November-December 2014

Annual Conference wrap-up—and its future

Rob Kepple

TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

By all accounts we had a very successful Annual Criminal and Civil Law Update in September at South Padre. The highlight, according to the seminar evaluations, was Chris Halsor, the Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor at the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, who gave us an entertaining and sobering look into Colorado’s recent marijuana legalization (not to be confused with decriminalization). From a law enforcement and prosecution perspective, what’s happened in Colorado is, well, a mess—and it’s something we must be prepared to discuss and debate in the future.
    Plenty of tracks were well-received, including management, trial skills, and evidence. And the proof was in the number of folks who filled the seminar rooms to capacity, even as the sunshine and sea breezes whispered, “Come to the beach …”
    As to the future of our September annual conference, we are always working to find the best facilities (hotels as well as convention centers) at the best cost. We are a big group, now topping over 1,000 at these seminars, but we don’t have the deep pockets that many trade organizations do, which translates to hosting our big annual conference on the Texas coast during hurricane season (hotel rates are lower then, as you can imagine). In a 2008 survey, you told us that you still wanted the Annual Update near the water, so we have been alternating between South Padre, Corpus Christi, and Galveston ever since.
    But trouble with hotels, the convention center, and shuttle buses in South Padre, both for our staff and our members, prompted us to conduct another online survey just this past month to find out your priorities when it comes to our Annual. And some of the responses surprised us. For example, you either love going to South Padre, or you hate it—there’s no middle ground. And many of you said that a more central city would be a fine spot for a future Annual Update.
    So we are in the process of evaluating our options for those September conferences whose locations are not yet settled (2017 and beyond) and hope to have news on that front in the next issue of this journal. Stay tuned.

TDCAA leadership report
First of all, thanks to the Board Members who will be completing their service at the end of December: Chair of the Board David Escamilla (CA in Travis County), Region 2 Director Randy Reynolds (DA in Pecos County), Region 4 Director Mark Skurka (DA in Nueces County), Region 7 Director Maureen Shelton (CDA in Wichita County), Criminal District Attorney at Large Joe Shannon (CDA in Tarrant County), and County Attorney at Large Daphne Session (CA in Houston County). These folks did a great job keeping us on track this year to add more training and services.
    The TDCAA membership elected its leadership for 2015 at our Annual in South Padre. Please welcome to the Board new members who will begin their service in 2015: Secretary/Treasurer Randall Sims (DA in Potter County), Region 1 Director Wally Hatch (DA in Hale County), Region 2 Director Bill Helwig (CDA in Yoakum County), Region 4 Director Jose Aliseda, Jr. (DA in Bee County), Region 7 Director Mike Fouts (DA in Haskell County), Criminal District Attorney at Large Jack Roady (CDA in Galveston County), and County Attorney at Large Vince Ryan (CA in Harris County). Thanks for your willingness to serve!

Mandatory Brady training
If you haven’t taken your mandatory Brady training, you have until December 31 to get it done, and we’ve made it easy. You can go to the TDCAA website at and take a one-hour course to make the deadline. Because of a generous gift from the Criminal Justice Section of the State Bar, the training is free.
    By all accounts the video has received rave reviews: “The webinar format is very beneficial for those of us with heavy caseloads” and “Overall I can’t remember a better production from TDCAA, and that means a lot since typically your worst production is no less than 8.75 on a 10 scale. I think this was appropriately polished.” So take a look and see what you think.
    And remember, even if you have already taken the mandatory Brady training elsewhere, participating in this online training also earns an hour of MCLE ethics credit—again, for free.  

