. I have been around for a long time and have been very active in criminal justice issues at the legislature in and out of session. Never, never have I seen a session like the one we had this year. I have never seen such fighting within one of the parties as occurred this time. The good news is that legislators did not pass as many bills, but the bad news is that they failed to pass a very important one, which ensured the governor would have to call a special session.  
    After the legislature went into a special session, the Department of Public Safety announced, out of nowhere, that it would start charging a fee for lab tests. After lots of pushback from authorities at the county level, plus the work of prosecutors, the governor, and the legislature, DPS Director Steve McCraw had a change of heart and withdrew the new policy. Again, a big thank you to Steve McCraw!
    Then came good news regarding Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 39.14 and criminal discovery. In re Powell v. Hocker (WR-85,177-01) was a unanimous opinion from the Court of Criminal Appeals holding that a defendant has no right to personal copies of discovery materials. If a defendant is pro se, he is entitled to a copy of his own statement and is allowed only to “view” other discovery. The Court also held that these procedures do not violate due process or the right to effective assistance of counsel. Thanks to Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney Matt Powell for following through on this important matter to us all.
    Besides good news on the discovery statute, we also got good news regarding eyewitnesses. A report printed by The Scientific American shows that if the eyewitness testimony is properly obtained and evaluated, it can be reliable. (TDCAA Executive Director Rob Kepple wrote about this article in his column in the September–October issue of this journal.) Three important components of reliable eyewitness identification are the initial eyewitness identification, a fair line-up, and the witness’s confidence level stated in his own words.
    Another huge issue to us in Potter County—and I’m sure across the state—is mental health. How do we handle defendants, especially in jail, who are mentally ill? I wrote about our local program where defendants who need help with mental health can get that assistance. The key component was finding counselors and other assistance while saving taxpayer dollars. The best way we found to do this was by using graduate students, who need 300 hours of hands-on counseling to get licensed. These students were the missing piece to the puzzle and allowed us to get all the moving parts together without any additional funding, and we were able to launch our felony mental health diversion program for civilians as well as veterans.
    Our program has expanded to 19 participants, and several more have successfully completed the one-year program. By the end of the year, we will have around 25 participating. Please contact me if you wish to start your own; we have lots of materials that we will gladly share with you. We have already had several takers on this offer, and we will continue to assist anyone who asks.

Annual awards
TDCAA presents awards each year at our Annual Criminal & Civil Law Update, and this year we had five winners in four categories.
    The C. Chris Marshall Distinguished Faculty Award is given in recognition of outstanding service as a teacher and trainer for Texas prosecutors and staff. This year there were two very deserving honorees: Melinda Westmoreland, an ACDA in Tarrant County, and Jo Ann Linzer, First Assistant District Attorney in Grimes County.
    Ellis County & District Attorney Patrick Wilson received the Oscar Sherrell Award, which recognizes someone for a specific activity or a body of work that has benefited or improved TDCAA or its services. Wilson was recognized for his generosity in purchasing new projectors for the association when funds were scarce, as well as his work during the legislative session. He saw a need, and he provided for it.
    The Civil Commitment Division of the Special Prosecution Unit (SPU) received the Lone Star Award. It recognizes significant efforts by prosecutors “in the trenches” who have distinguished themselves. It targets those who may otherwise go unnoticed but nevertheless advance criminal justice in the community.
    And finally, 46th Judicial District Attorney Staley Heatly was the recipient of the State Bar Prosecutor of the Year award. It is given to the prosecutor who improves the quality of justice through his leadership and efforts to shape public policy, who has demonstrated a devotion to the profession, and who aspires to be a true example of a minister of justice. Heatly was recognized for his tireless work on the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission and his leadership in domestic violence prosecutions in rural jurisdictions.
    Congratulations to each of the award winners for a job well done.

Going forward
I want to encourage all of you to get involved with TDCAA. It is the biggest and best prosecutor association in the world. We have nationally known trainers among us, great speakers, board members, individuals in the leadership ladder, and staff.
    As my term as President comes to a close, I leave you in good hands. Comal County Criminal District Attorney Jennifer Tharp will be President in 2018, while Jarvis Parsons, DA in Brazos County, ascends to the position of President-Elect. Both are outstanding leaders in their communities, our state, and our association.
    I look forward to next year as Chairman of the Board. I love God, my family, my job, what we stand for, and y’all. When someone asks my wife what I do for a living, she smiles and says, “He is a district attorney. I am not sure what all he does. He’s just my little cowboy.” So in the famous words of George Strait, “This Is Where the Cowboy Rides Away.” Been an honor. Been a pleasure. Be sure to keep your white hat clean.