March-April 2015

So long, John R. Justice—we were just gettin’ to know ya

Rob Kepple

TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

Not too long ago some of you were part of what we had hoped would be a growing program for prosecutors: the John R. Justice Student Loan Forgiveness program. Created by Congress in 2008, it was modestly funded at the outset with $10 million, but we had high hopes to increase the appropriation. Texas’s Higher Education Coordinating Board created an application process, and some of you began to receive modest loan relief.
    Then came the economic downturn, which decreased the appropriations for the program until it was down to just $2 million a year—for all of the prosecutors and public defenders in the country. And now comes the coup de gras: The President’s FY 2016 budget eliminates any funding for the JRJ program. The National District Attorneys Association will be working with Congress to fund it in the amount of $8 million, which would at least keep the program alive. The NDAA proposal would call for a minimum of $100,000 for each state, to be split evenly between prosecutors and public defenders. We all recognize that Texas alone could use the $8 million to make the loan forgiveness meaningful to our younger prosecutors, but for now we will support NDAA’s effort to keep the thing alive. (Watch this journal for future articles on student loan forgiveness and loan repayment programs—important topics for prosecutors both new and seasoned.)
The legacy of Place 9 of the Court of Criminal Appeals
As a matter of personal privilege I want to take the time to wish a happy retirement to Cathy Cochran, who retired from Place 9 on the Court of Criminal Appeals on December 31. Cathy was one of my first court chiefs in County Court 13 in Houston, and I don’t think I have ever met anyone smarter or nicer than Cathy. And you all know how well she can write—so that people can understand, appreciate, and even be entertained by her opinions. After all, who but Cathy can gracefully and logically observe that a butt crack can be a pocketbook (but perhaps shouldn’t be)?1
    So it falls to Judge David Newell, former Assistant District Attorney in Harris County who now fills Place 9, to pick up where Cathy left off. Mind you I am not asking for a particular outcome in any case—I’m just hoping for a fun read. I am worried though: At his investiture Judge Newell made it a point to honor Cathy as the Oracle of Delphi, while branding himself as a Magic 8 Ball. Actually, come to think of it, that’s about my level, so this could be fun!
Cut out domestic violence
You have read a lot recently in The Texas Prosecutor about domestic violence initiatives and work that prosecutors are doing to protect victims. One of the most innovative programs that launched recently helps victims of domestic violence find the help that they need.
    Cut It Out, a program started by Jarvis Parsons, the Brazos County DA, trains hair salon professionals on how to recognize warning signs of abuse and safely refer clients, colleagues, friends, and family to local resources. Many victims of domestic violence don’t report abuse, but at some point may confide in someone they trust—and that person just might be their hairdresser. Brazos County got the idea from Williamson County Attorney Dee Hobbs, who wrote about his office’s program to educate salon professionals on the signs of domestic violence in the May–June 2012 issue of this journal (available on our website,
    Jarvis reports that the salon professionals in his community are excited and serious about the program, mostly because they have seen signs of abuse with some of their clients and have not known what to do about it. They are anxious to help in Brazos County and would probably be anxious to help in your community too.

Serial podcast
By now most of you have heard about Serial, a podcast that has been all the rage. This 12-part report by journalist Sarah Koenig explores the investigation, trial, and conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend in 1999. For prosecutors it is well worth listening to. You will recognize it as a tough case with some sketchy characters playing pivotal roles, and it’s a great example of how a case can be examined and re-examined in microscopic detail well after the fact.
    And it is a good lesson in how different facts can seem to grow or diminish in importance over time. The only downside is that you won’t hear from the investigators or prosecutors on the case because it is still in litigation. There will be a time, I hope, when we do hear from them.
    An interesting and unusual development in the case: Recently a Maryland court granted a new appeal on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel. (See the newspaper story here: You may not be surprised to learn that the defense attorney in the case has long since passed away, so she isn’t going to be able to defend herself. And that might mean there will be some additional Serial segments in the future.

Pruitt’s Memorial ­Scholarship Fund
In the May–June 2014 edition of The Texas Prosecutor I wrote about the passing of one of our beloved former prosecutors, George Dwayne Pruitt of Brownfield. Dwayne’s children, Elizabeth, Michael, and Jason, have put a lot of thought into how best honor their parents’ memory, and it centers on education. Dwayne was a great leader of this outfit, and he was dedicated to better training for prosecutors through TDCAA. Carol was a career educator, and I know for a fact how dedicated she was to education (having watched her on more than one occasion take my young boys on her lap at TDCAA meetings and read with them).
    So it is with great pleasure that I announce the Dwayne and Carol Pruitt Memorial Scholarship at the University of Texas School of Law. This is a great tribute to two educators, and I hope you will consider a contribution. The address is: The University of Texas School of Law, attn: Linda Lewis, 727 East Dean Keeton St., Austin, TX 78705.


1 McGee v. State, 105 S.W.3d 609 (Tex. Crim. App. 2003 (Cochran J. concurring).