A Q&A with a few TDCAA members

Inigo Montoya Jon English
Research Attorney / Ping Pong “D” Player, TDCAA

Where are you from?
Born in Austin and raised in Marble Falls, where I lived until I graduated high school. At that point I moved BACK to Austin, recalling the excellent birth experience I had there, and lived there until my wife and I moved to the Austin suburb of Kyle 10 years ago.

How long have you worked in a prosecutor’s office?
OK, well, I didn’t want anyone to find out about this … but I’ve never really been a prosecutor before. I had a fantastic and infinitely valuable internship in Bexar County for two years during law school, and they were kind enough to occasionally let me go to court and to supervise me while I played lawyer in front of a real judge and jury. But apart from that, this is my first gig as a licensed attorney. It is my sincere hope that I will be a real prosecutor someday.  

What do you enjoy about your job?
Two things: I have this sickness whereby finding answers to obscure and/or esoteric legal questions gives me a sense of euphoria. Sadly, that is not a punch line. It’s the truth. Because I enjoy it so much, I do it a lot, and because I do it a lot, I’ve gotten to be pretty good at it. It’s rare to get paid to do something you enjoy and to have the opportunity to use that ability to help people.
As a young prosecutor-in-training, with every research question I obtain first-hand, weekly insights into cases that range from fine-only offenses to capital murder, and I get to learn about them from some of the most interesting people across the state. I honestly feel like I should be paying someone to teach me these kinds of lessons; it doesn’t seem fair that I get paid to learn them.

If you weren’t in a prosecutor’s office, what would your dream job be (and why)?
I don’t know if “independently wealthy” is technically a job, but I’m honestly not concerned about whether I’ve answered this question correctly.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given? (This can be about work or life or anything, ­really.)
My dad, a pastor, inscribed the word “hupomeno” on my class ring when I got my undergraduate degree from the University of Texas, eight years after I first enrolled. Loosely translated from the scriptural Greek, it means to persevere like you would in a battle when you are outnumbered and ostensibly doomed but when you also know reinforcements are coming to your defense if you can just hold on until they arrive. In those situations, you can go Butch and Sundance and go out in a blaze of glory; you can take a cyanide pill; or you can dig in and keep fighting until the tide turns in your favor and you get to be part of the victory instead of a victim.

What was your best day on the job?
Because I don’t have any good prosecutor war stories—and because research attorneys don’t have war stories—I’ll use my previous job when I was chief of staff for State Representative Debbie Riddle. In 2007 she passed HB 8, “Jessica’s Law,” which created the charge of continuous sexual abuse. The day she passed that bill was significant for me for several reasons. First, it was a hard-fought victory for law enforcement, and the experience of working on the bill with the state’s best prosecutors really instilled a love of criminal law in me that lead to my decision to become a prosecutor. Second, the day we passed that bill, my wife called me to say she was pregnant with our first child, Jackson. Third, just a few years later, a worker at Jackson’s daycare was arrested and pled guilty to continuous sexual abuse before he could get around to victimizing my son. The idea that my own child would end up being protected by the law we passed the day I found out I was going to be a father, and by that same the law that lead me to my own interest in law enforcement, makes that day a pretty hard one to beat.

What was your worst day on the job?
The dark side to that first glimpse into the criminal justice world I experienced during the Jessica’s Law process was coming face-to-face with just how evil people can be. As part of my research for the bill, I read the reports relating to 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford’s death. She was sexually abused for three days, stored in a closet between the abuse, then eventually buried alive in her abductor’s backyard about 300 feet from her own home. Prosecutors hear that kind of information every day, but I had never been exposed to anything like that before. The night I read that report, and then every night for the rest of that session, I had terrible nightmares and insomnia.  

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?
It’s not just OK to fail, it’s necessary. Failure is the most efficient way to internalize best practices, and it’s the only way to practice perseverance.  

