A three-way conversation between TDCAA’s leadership on the association’s strengths and challenges—and a vision for the near future. We rounded up three members of TDCAA’s leadership—Kenda Culpepper, Rockwall County Criminal District Attorney and Secretary-Treasurer; Rob Kepple, TDCAA Executive Director; and Jarvis Parsons, Brazos County District Attorney and President-Elect—to answer a few questions about the association and where it’s headed.
What is the association’s greatest strength?
Kenda Culpepper: TDCAA has so many strengths that it is hard to pin down just one. The staff is obviously an amazing resource. They are incredibly knowledgeable and, just as importantly, they are a phone call away. TDCAA also produces some of the best prosecutor training in the entire country. Staff and the TDCAA Training Committee put in long hours planning and dealing with the logistics of these courses, and they do an outstanding job. TDCAA publications; support for victim assistance coordinators, investigators, and key personnel; appellate resources; legislative protection—TDCAA provides great support for prosecutors and staff.
Jarvis Parsons: One of the many strengths of our organization is our training of prosecutors. From our Trial Skills Course for new prosecutors, to the Elected Prosecutor Conference, to the seminar for key personnel and victim assistance coordinators, individuals at every level in a district or county attorney’s office can be educated on how to best implement justice in our communities. The information and the presenters at conferences are second to none. I have gotten a chance to go to other states for training, and nothing compares to the professionalism and information I receive right here at TDCAA. We are a model for the country when it comes to training. This applies not only to trial skills but to ethical issues as well. The TDCAA Brady training that was filmed a few years ago and is mandatory for prosecutors is one of a kind. The TDCAA management course is brand-new but another example of our organization understanding exactly what its membership needs to succeed in the future.
Rob Kepple: Our members. Our association is truly a member-driven organization. Our training and services are designed by prosecutors and staff for prosecutors and staff. TDCAA leadership keeps us moving forward with a series of long-range plans, and we stick to those plans as we develop our services. It is all about delivering timely, relevant, and accessible training and services.
What is one area where the association could improve?
Kenda Culpepper: One of my favorite things to do at prosecutor conferences is to get in a room and just talk and share information. I learn so much about how I want to run my office by listening to others, and I love learning about creative and new ideas. Often, however, I have an interesting situation arise at my office, and I’d like to get a quick answer from prosecutors across the state regarding how they would handle it.
I would like to figure out a way to initiate a secure listserv so we can ask questions and share ideas in a safe and confidential way. The problem with such a system is how to make it secure enough that outside bodies can’t read it out of context and use it to our disadvantage. That level of security might not be feasible, but I’d like to explore the possibilities.
I would also like to encourage regional summits where prosecutors from different localities can get together, talk, and collaborate. Perhaps we could also coordinate prosecutor gatherings at huge law enforcement events like the Crimes Against Children Conference and Crimes Against Women Conference.
Jarvis Parsons: Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to serve on the board of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. I have seen the damage that comes when prosecutors did not understand the scientific principles presented by the State’s expert or how that scientific evidence affected the criminal case. I believe that now more than ever, prosecutors must be cognizant of the underlying scientific disciplines that we use to convict defendants. While we are not scientists, understanding processes and terminology of scientific disciplines such as toxicology, DNA, tool mark examination, and many others can only make prosecutors more effective advocates. We need to be cognizant of the changing landscape of scientific evidence so that we understand its limits to avoid wrongful convictions. The public looks to prosecutors to be beacons of truth and justice in our communities. We owe it to them to make sure we are presenting scientific evidence to our juries that are credible and reliable.
Rob Kepple: How we use technology to deliver training and services. Keeping up with what technology can do has been a challenge ever since 1995 when our then-Communications Director Joni Sager said, “Hey, have you heard of this thing called the World Wide Web?” I still have the original TDCAA cell phone, which is only slightly smaller than a brick and twice as heavy. TDCAA has deliberately not been an “early adopter” of many technologies because we have tried to stay in step with our members, who—because of county budgets—lag a little behind as well. In addition, some things that were all the rage just didn’t seem advanced enough to be very useful.
But in the near future we will be making some good changes. It will start with a new TDCAA website that will adopt current technology to deliver services and link members to others in the profession. (The new site will be fully functional on mobile devices, too.) And it will give us the ability to deliver more distance-learning programs to our members. We’ve not done much of that in the past for various reasons, but now that the technology has advanced, online videos and training can be done well and efficiently.
What changes would you like to see in prosecution or in the association at the end of your leadership tenure?
Kenda Culpepper: Prosecutors and law enforcement officers have taken a hit in public opinion as of late. It has taken many of us by surprise because a vast and overwhelming majority of us know that our first priority is to see that justice is done. However, we all understand that adverse publicity surrounding a bad actor can affect public perception.
Some defense lawyers are taking advantage of this dip in public opinion and the new complexities of discovery to file State Bar grievances against prosecutors. While some of these referrals may be merited, many are not. We need to make sure that prosecutors have representation on each State Bar regional disciplinary committee. With all due respect to those who practice civil law, some lawyers don’t understand the duties and responsibilities of a prosecutor. We should make sure that someone who can give a realistic and true perspective about the practice of criminal law is on those committees. If a prosecutor is unethical, he or she should obviously be punished like anyone else (and I actually believe that another prosecutor on the grievance committee would be that person’s worst nightmare). It would be a true shame, however, if grievances against prosecutors were sustained simply because no one on the committee understood what our duties are.
Jarvis Parsons: I didn’t go to law school to be a prosecutor. I wanted to “change the world.” It was only after signing up for a summer internship in the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office in Portland, Maine, that I realized I wanted to be a career prosecutor. I recognized I could change my world for the better one case at a time. That internship changed my career path. I was lucky to be in a city where there was a dedicated training program for prosecutor interns, just as we have in Texas in many of our larger cities. Smaller counties may not have the same opportunities to attract young law students who are deciding their career paths, but the truth is, not every person in law school wants to work in a big city.
I believe that TDCAA can work with Texas law schools and law schools in surrounding states to be a connecting point between law students and prosecutor offices. An individual who may not know a prosecutor can hear the benefits of prosecution from a TDCAA spokesperson and furnish a resume, and that resume could be forwarded on to a district or county attorney office where both the office and the individual benefit. The individual gains invaluable experience he can take to his next endeavor and also gets a chance to try out prosecution (and realize what a wonderful profession it is). The prosecutor office benefits by having cheap labor and essentially giving a test run to a possible future employee. Offices wouldn’t have to recruit because TDCAA would bring the young, talented law students to their doorsteps. By being proactive in reaching out to law students and other potential future prosecutors, TDCAA could recruit talent that benefits our profession for years to come.
Rob Kepple: As your servant, I must say I am excited about Kenda and Jarvis’s ideas! Those are examples of visionary leadership that improves our profession. I am not the leader of this organization, but as the leader of the TDCAA staff, my goal is to set a tone of “members first.” We will try every day to put you first and get you what you need. Y’all have tough jobs, so we will always try to go the extra mile for you.