May-June 2010

TDCAA seminar reimbursements to increase, thanks to the foundation!

Rob Kepple

TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

Much of the grant support that TDCAA receives from the Court of Criminal Appeals goes directly to reimburse you, the staff of prosecutor offices, for some of the costs to attend the training that you need. With over 5,000 members to serve, we can’t pay the full expense, but we do our best to stretch the funds that we have. Currently, you are reimbursed up to $85 a room night for the Annual and Elected Conferences and up to $40 a night for all others. We figure that $40 could cover most of the hotel expense if you room with another attendee.

    Since October, when Texas effectively adopted the federally-set government rates for hotel rooms, hotels are now upping their room prices way beyond the old $85 Texas “state rate.” It is very rare these days to see a hotel room rate under $100. To top it off, our service group continues to grow by about 100 people a year, and our grant funding has not increased in 10 years.

    Enter the Texas District and County Attorneys Foundation. Three years ago TDCAA’s leadership demonstrated the vision to find additional resources to serve you. As a result of the work of the foundation and your generous contributions, we can defray these increased training costs. Effective with the 2010 Civil Law Seminar, we will reimburse attendees up to $60 a night for hotel room expenses. We are still capped at $85 a night for the Annual and the Elected Conferences, but the $60 maximum should be enough to cover your full hotel expense for most conferences if you share the room with someone.

    Once again, thanks to all who have supported the foundation. It is another way we can be sure that TDCAA brings you the best training and support possible.

Fighting for the State’s right to a jury trial

As you know, the State of Texas has a right to a jury trial in both felony and misdemeanor cases, and a waiver of that right is required from the prosecutor before a court may accept a plea of guilty from a defendant. [State ex rel. Turner v. McDonald, 676 S.W.2d 371 (Tex. Crim. App. 1984); State ex rel. Curry v. Carr, 847 S.W.2d 561 (Tex. Crim. App. 1993); Art. 1.13, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.] I cited these cases because this right is something prosecutors have had to fight for from time to time.

    And why is that important for the quality of justice in Texas? Just ask anyone who practiced in misdemeanor courts in the 1980s, before the State had the right to a jury. Common scenario: You’d show up Monday morning ready to try any number of DWIs, only to see a visiting judge on the bench, often pulled from the ranks of defense attorneys in your jurisdiction. Suddenly, every defense attorney set for trial would change his election to a bench trial. It was a frustrating situation changed by the Legislature in 1991, and now we are comfortable with the notion that citizens and crime victims in Texas also have the right for a jury to decide a criminal case.

    Every now and then, we must still fight for this right. Judge John Roach, Criminal District Attorney in Collin County, and his assistant prosecutor John Rolater, most recently stood up for this valuable right. A defendant charged with a number of offenses, including assault on a police officer, was set for a jury trial before a visiting judge. The defense made a run at waiving a jury, but the State refused and held fast while the judge proceeded in the plea without the State’s participation.

    The Fifth Court of Appeals made short work of the visiting judge’s unlawful plea by conditionally granting the State’s mandamus. In re John Roach, Slip Op. No. 05-09-01451-CV, 2010 Tex. App. LEXIS 1082 (Tex. App.—Dallas, Feb. 17, 2010) (orig. proceeding). The court found that a defendant clearly has the right to a jury trial but reaffirmed that there is no such thing as a constitutional right to waive a jury trial.

    We all know that most of our cases are disposed of by plea. But there are cases that deserve, and indeed call for, the participation of the public. So thanks to Judge Roach and John Rolater for protecting this valuable right of the citizens of Texas. It will come in handy in the future, I’m sure.

Welcome to our newest TDCAA Meeting Planner

At the next TDCAA seminar, please welcome our newest TDCAA Meeting Planner, Michael Lindsay Bomar. Michael, a native of Wichita Falls, is fresh from the University of Texas and is beginning her career as a meeting and events planner. She will be learning the ropes from Training Director Erik Nielsen, lead Meeting Planner Manda Helmick, and Registrar Dayatra Rogers, so the training team is at full strength and firing on all cylinders!

The TDCAA family grows

We are very excited to welcome Caroline Foster Myers, born to Ashlee Myers, former TDCAA meeting planner, on March 15. We are very happy for Ashlee and her husband Darren, who are just now getting acquainted with that sleep-deprivation thing.     

Thanks to Carlos Valdez

I want to take a moment to thank Carlos Valdez, who retired as the Nueces County District Attorney in March after 18 years of service. Carlos enjoyed a fine reputation during his tenure, and I am sure he will enjoy much success as the newly appointed city attorney for Corpus Christi. Thanks, Carlos, for your service to TDCAA and the citizens of Texas.

And some new faces

Welcome our newest district attorney, Anna Jimenez, a Nueces County Assistant DA who was appointed by the governor to fill Carlos Valdez’s shoes. Also, welcome to Rob Henneke, who has been appointed to serve as the new Kerr County Attorney. Finally, the Southern District of Texas has a new acting United States Attorney, Angel Moreno, a Laredo-based Assistant United States Attorney, who takes the place of Tim Johnson.

Hand puppets in court

Anyone who’s been to one of our Prosecutor Trial Skills Courses might have heard a story from Jack Choate, the first assistant in Walker County who is often a faculty advisor at the seminar. Years ago, he was trying a case where two co-defendants blamed each other for the crime. At closing, Jack stooped in front of the jury box, only his hands poking above the bar, and proceeded to mimic—via hand puppets—the defendants arguing with each other. (His boss, Criminal District Attorney David Weeks, was watching from the gallery and says he couldn’t believe his eyes.) But David was a believer once the jury delivered a guilty verdict in almost record time, and Jack has told the tale about the time he used hand puppets in court to bewildered and amused throngs ever since.

    Well, we couldn’t help but wonder if there might be a new puppet in town once word got out that a judge in the Valley—one running for DA, no less—was “talking” to defendants and staff via a sock puppet on his hand. I emailed Jack to find out his thoughts on sock puppets, whether they might have any benefits over hand puppets, and if socks were indeed the future of courtroom drama. His reply, staunchly pro-hand puppet, was priceless enough that I reprint most of it verbatim:

    “I’m told that sock puppets could be construed by jurors of certain faiths to be very offensive,” Jack wrote. “There is nothing like a freshly adorned sock puppet to have a jury loudly cry foul. The ‘masking effect’ from a sock puppet will almost surely cause a prosecutor to seem less sincere and therefore have less credibility.

    “The hand puppet is a much more effective advocacy tool. With a little work, the hand puppet is able to capture and express so many emotions to the jury. A slight turn of the wrist lets the jury believe they are basking in the wisdom of a toothless, old man. A quick clinched fist causes the skin between the thumb and index finger to pucker up, sending a compelling message to the jury about opposing counsel.

    “The hand puppet also lends itself to being more than just two hand puppets. When reinforcements are necessary, 10 finger puppets stand ready to count the number of ways the defendant is guilty. In a solemn moment, the finger puppets may choose to bow down so that the silent but deafening voice of the middle finger screams out for justice.

    “I would strongly encourage TDCAA as an organization to take a stand against sock puppets at its next board meeting. I would be glad to write a resolution banning the use of sock puppets by all prosecutors in Texas, with the sole exception of Mike Fouts [the DA in Haskell County] who will be [required to cover] his one hand with the dirty mouth (another whole story of a hand-puppet gone wrong).”

    Apparently Jack has a sense about these things because the sock-puppet judge lost to the incumbent DA in the primary!