The Prosecutor, November-December 2012, Volume 42, No. 6

A call to action

As I approach the end of my term as president of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the TDCAA staff, my friends on the board of directors and executive committee, and my staff at the Polk County Criminal District Attorney’s Office for all the help they’ve given me throughout this year. Until you’ve had an opportunity to serve in a leadership position in our association, it is impossible to understand and appreciate just how much time and work goes into the administration of a statewide organization that serves and assists such a broad, diverse, and talented membership. For those of you who had the opportunity to attend the annual at South Padre Island in September, you will know exactly what I’m talking about when I say how fortunate we are to belong to such a well-run organization. In saying that, I’m not patting myself on the back but rather extending all the accolades to the TDCAA staff, board, and speakers who really hit the ball out of the park this year.
    At the beginning of 2013, I’ll pass the baton off to my good friend David Escamilla (County Attorney in Travis County) who I know will do a great job as president and uphold the best traditions of our association. Good luck, David!
    We live in a challenging and interesting time as Texas prosecutors. I’ve noted previously in this column how I feel like our profession is frequently under attack. It’s no big secret that in many instances lately, prosecutors have been portrayed negatively in the media. With that said, to the extent that we are under attack, this is a debate that we cannot and must not shy away from. Although we cannot get around the fact that there have been some very disturbing and public mistakes in our criminal justice system, we have to be willing to publically defend those aspects of the criminal justice system that work, and we also have to be open-minded to legitimate and well-intentioned proposals for improvement and reform.
    When you get the feeling that the mainstream media is against you or is, at a minimum, lacking in objectivity, it is very easy to become confrontational and defensive. At the same time, there are individuals out there like Michael Morton who have a very compelling story to tell and are absolutely entitled to be heard in regard to how law enforcement and prosecutors might better do their jobs. While we might not agree on every proposal, we should always be striving for improvements to the system that might truly lessen the odds of wrongful convictions. When it comes to improving the system, we should be the progressives, not the reactionaries.
    It was in this progressive spirit that TDCAA released the report “Setting the Record Straight on Prosecutorial Misconduct” in September. While a significant portion of that report was dedicated to refuting the Innocence Project’s misleading claims regarding the frequency of true prosecutor misconduct, the report’s most important recommendations (in my opinion) concern what we can do as prosecutors to improve the way we do our jobs and increase the likelihood “that justice is done” in each and every case.
    The 83rd Texas Legislature will convene in Austin in January. Without a doubt, there will be any number of well-intentioned bills filed to increase “prosecutor accountability” or change the way we conduct our business. We cannot sit on the sidelines for this discussion. The TDCAA report by the Training Subcommittee on Emerging Issues can serve as a very important starting and reference point in these discussions for what prosecutors are doing to improve our own profession. We don’t have to wait on the legislative session to recognize there are things that we can be doing ourselves—and with the cooperation of law enforcement—to make progress.
    I can remember when I first became a prosecutor in 1996 how intimidated I was by the advent and proliferation of DNA testing and its use as forensic evidence. I did not come from a very strong science background and I suppose it was my own perceived inadequacy that made me fear that I could not effectively communicate to a jury the importance of this new and powerful evidence. Fortunately, prosecutors in our association did understand the value of DNA and were able to train the rest of us on how