November-December 2013

Reflecting on 2013, looking toward 2014

David Escamilla

County Attorney in Travis County

Where did the time go? This column marks my last as President of TDCAA. And while our Government Relations guru, Shannon Edmonds, likely disagrees—what with the Texas Legislature refusing to promptly conclude its business and depart Austin on schedule—from my vantage point this year has just flown by.
    As I reflect back to this time last year I recall the excitement I possessed to accomplish so much during this year. Realistically, and like most of us recognize from our day jobs, spare time is a rare luxury. Don’t get me wrong; we remained very busy and productive. There is just never enough time to get everything done. Our progress was best exemplified by our strong and successful efforts in the Texas Legislature to guard against unnecessary harm.
    Our President-Elect Rene Peña, 81st Judicial District Attorney, will take the reins in January, and I can already predict that he will oversee a very productive year for TDCAA. He has hit the ground running with his prior work as chair of the Border Prosecution Unit. The unit includes 16 prosecution offices from El Paso to Brownsville and represents 44 counties along the Texas-Mexico border. In partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety, the unit works to develop protocol for handling border cases. It is also involved in joint training exercises for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.
    And entering the batter’s box as our new President-Elect is 46th Judicial District Attorney Staley Heatley. Both seasoned TDCAA veterans, Rene and Staley are well positioned to effectively lead us over the next few years.
    It has truly been an honor and pleasure to serve as President of TDCAA in 2013. But I’m not going very far away. From here, I will move on to assume the duties of Chairman of the Board from outgoing Chair Lee Hon. Lee has been a tremendous asset to our organization, leading our effort to prepare and publish the report, “Setting the Record Straight on Prosecutorial Misconduct.”
    As described on the TDCAA website, “This report is the result of more than eight months of research and careful examination by TDCAA’s Training Subcommittee on Emerging Issues, whose findings and recommendations for preventing wrongful convictions attributed to prosecutorial misconduct while ensuring professional and independent prosecution in Texas have been adopted by TDCAA’s Board of Directors and are included in the report.” The report served as an important resource to guide our efforts in responding to legislative proposals concerning prosecutor misconduct, Brady-related issues, and prosecutorial immunity. The report, which is still available on the TDCAA website, included 10 findings and recommendations to guide the association in the implementation of training and policies for the benefit of prosecution in Texas. These recommendations were approved and adopted by the TDCAA Board of Directors on August 31, 2012.
    One finding in the report, citing the small number of cases involving actual prosecutor misconduct, identified that “the central issue is often inadequate disclosure of exculpatory or impeaching information.” The report went on to recommend that “TDCAA should expand its Brady training beyond trial court prosecutors to meet the needs of other discrete groups within its membership, such as experienced elected prosecutors; newly elected prosecutors; mid-level supervisors; 
new/inexperienced prosecutors; and non-lawyer staff and investigators.” And while the vast majority of Texas prosecutor offices maintained open file systems, the report recommended that our association “should provide more training on the pros and cons of open-file and closed-file discovery policies and the Brady issues that apply to each situation.” The report went further to recommend that TDCAA work to promulgate and provide resources, including forms and training manuals, to its membership to assist in implementation of effective Brady compliance policies. 
    Fortunately for us, training is a hallmark of our association’s service to its membership. TDCAA’s training is recognized as first-rate among our peers and is the first priority listed in our mission description: “producing comprehensive continuing legal education courses for prosecutors, their investigators, and key personnel.”
    Currently, TDCAA is working with prosecutors to implement office policies and procedures to comply with the new discovery requirements of the Michael Morton Act (Senate Bill 1611). The act becomes effective this January 1, 2014, and will apply only to offenses transpiring on or after that date (although several offices have decided to implement the new procedures on that date regardless of the actual offense date). Prosecutor offices across our state have been assisting and cooperating with each other to share best practices and other strategies to meet the new law’s requirements. I’ve been personally impressed with the dedication and commitment displayed by Texas prosecutors so far to do the right thing.
    And next year TDCAA will initiate significant efforts to follow through on the recommendations from the “Setting the Record Straight” report. TDCAA leadership, staff, and volunteers from prosecutor offices across the state are working to design and deliver to our membership the training referenced in the report and statutorily required under House Bill 1847. This training will include live presentations beginning with the Elected Prosecutor Conference in December, as well as a distance-learning component so that everyone has an opportunity to receive this training by the end of 2014 as required.
    TDCAA will also be rolling out management training designed to assist prosecutor offices, large and small, with recommended practices to best handle the varied administrative duties and issues encountered in our day-to-day work life. This training will also begin at the December Elected Prosecutor Conference and then will be provided at other selected dates in 2014.
    Again, it has been a wonderful experience to serve as TDCAA President this past year, and I leave the position knowing that our leadership and association staff is dedicated to serving Texas prosecutors and their personnel to better protect the people of Texas. TDCAA is an effective organization that works best when prosecutors, their investigators, victim assistance coordinators, and key personnel from our diverse offices come together to share concerns and solutions relating to the legal and policy issues that we encounter regularly. As some of us move on to other priorities and responsibilities, more are needed to take their place. I hope that you will engage with us to maintain the momentum we’ve started at TDCAA. We’ll be keeping an eye out for you.