November-December 2014

Reflecting on the past year

Rene Peña

District Attorney in Atascosa, Frio, Karnes, La Salle, and Wilson Counties

It has been a humbling experience to serve in the capacity of president of TDCAA for 2014. In looking back, I have come to realize that who we are as members of this extraordinary organization is in great part due to the hard work and dedication of the TDCAA staff. These men and women are truly committed to the pursuit of justice in our great state. So, I take a moment to thank Rob Kepple for his vision and leadership as our executive director. It is with great appreciation and thanks that I also recognize the following: Shannon Edmonds for his hard work in governmental affairs, Senior Staff Counsel Diane Burch Beckham for her considered advice to TDCAA, W. Clay Abbott for his commitment to training prosecutors and law enforcement in developing solid DWI cases, Training Director Jack Choate for expanding our training opportunities, Jon English for his superb research abilities, Director of Operations William Calem for overseeing the budgetary process, Manda Herzing for her outstanding job as our meetings planner, and Communications Director Sarah Wolf who has managed to keep me in check when these President’s Columns were due. To the remainder of the staff—Quinell Blake, Kaylene Braden, Tammy Hall, Jordan Kazmann, Jalayne Robinson, Patrick Kinghorn, and Dayatra Rogers—thank you for all that you do!
    The TDCAA leadership in the upcoming years promises to remain strong and insightful. Next year’s president, Staley Heatly, District Attorney for the 46th Judicial District based in Wilbarger County, is seasoned and prepared to lead TDCAA through a legislative session where there will be many challenges. Incoming President-Elect for 2015, Bernard Ammerman, District Attorney for Willacy County, served as chairman of the Border Prosecution Unit and brings to TDCAA an important perspective in relation to criminal enterprises along the border. And certainly, David Escamilla, County Attorney of Travis County, deserves special thanks for his service as outgoing Chairman of the Board and for his excellent leadership.
    Over the past year TDCAA has shined the spotlight on two areas deserving of our focused time and attention: domestic violence and border prosecution. I have used my President’s Columns to highlight key aspects of prosecution that I believe are important in our jobs. Simultaneously, I used it as a forum to provoke thought and to further ignite our collective critical thinking. In this article, I reflect on those key aspects.
    As the 81st District Attorney and President of TDCAA, I speak continuously about cartels, prison gangs, and local threat groups, along with money laundering, drug dealing, assault, aggravated assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder—crimes typically associated with organized criminal activity on the border. Over the course of this past year, and in large part due to my participation in Next to the Jury Box, the collaborative effort between TDCAA and the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV), I have come to realize that many of these same serious crimes are being committed in homes across Texas.

Domestic violence
This revelation was underscored for me in TCFV’s annual report, “Honoring Texas Victims.” (The full report can be accessed at www This report, released in October, is the only comprehensive analysis of adult, female fatalities committed by a male intimate partner. As documented in that report, 119 women lost their lives. The two youngest victims were 19; the two eldest were 85. Clearly, these statistics show that domestic violence can continue through a woman’s entire lifespan. The report graphically identifies the counties where a fatality occurred by coloring them white; counties free of fatalities are green. This kind of graphic imagery gives us a unique perspective in understanding that fatal domestic violence occurs in both rural and urban counties and reveals the areas in our state where we must redouble our efforts to end these tragic outcomes. “Honoring Texas Victims” indicates that 17 other victims were killed in these fatal domestic violence incidents (five children and 12 other adults). Another five children were seriously injured, while 55 children witnessed the murder. The totality of domestic violence crimes, from misdemeanors to felonies, attacks the very fabric of our society with the same destructiveness as organized criminal activity by cartels and prison gangs. Society must change its thinking from seeing these fatalities as inevitable and seemingly random in nature, to recognizing that these crimes are predictable, identifiable, and preventable.
    In Next to the Jury Box, I joined great colleagues including Rob Kepple, Jennifer Tharp, Mark Skurka, Jaime Esparza, Mack Martinez, Jane Waters, James Stainton, Katherine McAnally, and several others to dissect the challenges and complexities of trying domestic violence cases. We hosted two summits over the year; the first summit’s purpose was to invite expertise and perspective from rural communities. We learned much and realized more forums to continue developing strategies are necessary. The second summit focused on urban and growing communities. We learned challenges are similar yet simultaneously distinct by jurisdiction. The dialogue was rich and the determination to find solutions great. We will continue to build on this work in the coming year. I am confident that by continuing with this approach and by continuing to elevate discussion on family violence, we can turn the tide. In our Texas communities, family violence is “invisible in plain sight.” Let us use our collective strength to change it.

