If you had to stay back at the office during our Annual Criminal and Civil Law Update in September, you might have felt a little lonely. It seemed, at least to us as we signed in wave after wave of attendees, that most TDCAA members were in the Convention Centre on South Padre Island. It was the second largest annual ever, with 1,044 attendees (eclipsed only by Galveston in 2001—which was shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11). The feedback we have gotten has been great, with our first speaker, Lieutenant Mark Wynn of the Nashville Police Department speaking on domestic violence, being a real highlight.
I was very proud of the entire TDCAA staff for putting on a great training event, but I want to single out our senior meeting planner, Manda Helmick, for the tremendous job she did. You would have never guessed that this was her first annual conference as the lead meeting planner. Under her direction, the conference ran smoothly, and the rest of us stayed on task. Thanks for a job well done!
Priority on Key Personnel training
Three years ago, locating the Key Personnel and Victim Assistance Coordinator Seminar at the historic Camino Real Hotel in El Paso was an exciting idea. We were eager to showcase a city to which we rarely go for major conferences. But in the ensuing years, the economic downturn has sapped many office budgets, and that has affected whether key staffers can travel to El Paso—a city far enough away from most jurisdictions that it requires a flight—for this seminar.
Elected prosecutors know how important that seminar is to their key personnel and victim assistants, and the TDCAA Board wanted to make sure our members could afford to travel to El Paso. At the board meeting at the Annual Update, the board reworked the TDCAA budgets to fund a transportation reimbursement of up to $150. This is the first time that we’ve been able to offer reimbursement for transportation, but it is worth it to make sure our valued key personnel get the training they need.
And regarding the issue of safety in El Paso, the city remains one of the safest in the country—notwithstanding what you may hear on the national news. I hope to see a whole bunch of you “under the dome” (the Tiffany glass dome in the hotel lobby bar, of course!) in November.
The TDCAA membership elected your new Board leadership for the 2011 calendar year at the annual business meeting in South Padre. Come January 2011, under our bylaws, President Scott Brumley (CA in Potter County) will become the chairman of the TDCAA Board. Mike Fouts (DA in Haskell County) will be your President. I am happy to report that Lee Hon (CDA in Polk County) is your President-Elect, and David Escamilla (CA in Travis County) was elected the Secretary-Treasurer. Judge Susan Reed (CDA in Bexar County) was elected to the Criminal District Attorney At-Large position, and Jo Anne Bernal (CA in El Paso County) will be the County Attorney At-Large.
We also have four new regional directors coming on board: In Region 1: Mark Yarborough (C&DA in Lamb County); in Region 2: Jesse Gonzales, Jr. (DA in Pecos County); Region 4: Bernard Ammerman (C&DA in Willacy County); Region 7: Janice Warder (DA in Cooke County).
Thanks to some great TDCAA leaders
I want to take time out to thank some folks who will be leaving the TDCAA leadership at the end of the year. We have had the benefit of some great regional leadership these past two years: Lynn Switzer (DA in Gray County), Bobby Bland (DA in Ector County), Martha Warner (DA in Bee County) and Staley Heatly (DA in Wilbarger County).
Finally, I want to extend a special thanks to Barry Macha (CDA in Wichita County), who at the end of this year will be leaving the Chairman of the Board spot and retiring from the profession. Barry is the quintessential prosecutor: honest as the day is long, passionate for the victims of crime, dedicated to the job, and loyal to his staff. My enduring memories of Barry will be how he stood tall for the rights of crime victims time and time again at the Texas legislature, often in the face of withering attacks from those who didn’t have the best interests of victims of crime in mind. He never faltered. Thank you, my friend, for your leadership.
Victim Services Section open for business
The membership of TDCAA formally created the TDCAA Victim Services Section at the annual business meeting in South Padre last month. I want to thank the members of the Long Range Planning Committee who, five years ago, devised a way that TDCAA could help its members fulfill their mission to support the victims of crime. A list of our first board and a picture of the members can be found on page 10.
The first formal meeting of the Board will be in conjunction with the Key Personnel and Victim Assistance Coordinator Seminar in November in El Paso. It’s at that meeting that the hard work of planning and implementing a whole new level of victim services will begin. I am confident we have the right people for the job!
John R. Justice Loan Repayment update
At the Annual conference, you had the opportunity to meet two folks with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), Lesa Moller and Kammi Contreras. Lesa and Kammi are running interference for y’all with the federal government in getting the student loan repayment program started in Texas. The application process will start Nov. 15; go to www.hhloans.com/ apps/financialaid/tofa.cfm?Kind=LRP to access the online application.
They had a good laugh at the following requirement that will be imposed upon you if you accept the loan repayment: “The Department encourages recipients and sub-recipients to adopt and enforce policies banning employees from text messaging while driving any vehicle during the course of performing work funded by this grant and to establish workplace safety policies and conduct education, awareness, and other outreach to decrease crashes caused by distracted drivers.” Another example of your federal government at work!
