November-December 2011

And the winners are …

Rob Kepple

TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

The membership of TDCAA, through its Board of Directors and Nominations Committee, had the chance to honor its own at the opening ceremonies of the Annual Criminal and Civil Law Update in Corpus.

    Congratulations to Mary Green, an Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Bexar County, who was honored as the 2011 State Bar Criminal Justice Section Prosecutor of the Year. For over a decade Mary has led the state’s prosecution efforts against a serious gang threat in her community. She has sent a general in the Mexican Mafia to Death Row, successfully prosecuted multiple murder cases against Texas Syndicate members for the notorious French Street massacre, and worked with federal prosecutors as a cross-designated assistant United States attorney to break up organized crime. Through all of this, she’s endured intimidation and continued threats to her own safety to make her community safe.

    In a surprise award, A.P. Merrillat, an investigator with the Special Prosecution Unit in Huntsville, was honored with the C. Chris Marshall Award for Distinguished Faculty. A.P. has been a tremendous asset to other prosecutors in TDCAA training efforts, perhaps overshadowed only by his TDCAA user forum postings related to the banjo.

    Members of TDCAA honored the former CDA in Wichita County, Barry Macha, with the Oscar Sherrell Award for service to the association. Barry served as a board member and president of TDCAA, but he also took the position as the “front man” for prosecutors in many venues, from the Governor’s Criminal Justice Task Force in the decade-long legislative struggle over the journalist shield law. Barry always had the best interests of prosecutors and TDCAA in mind and still does in his new role as general counsel for Midwestern State University.

        This year the Nominations Committee elected to honor two prosecutors with the Lone Star Prosecutor Award. This award is reserved for those prosecutors who distinguish themselves in their dedication to their profession. The first is Robert Lowell Thompson, the CDA in Navarro County. The Nominations Committee wanted to recognize Lowell for his decision to appear on behalf of the State of Texas in a court of inquiry proceeding called by a district judge in Austin in relation to the much-publicized Willingham arson case. You might think that sounds like no big deal, but although Lowell was served in the court of inquiry case, the truth is that no one involved with the proceeding in Austin much wanted anyone from the State to appear. As unpopular as it may have been to the gathering crowd in Austin, Lowell made the decision that an attorney for the State should appear and, without necessarily getting involved in the merits of the proceeding, ask that the laws regarding courts of inquiry be followed. Sometime just announcing “State’s ready” can be a courageous act, and the Nominations Committee wished to recognize Lowell for his dedication to the job in the face of certain criticism.

    As an aside, I want to acknowledge the Nomination Committee’s work here. It would have been easy to take a pass on this award just because of the controversy surrounding the Willingham case, but the committee chose to recognize a prosecutor—not because of any particular position or stake in the matter’s ultimate resolution, but simply because that prosecutor was willing to stand up and answer ready for the State when it looked like no one else could and when there were plenty of folks hoping he’d just stay home.

    That is something I continue to admire about the prosecutors of Texas. It is safe to say that Texas prosecutors don’t always agree on how cases should be handled, but we do agree that a prosecutor should have the freedom and fortitude to follow the law, even if that leads into unpopular territory. Indeed, the action of the Nominations Committee is not without precedent: In 1991 a Travis County DA by the name of Ronnie Earle had the temerity to seek an indictment of the sitting Speaker of the House. During a legislative session, no less. The reaction of the TDCAA Board of Directors to the swirl of controversy over the prosecution? They appointed Ronnie Earle to a vacant spot on the board.

Last but not least

The second Lone Star Award winner is George Nachtigall, a former (now retired) Assistant County Attorney in Harris County. Since 2001 the state has provided longevity pay for assistant prosecutors, a very successful program that has helped folks stay in the profession and serve the public. What you probably don’t know is that a lawsuit challenging the funding mechanism of the longevity pay system has been bubbling in a Harris County district court for about the last 10 years. And in that time, George has quietly been representing your interests in that important lawsuit. What I really like about George’s dedication to the defense was that, when the lawsuit was first filed, assistants county attorneys—like George—didn’t even receive longevity pay benefits. The change to the law that included all assistant prosecutors was not made until after George had put his shoulder to the wheel. Nonetheless, George recognized the need for the program for the good of the profession and did an excellent job representing your interests (the job is being ably continued today by Vince Ryan, County Attorney in Harris County). A personal thanks from me, George, for your dedication to preserving a program prosecutors worked so hard to create. And for not busting my chops when I called to ask for your help on this 10 years ago—after I explained how assistant county attorneys weren’t yet in the program!

More hardware for a Texas prosecutor

On October 28 Craig Watkins, Criminal District Attorney in Dallas County, was recognized on the national level by the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section. He was presented with the Norm Maleng Minister of Justice Award, which is bestowed each year to a prosecutor in memory of the legendary Seattle DA who served for four decades. The ABA Criminal Justice Section honored Craig for his commitment to the pursuit of justice, working in tough economic times to prioritize the prosecution of the most serious wrongdoers, and addressing the underlying causes of criminal conduct. Congratulations, Craig.

TDCAA leadership for 2012

At the TDCAA Annual Business Meeting last month, the membership elected officers and directors for 2012. According to the by-laws, Mike Fouts (DA in Haskell County) will become the Chairman of the Board and Lee Hon (CDA in Polk County) will become President. The membership filled the other leadership positions as follows: David Escamilla (CA in Travis County) as President-Elect; Rene Pena (DA in Atascosa County) as Secretary-Treasurer; Staley Heatly (DA in Wilbarger County) as District Attorney at Large; Jack Choate (ACDA in Walker County), Assistant Prosecutor at Large; Clint Griffin (CA in Schleicher County), Region 3 Director; Brett Ligon (DA in Montgomery County), Region 5 Director; Sherri Tibbe (CDA in Hays County), Region 8 Director; and Mike Jimerson (DA in Rusk County), Region 6 Director.

Thanks for your service

It has been a busy year for those folks finishing their service in TDCAA leadership. First, I’d like make sure you know how much C. Scott Brumley (CA in Potter County) has put into his service. Scott will finish his formal service as the Chairman of the Board in December. We have steered a true course with his hand on the wheel, and TDCAA has continued to grow in services to our members during his tenure. Fortunately, we still have his phone number in the directory.

    In addition, I’d like to thank our other directors who have spent a ton of time in your service in the last couple years. Thanks to: Larry Allison (C&DA in Lampasas County); Eddie Arredondo (CA in Burnet County); Henry Garza (DA in Bell County); Doug Lowe (CDA in Anderson County); and Terri Moore (ACDA in Dallas County). Y’all have done outstanding work in keeping the association moving forward.

New U.S. Attorneys sworn in

It’s official: Texas now has its four United States Attorneys confirmed and on the job. Congratulations to Malcolm Bales in the Eastern District, Kenneth Magidson in the Southern District, Robert Pitman in the Western District, and Sarah Saldana in the Northern District. I know Texas state prosecutors are looking forward to working with you.