What do you like to do outside of work?
Spend time with my wife, three kids, and Basset hound. It doesn’t matter if that’s my honest answer or not, because with that many participants in my household I exercise very little personal discretion over my recreational choices. But that’s probably my honest answer anyway.

Stacy Miles-Thorpe
Victim/Witness Counselor, Travis County District Attorney’s Office

Where are you from?
I grew up in Houston and have been in Austin 20 years.

How long have you worked in a prosecutor’s office?  
I’ve been with the Travis County DA’s Office for five wonderful years! And I have been a practicing social worker for 14 years.

What do you enjoy about your job?  
I love that every single time I hang up the phone or walk a victim out of court, I’ve been able to help someone who really needed it. I love that, day in and day out, I have the opportunity to put my faith into practice by offering people compassion and complete presence as they deal with the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.

If you weren’t in a prosecutor’s office, what would your dream job be (and why)?
Ooh, so many things! I would have really enjoyed being in the Peace Corps or being a librarian. Being among books is blissful.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
To look at the world through soft eyes. That completely changed my attitude, mood, and entire approach to life. You can look at the world through many filters—judgment, fear, joy, or compassion. It’s a choice and it changes everything when you choose a more positive, forgiving perspective.

What was your best day on the job?
We had a trial for a defendant who had committed numerous and brutal kidnappings and aggravated sexual assaults. The women he victimized were so vulnerable already—one had severe intellectual disabilities and was walking home from a low-wage job; others were struggling with substance abuse issues. We were able to engage all four victims to come testify.  The prosecutors, investigator, and I had such great chemistry together and worked our tails off to put together a great trial. The jury found the defendant guilty and gave him life in prison. One of the victims wrote a powerful allocution that I read on her behalf, with her in the courtroom. It made me want to weep for them that they were able to finally stand up for themselves to testify against him, that 12 people validated their bravery and communicated loudly and clearly that no matter their station in life, they were valuable and worth protecting. BEST day on the job!

What was your worst day on the job?
I worked with a family on a capital murder case that we took to trial, where a young man had been shot and killed while trying to calm down an escalating fight between two groups of people.  We had some challenges with the case that we had discussed with the family, but nothing can adequately prepare them for hearing a “not guilty” on a case like that. After the judge read the not-guilty verdict, the victim’s mother walked up to the defendant’s parents and siblings, shook their hands and told each one of them, “God bless you.” We then went into a conference room where she put her face in the corner and screamed for an hour and a half. There is nothing, absolutely nothing you can do to “help” at a time like that—no words, no actions—you can only be present. But the power of that just can’t be understated. You can be present, not ask them to stop or “get control,” but rather just bear witness to their suffering and extend your compassion.  So I’d call that my most painful day on the job; my heart was just completely wrung out.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?  
I wish I had known that I didn’t have to have all the answers and can’t possibly fix everything. I wrestled with that for a long time until I realized that the power of this healing profession is not in being omnipotent or omniscient, but in connection. What a relief to be able to let that go!

What do you like to do outside of work?  
I have an exuberant 12-year-old daughter who goes on adventures with me. We go to concerts and musicals together and volunteer at the animal shelter. I read like mad and am a practicing Zen Buddhist.

Vivian Logan
Administrative Assistant, Appellate Division, Harris County DA’s Office
 
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in New York City; in 1980 I relocated to Fairfax, Virginia, and in 1995 relocated to Houston.
 
How long have you worked in a prosecutor’s office?
I’ve worked over 11 years with the current prosecutor’s office. Prior to that I was an export buyer with a petroleum company.
 
What do you enjoy about your job?
I’ve actually gotten a better understanding of how the legal system works. In particular, I am fascinated how the introduction of DNA testing and other innovative electronic programs and devices have produced remarkable gains in the legal field.
 
If you weren’t in a prosecutor’s office, what would your dream job be (and why)?
I’d love to be the director of entertainment on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. I enjoy visiting different places, especially the Caribbean.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
“When people show you who they are, believe it.” —Maya Angelou

What was your best day on the job?
The day I was recognized for 10 years of service with the appellate division. For the district attorney to take time out of her day for this recognition really meant a lot to me.
 