Human trafficking and Texas prosecutors
In October, TDCAA co-sponsored the First International Conference on Human Trafficking with State Representative Senfronia Thompson, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and many others. The conference featured a day devoted to panels of federal and Texas prosecutors who discussed the successes and problems with enforcing human trafficking laws in the federal and state systems. Thanks to David Weeks (CDA in Walker County), Ballard Shapleigh (ADA in El Paso County), Steve Baldassano (ADA in Harris County), Brooke Grona-Robb (ACDA in Dallas County), and Kirsta Melton (ACDA in Bexar County) for their presentations at the seminar. The course materials featured the lead article from the September-October issue of The Texas Prosecutor by Brooke, who very carefully set out what changes would make the Texas statutes more effective.
What we learned at the conference, in a nutshell: 1) the numbers on just how big the problem is are still “mushy” (the governor’s word, not mine); 2) the feds have the advantage when it comes to international trafficking because they can hold defendants under no-bonds and control the alien status of the victims to avoid deportation; 3) it looks like Texas prosecutors may be best-positioned to prosecute domestic trafficking of underage girls; 4) we are at the formative stages of law enforcement’s ability to identify trafficking situations and develop the cases; and 5) investigating and trying a trafficking case is harder than working up and prosecuting a murder case.
There was no question during the conference about Texas prosecutors’ readiness and willingness to prosecute human trafficking cases if we get them. Indeed, Kirsta Melton evoked cheers and applause when she staked out some clear prosecutor territory: She refused to apologize to anyone for using everything in her toolbox to get runaway girls who had fallen into the clutches of traffickers off the street, observing that as a prosecutor it was her job to be tough and find a way to bury a trafficker under the jail.
At this point don’t feel too badly if you haven’t picked up a human trafficking case yet—someone floated the number 5,000 as the number of human trafficking prosecutions worldwide. That is probably another one of those “mushy” numbers, but it gives you an indication that this area of criminal investigation and prosecution is in the early stages of development.
Investigator Scholarship awarded
Congratulations to Dylan Neal, who is the 2010 recipient of the Investigator’s Section College Scholarship Award. Dylan’s father, Rodney Neal, has been an investigator for 23 years in Collin County. Dylan is attending Blinn College, where he will be playing baseball and majoring in business and sports marketing. He wanted us to pass along his heartfelt thanks because he was in class while we were at the Annual conference. Good luck, Dylan!
Tarrant County carries the water on a Skinner amicus brief
In the last Texas Prosecutor, I honored the stand taken by Lynn Switzer, our DA in Gray County, in the Henry Skinner death penalty case. As you recall, Skinner as a matter of tactics declined to seek extensive DNA testing of many crime scene items; the testing that was done implicated Skinner in the crime. In October Lynn went to the Supreme Court to fend off a §1983 federal civil suit filed against her to force her to do additional testing, notwithstanding that all other courts in all other proceedings had denied Skinner’s request. She had no help from her local officials or the attorney general—but it turns out she wasn’t entirely by herself.
Many thanks to Joe Shannon, CDA in Tarrant County, and his assistants Russell Freimel and Andrea Jacobs, for drafting and filing an amicus brief in support of Lynn’s principled stand. Their brief was joined by John Bradley (DA in Williamson County), Lee Hon (CDA in Polk County), Henry Garza (DA in Bell County), Scott Brumley (CA in Potter County), and Barry Macha (CDA in Wichita County). The brief was terrific and focused on the well-established post-conviction testing law and procedures afforded worthy convicted inmates under Chapter 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. It turns out after an extensive survey of prosecutor offices done by the Task Force on Indigent Defense that relief under Chapter 64 has been provided by our courts, and the fact that Skinner didn’t merit such relief should tell us something. To view the full survey results, go to www.courts .state.tx.us/tfid/pdf/DNAPostConvictionReport0910.pdf.
Why didn’t TDCAA sign the amicus?
The leadership of TDCAA has always believed that the strength of our organization is that we can serve 332 independently-elected prosecutors and their 5,000 staff members. But as an organization we can’t speak for you. Truth is, Texas prosecutors are plenty capable of speaking for themselves, and your voice can be very powerful because it is backed with your knowledge and real-world experience. So by policy TDCAA as an entity will not speak for you but rather will help your voice be heard if you have a mind to speak up.
In practice, that means that if you want the backing of your fellow prosecutors in an amicus or other action, TDCAA will connect you to those folks who are willing to wade into the fight with you. My guess is that most of you would have signed on to the Skinner brief had there been time to send the brief out to everyone.
Speaking of representing prosecutors in civil court
You have probably noticed the up-tick in civil lawsuits against prosecutors by all sorts of people who aren’t getting their way in criminal court. It is not usually a matter of money damages but of folks trying to stop you from doing something or requiring you to do something else. And you may have noticed how your local governing bodies and the attorney general, even when they are statutorily required to represent you, may not step up.
Well, we have some good ideas on this pressing issue. If you have an interest in this—and if you have been in office long enough to be sued once, you surely will—make sure you come to the Elected Prosecutor Course for the opening session on December 1, 2010, here in Austin. Register for the course at www.tdcaa.com/node/6796.