Post-Hurricane Harvey news

Rob Kepple

TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

As Hurricane Harvey slowly devastated many of our cities and counties, we worked to keep in touch with our members on the coast. We were relieved to know that people were safe, even if homes, belongings, and courthouses took a beating. I am gratified that the Foundation Board and so many people from Texas and around the country have pitched in to help through the Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund.  
    If TDCAA were a construction company, we’d probably be a lot more useful to many of you right now, but we will stick to our strength. Knowing how strapped for resources many of our coastal counties will be in the next year, we will be working on a plan to make sure every prosecutor, investigator, and support staffer gets the training they need this year. Stay tuned!

Annual 2017 recap
The reviews are in, and our first-ever Annual Criminal and Civil Law Update in San Antonio was a hit. We had a few audio problems and some complaints that the coffee cups were too small, but most everyone liked the convention facilities and its location on the Riverwalk. Thanks to our training team of Brian Klas, Patrick Kinghorn, and LaToya Scott, who did a great job of keeping up with the logistics.  
    I also want to thank all of you who took the time to turn in the seminar evaluation forms.  Those are vital for the Training Committee, this year led by Kevin Petroff, First Assistant CDA in Galveston County. The committee members pay close attention to the evaluations when it comes time to develop the next Annual, which in 2018 will be in Galveston at the Moody Gardens Hotel and Convention Center.

Thanks to TDCAA leadership!
As 2017 comes to a close, I want to thank the TDCAA board members who will be ending their service. We have had a great couple of years under their guidance: TDCAA has trained more people than ever before, developed new courses, and helped steer the profession through a legislative session. And although some of these folks will be rotating out of their current board positions, I sure hope that they will stay involved:  Julie Renken, DA in Burleson and Washington Counties; Woody Halstead, First Assistant CDA in Bexar County; Rebekah Whitworth, CA in Mason County; Steve Reis, DA in Matagorda County; Kenda Culpepper, CDA in Rockwall County; and Dusty Boyd, DA in Coryell County. Thanks to you all!

Thanks also to Shannon and Sarah
I want to take the time to thank Shannon Edmonds, our Governmental Relations Director, and Sarah Wolf, our Communications Director, for 15 years of dedicated service to TDCAA and the profession! They say time flies when you are having fun, which must be true because these last 15 years have flown by. Both of these folks do so much more for you than you know—although Shannon’s work in the legislative arena and Sarah’s second-to-none work as the editor of The Texas Prosecutor continue to be nothing short of extraordinary. We are fortunate to have them, as well as the rest of the TDCAA family, working for you every day.  

Educating the public about prosecutors
In the May-June edition of The Texas Prosecutor, I discussed John Pfaff’s book, Locked In. It was interesting because Pfaff espouses a theory that prosecutors and their charging decisions are behind “mass incarceration,” and Pfaff suggests that focusing on prosecutors is the solution to that problem. He was light on what exactly we are supposed to be doing, but recently there has been no lack of interest around the nation about prosecutors. It is thought-provoking to be sure.
    For instance, take a look at a slick video produced by the Brooklyn Public Defenders Service by clicking here. Its purpose is to impact the Brooklyn DA’s race in November. Its tag line? “Prosecutors have the power to end mass incarceration today. Learn what you can do to hold them accountable. Brooklyn votes Tuesday, September 12! Over 1,000 elections nationwide in 2018.”
    Like Pfaff’s work, it is light on solutions to the stated problem of “prosecutor power.” One participant simply opines that it is up to prosecutors to “de-f%#k” the criminal justice system. (Not sure where to go with that.) But it is certainly true that prosecutors are an important part of any discussion about changes to the system, and Texas prosecutors are indeed part of that ongoing process. The video is dead on in one respect: It lets the viewers know that elections give the community a chance to make a statement. What the public wants is what the local DA should be doing. Can’t argue with that.
    Another entry into the recent “focus on prosecutors” movement comes from federal judge Jed Rakoff, who makes a concrete proposal: Every prosecutor should spend six months every three years doing indigent defense work. Judge Rakoff believes such an experience will raise prosecutors’ awareness of the need to “temper” their powers with greater sensitivity. It’s an interesting idea, certainly, as many Texas prosecutors have been defense attorneys in the past, and they generally report that the work has made them better prosecutors.
    With all these folks talking about what you do, it might be a good time to consider being part of this education process. You might want to check in with Collin County CDA Greg Willis, who runs a Citizen Prosecutor Academy (read about it here), or Brazos County DA Jarvis Parsons, who recently conducted his jurisdiction’s first Citizens Prosecutor Academy. If someone is going to be educating your public about your work, maybe it should be you!    

The parole box
I suppose I can see why advocates and folks aligned with the defense want prosecutors to be more sensitive about the plight of defendants. But I do chafe at the implication that prosecutors somehow are uncaring, especially after reading a letter I got this week from a crime victim I met in Houston long ago.    
    Four months ago, a Harris County ADA called me about a guy I had sent to prison for a brutal murder in the 1980s. I instantly remembered the case. What I remembered was not so much the facts of the murder, but the sister of the murder victim. I remembered—and I still actually feel—the devastation the murder caused. I was so moved by her pain at the time of sentencing that I even put together a shoebox of copies of evidence from the crime, sealed it up, and gave it to her for the day that parole notice came in the mail.  
    So when I got a call that the inmate’s parole was under consideration, I wrote a letter to the parole board. They had the shoebox to remind them about the crime, but I wanted them to know the pain that the victim’s family carries with them even today. It is the kind of pain that comes from great loss that you all see as prosecutors, and it’s one of the things that motivates you to answer “ready” for the State every day.
    Perhaps that counted for something, because this week I got a letter from the victim’s sister that parole had been denied, and it won’t be considered again for five years. She thanked me for my protest letter. With the letter, she included a photo of her sister, the murder victim, so that I would always remember her. (Not that I would ever forget!)
    For those who encourage prosecutors to be more empathetic with defendants, I say sure, but I will meet you in the middle. I’d like them to appreciate that prosecutors are not unfeeling automatons of prosecution, but that we care deeply about, and are motivated by, victims of crime.  And I even have a picture to show them.