What was your worst day on the job?
The day our former district attorney, Mike Anderson, passed away.
 
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?
I wish I knew how quickly time would pass by. Had I known this when I started out, I probably would not have hesitated and eventually end my desire to take on a new career—even as a prosecutor!

Kelly Blackburn
Assistant District ­Attorney in ­Montgomery County

Where are you from?
Brownwood, Texas

How long have you worked in a prosecutor’s office?
Fourteen years

What do you enjoy about your job?
Navigating victims of crime through the criminal justice system. Victims don’t get to hire their own lawyer in criminal court, so we are the only voice a victim has and the only thing standing between them and the person who victimized them. Everyone involved in the criminal justice system—police officers, victim advocates, first responders, medical personnel, child advocates, etc.—can do their jobs incredibly well, but if we don’t do our job, then none of it matters. It’s is a huge responsibility and one I love doing.

If you weren’t in a prosecutor’s office, what would your dream job be (and why)?
Besides being a professional golfer, I would like to own a hardware store/bait shop. It would be a place where people could come in and hang out; talk about tools and home improvement, hunting, and fishing; and a drink glass of free keg beer while they shop.   

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
As long as you keep your head down, work hard, and take care of your business, everything usually works out in the end. To do this job for any period of time without going crazy, you can’t sweat the small stuff or get distracted by all the drama that comes with it. As a prosecutor, you can never let people see you sweat. When things start going sideways, you are the one that has to be the calm in the eye of the storm and you have to keep moving forward. You must realize that all you can do is prepare to the best of your ability, go into the courtroom, put on the best case you can, and lay it all at the feet of the jury. If you do that, regardless of the outcome, you have done your job and sought justice, which is all we can do.

What was your best day on the job?
October 26, 2006. That was when a jury in Harris County convicted Virgilo Aguilar of sexually assaulting a little special-needs girl who would come over and play with his daughter. The case took only two days to try, including jury selection. There was no publicity, the courtroom was empty but for the victim’s mom and dad, and probably 98 percent of the prosecutors in my office never knew I tried the case. The victim was 18 years old but had the mentality of an 8- or 9-year-old and spoke only Spanish.  She was incredibly brave and did a great job on the witness stand.  The jury convicted Aguilar in less than 20 minutes. That was a very good day.
    I had been a prosecutor for about six years when I tried this case and it confirmed for me why I became a prosecutor. I have handled more serious, more high-profile, more complex cases, but this is the case that I have always carried with me. I still keep a picture of the victim in my office. She continually reminds me of why I do this job, and she keeps me moving forward when things get tough.           

What was your worst day on the job?
In 2004 I was unsuccessful in prosecuting a defendant named Ivan Castaneda for breaking the leg of his 6-month-old daughter. On February 3, 2005, I received a call from CPS telling me that Castaneda had severely beaten another one of his children. This little girl was also six months old at the time. Her tongue had almost been cut off, multiple organs in her body had been severed, and her ribs and legs had been broken. The day I got that call was a very bad day. It made me question my ability as a prosecutor, my ability to make decisions, and my future in this profession. We eventually tried Castaneda and he received a life sentence. His wife was also convicted of injury to a child by omission. CPS was able to terminate the rights of both parents and the little girls were adopted by their foster parents. They are now both thriving in their new environment and are surrounded by people who love them very much.
 
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?
The defense attorney that you are rude to today might end up being the judge you are in front of tomorrow. Treat everyone with respect until they give you a reason not to. We are all professionals and we all have a job to do. As prosecutors, we have a tremendous amount of power, and just because you can do something doesn’t mean you always should.  

What do you like to do outside of work?
Spend time and travel with my wife and kids, play a little golf, BBQ, sit on my back porch, and have a cold drink.