By Kenda Culpepper
TDCAA President & Criminal District Attorney in Rockwall County
I have been honored to serve as the 2020 President of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Not the year I expected—not the year I would have preferred—but a body of work during a year of innovation that I am proud of nonetheless.
Who would have guessed how our lives would change in the span of a couple of weeks last March? Who would have thought a year ago that kids would be out of school for much of the year, that in-person meetings and events would be cancelled, and that there would be no sports, no movies, and limited access to restaurants? For a period of time, we couldn’t go into the court- room, into the jail, or even into our own offices. It has been a stark reminder that our world can change in an instant.
I am proud, however, that Texas prosecutors responded to this crisis by figuring out new ways to do our jobs, and I am proud we did it together.
When I rolled out my presidential theme of communication and collaboration in January, I had no idea how important it would become. At our first TDCAA Board meeting, I re-introduced the idea of elected prosecutors having regional meetings to discuss issues common to geographical jurisdictions. When COVID hit, though, we had to learn how to work with each other in a different way. Region 6 Director Greg Willis asked if he could do his regional meeting by Zoom, and the other regional directors quickly adopted the idea. These meetings were scheduled all over the state, and some regions met every week to keep up with ever-evolving issues. TDCAA Executive Director Rob Kepple and I tried to attend every forum, and we often participated in multiple events in a single day. They became the central way elected prosecutors communicated with one another, and they were important because, quite frankly, we had to find new ways to practice criminal law. It was in these meetings that we figured out how to have grand juries, effectively conduct remote hearings and work from home, deal with the fears of our colleagues and with jail populations, and interpret the myriad different orders from the Governor, the Texas Supreme Court, and our own local jurisdictions. Out of the chaos of COVID, we found new and effective ways to communicate and collaborate.
But TDCAA’s communication went beyond Zoom meetings. Shannon Edmonds’s weekly up- dates synthesized information and innovations gleaned from the regional meetings and else- where and gave them an even larger statewide audience. TDCAA also made great use of our website and The Texas Prosecutor journal to keep prosecutors and staff abreast of information. I have been incredibly proud of the work TDCAA has done as a resource throughout Texas.
But prosecutors were not just talking to each other—we were also collaborating with agencies throughout the state to solve COVID-related problems and in response to issues such as human trafficking, mass violence, and child abuse. We have met with the Department of Public Safety, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other law enforcement agencies; the Governor’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office; the Texas Association of Counties; the State Bar; the Office of Court Administration; the Court of Criminal Appeals; and many others.
A good example of unexpected collaboration found root in the State Bar Presidential Task Force on the Resumption of Jury Trials. Along with Judge Alfonso Charles, Presiding Judge of the 10th Administrative Judicial Region, and Grant Scheiner, President of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, I was appointed by State Bar President Larry McDougal to co-chair this task force. About 20 leaders in prosecution, the judiciary, and the defense bar from across the state met by Zoom every week to discuss how to most safely conduct a constitutionally sound jury trial during the COVID pandemic. As you might imagine, it was a rough start bringing together people with such divergent ideas and motivations, but over nine weeks, the task force found feasible solutions and made valuable recommendations to the Texas Supreme Court and the Office of Court Administration. Most of those recommendations have been formally mandated for both criminal and civil jury trials—and the task force’s work continues. As more and more jury trials gear back up across Texas, we will intermittently meet to discuss and make recommendations on issues and problems that arise.
While we watched our world change around us and struggled to meet new challenges, TDCAA continued to meet member expectations in other, more traditional ways as well. The Board of Directors, Foundation Board, and affiliate groups continued to meet and discuss the business of our organization. The Legislative Committee has already begun talking about the next Legislative session—what it will look like, what issues we will see, and how we will effectively communicate with legislators on issues important to Texas prosecutors. The Training Commit- tee has met multiple times by Zoom to plan cutting-edge, informative courses. Additionally, the Civil, Key Personnel & Victim Services, Investigator, Publications, Editorial, Diversity, Finance, and Nominations Committees have all come together to serve prosecutors and staff in creative and important ways. They are all super- stars in my book.
And speaking of superstars, let’s talk about the TDCAA staff. Until you are in a position to work with these individuals every day, you don’t realize what a well-oiled machine Executive Di- rector Rob Kepple is running. A perfect example is the conferences that had to be created when no one could gather in a traditional live setting. Luckily, TDCAA was ahead of the curve because we had already created a virtual platform for the online Brady training, but Training Director Brian Klas and his crew ramped up existing capabilities to an entirely different level for 2020’s Annual Conference. Those of you who watched that first-class course know that this group has created a template for the future, and, as we have come to expect, they have taken TDCAA to a higher plane than ever before with outstanding training opportunities.
So, as hard as the last nine months have been, it has caused us to push forward and break molds, to stretch our own comfort levels. We have had to learn to be open to new and better ways to make sure that justice is done.
Because COVID was not the only national event to rock our worlds as prosecutors. After the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, black prosecutors in particular were unfairly targeted merely because they were prosecutors. TDCAA and the Diversity, Recruitment, and Retention Committee responded by giving these individuals space to talk together about their shared experiences, why they had become prosecutors, and why they had entered this honorable profession to protect everyone in our communities. It also reminded us all, though, that in order to see that justice is done, we must constantly reevaluate what justice is. We must always feel safe to look deep within ourselves to determine what is right and what is wrong. And we must listen, collaborate, and communicate.
I look forward to the day these crises are over, but I also look forward to continuing some of the productive changes we have implemented. I hope that some places, such as West Texas, where parties have traditionally traveled hundreds of miles to attend a five-minute plea or announcement setting, will continue to use remote hearings. I hope that some witnesses can appear virtually instead of leaving their labs or offices. And I hope that we can continue to meet by videoconference when an in-person meeting is too cumbersome or time-consuming. While I have hated not seeing people face-to-face, I have actually met so many prosecutors during the virtual meetings whom I had never met before. Many prosecutors don’t or can’t attend live events because of budgetary, time, or distance restrictions. Perhaps we have found a new way to virtually meet some prosecutors and staff where they are and to serve them where we are most needed.
I must say, though, that I so very much look forward to the world going back to normal. While I have appreciated the opportunities to virtually meet so many prosecutors across the state, nothing can take the place of seeing each other face- to-face at a live conference. These are times when we can talk and network with one another; when we can ask questions one-on-one and informally vet new ideas; and when we can share stories and experiences. And while TDCAA will continue to explore ways to provide virtual training and em- brace that different people learn differently, I can’t wait to be able to meet again in person.
Again, I have been so honored to serve as your TDCAA President this year. Stay safe and healthy, and I will look forward—so very much forward—to seeing you again next year.