Prosecutor of the Year
The Criminal Justice Section of the State Bar, upon the recommendation of the TDCAA Board of Directors, gives the State Bar Prosecutor of the Year award each year at the TDCAA Annual Criminal & Civil Law Update. The 2014 Prosecutor of the Year is Steven E. Reis, District Attorney in Matagorda County, where he has served since 1993.
    He has an impressive résumé of teaching, writing, and community involvement. He caught some attention when he agreed to spend time with a reporter to discuss the decision to seek death in a capital case—from the perspective of a small-town DA. Talking to the media about the death penalty always seems like a dicey deal, but Steve consented once the reporter agreed to really spend time in Bay City, even going with Steve to the local coffee shop and Rotary Club.
    The article that resulted was impressive. It is entitled “To Kill? Or Not to Kill?,” and you can read it at It offers a balanced and insightful view of two Matagorda County capital cases, one where Steve pursued the death penalty and one where he let the defendant, Francisco Castellano, plead to other charges in exchange for life in prison. Perhaps more interesting than the death penalty discussion is what the article reveals about the qualities of a successful district attorney:
“There were plenty of people who think I made the wrong decision,” he says [in the article]. Those people felt that Reis shouldn’t have robbed a jury of the ability to decide Castellano’s punishment. And Reis indulged that line of reasoning. “What makes me think that I’m God and can take that decision away from somebody?” he said, summarizing what might go through a juror’s mind. “One elected guy, who never won a jury trial ever, who has a history of working as a deckhand on a tugboat, a janitor, a reporter, a loan shark, who is a failure at real estate, who finally becomes a lawyer and doesn’t like it, becomes a prosecutor and doesn’t win a case, and he’s going to decide whether I get to kill this guy? Who the hell is he?”
    He’s just the right guy for the job of DA, I would say.

Lone Star Prosecutor
Also at the Annual, Jim Nichols, Bell County Attorney (pictured above at right) presented the Lone Star Prosecutor Award to his first assistant, Mark Danford (pictured above at left). This award is given to those prosecutors “in the trenches” whose work and commitment to excellence might be overlooked by those outside the profession. Mark won the award for his dedication to prosecution—a job he’s been doing for 18 years—while fighting Stage Four neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer—the same disease that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had—for the past two. “I am very honored and humbled to receive the Lone Star Prosecutor Award,” he says. “I’m sure there are hundreds of prosecutors in this great state that are more deserving than myself. And I’ve had a lot of help—from my wife and family, to my co-workers, to my doctors and nurses, and my boss, Jim. But most importantly, the good Lord. I can count at least a half-dozen miracles with this cancer that have no explanation other than by the hand of God.
    “It’s been a long road and an interesting journey; it’s been bad—but there have been a lot of good things too. I’m very blessed to still be here and be able to work; it could very well look different right now.”
    It’s worth noting that November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, so it’s timely to mention Mark’s fight against the disease. His spirit is seeing him through to a good outcome, and we are all better for it. Thanks, Mark, for what you do; you honor the profession with your service.

The dean of Texas DAs
Being an elected prosecutor is an honor, but it is also a challenge. Many assistant prosecutors have risen through the ranks to become an elected prosecutor, only to discover how different the job can look once you have the final say on how the office is run, how cases are prosecuted, and how justice works on a day-to-day basis in the jurisdiction.
    It is with that introduction that I honor those who have made the commitment to make a career of being an elected district or county attorney, and why at the annual conference the TDCAA Board of Directors recognized the dean of Texas district attorneys, Rene Guerra, the Hidalgo County Criminal District Attorney. Rene will finish his career at the end of December with 33 years of service as the elected criminal district attorney, and as such is the longest serving felony prosecutor in Texas. It was proper to recognize that kind of commitment to the citizens of the state.
    After Rene’s retirement, the new dean will be Bruce Curry, the DA of the 216th Judicial District in Kerr County, who by then will have served 30 years.
    You might wonder how I know the longevity of elected DAs, CDA, and C&DAs but not county attorneys. Well, TDCAA’s database is only about 15 years old so we don’t know the start date of any of our members who were hired before 2000. But every felony prosecutor has always been paid by the comptroller’s office—and that office has good records of just how long the comptroller has been paying folks.
    Who is the dean of Texas county attorneys? If you think you qualify or know someone who might, please let me know!