Border security
In the case of Texas’s safety, border security is a state and national priority. The Texas-Mexico border is 1,260 miles long and presents unique issues and safety concerns for law enforcement and citizens who live nearby. The cooperative efforts of the cartels, prison gangs, and street gangs have gained national attention, and politicians and citizens alike now realize border violence is not limited to the border. Texas realized a problem with border security and took the lead in combating border violence when the Legislature and Governor’s Office created the Border Prosecution Unit (BPU) in 2009. As criminal organizations become more complex and sophisticated, the BPU continues to respond with efficient collaboration between law enforcement, prosecutors, and our federal partners. By having a prosecutor assigned to assist law enforcement from the investigative stage to the courtroom, the BPU has been able to successfully dismantle criminal organizations rather than merely taking a single defendant off the street. Many of these investigations have involved collaboration between our federal partners, the Department of Public Safety, and our local partners due to the nationwide activity of the criminal organizations. The Border Prosecution Unit has also placed a focus on training both prosecutors and law enforcement. To assist with all the training needs this year, TDCAA graciously agreed to coordinate and facilitate training sessions for the BPU. As the criminal element becomes more sophisticated, we must continue to learn how to combat every new criminal advance and to proactively anticipate what those advances might be.
    In this regard, we must understand the criminal enterprise model. Mexico has lost a generation of young men, young women, and children to criminal enterprise whose sole purpose is to profit at any cost. We must be vigilant that Texas, and the rest of our nation, does not lose a generation to drug use or crimes that are directly attributable to the criminal enterprise. We should realize that this is not simply a Mexican problem. It is one of supply and demand. So long as there is American demand for the cartels’ illegal goods, someone will step up to provide it.
    In rural Texas, the criminal enterprise sets up its operations in small communities. The purpose is to grow demand for its product: illicit drugs, human trafficking, and sex trafficking. Their efficiency is rooted within the security threat group model. They are a highly structured enterprise with a clear chain of command and a written constitution.
    There are 12 security threat groups (STGs) of concern to the state. Of the 12, the Hispanic STGs comprise the largest. Logically, then, we can understand the connection between the cartels and the STGs because these gangs are based in the familial and cultural ties to the border. The cooperation between the Hispanic STGs has led to more transnational organized crime across Texas. For instance, in the detection of crime, we must distinguish between a criminal alien who commits crimes on both sides of the border and those aliens or immigrants who may be victims of human trafficking or sex trafficking. In particular, we must be ever mindful of the exploitation and trafficking of children.
    Today the challenges to prosecutors are monumental. As prosecutors, we have the authority to change lives positively. And we have the moral and legal duty to do so. As we seek justice, we must remember that we are not only required to zealously represent the state of Texas, but also that we protect victims while being fair to defendants. Thus, when we invoke all three standards, we find justice in our system of laws. As prosecutors and members of law enforcement, we can affect justice in a profound way. We have people’s lives in our hands. We speak for the weakest among us, for those who cannot speak for themselves. We tell their stories in a court of law. We are the standard bearers of a civilized society, leaders in our communities in an effort to suppress crime, ever mindful of our sworn duty to the people. So who we are as prosecutors and members of law enforcement are the protectors and administrators of justice. I am humbled to be a part of you and this family known as TDCAA. God bless you all.