ED Report
March-April 2021

Women in prosecution

By Rob Kepple
TDCAF & TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

In March, I received a wonderful letter from a former DA and good friend of TDCAA, Steve Smith, a judge in Sutton County.

Steve had been reading in the Texas Bar Journal about Women’s History Month, but the article did not mention the name of the first woman district attorney in Texas. He wondered in his letter if it was the former 51st Judicial District Attorney Charlotte Harris, who took office in 1992. My curiosity piqued, I decided to find out.   

            My first stop in the way-back machine was the archives of The Texas Prosecutor journal, where I found a great article written by Lori Kaspar, then the County Attorney in Hood County, about Texas’s first female county attorney, Nellie Gray Robertson. Nellie was one of the first women to graduate with a law degree from the University of Texas. In 1918, just six years after entering law school, Nellie was elected as the County Attorney in Hood County. The article reveals that Nellie actually served as an officer—secretary and treasurer—of TDCAA in 1921. (Read the whole article at www.tdcaa.com/journal/meet-nellie-gray-robertson-the-first-female-county-attorney-in-texas—it’s fascinating!) So, Nellie was the first county attorney.  What about the first district attorney?

            After talking with some of my mentors at the association, I was invited to explore the rumor that a lawyer in the Valley had served as the first female district attorney a long time ago. It took me no time at all to discover that Edna Cisneros was reported to have been elected as the District Attorney in Willacy County in 1956, a post she held for 30 years, which would mean she served earlier than Charlotte Harris. But wait: Technically, Willacy County does not have a district attorney—Willacy County is served by a county attorney with felony responsibility, which are two different offices, even if they are functionally equivalent. So while Edna Cisneros was elected as the county attorney with felony responsibility, she was not a district attorney, so my hunt for the first female DA continued. (You can read about Edna at www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/carroll-edna-cisneros.)

            It took a little more digging, and for a moment I thought I had hit the jackpot when I discovered an article about the Honorable Bonnie Leggat Hagen, who had been appointed as the first district attorney in Harrison County in 1985. But then I quickly discovered that the article’s author—like most every Texan—doesn’t appreciate the nuances of elected prosecutor offices. Judge Leggat Hagen had actually been appointed as the first female criminal district attorney for Harrison County. Again, Charlotte Harris was looking like a possible contender for the DA crown.   

            I got to thinking about Nellie having actually been an officer at TDCAA, and about all of the women who have served as leadership at the association in my 30 years. Then it occurred to me:  Our TDCAA president in 1997 was Becky McPherson, 110th Judicial District Attorney from Floydada. Sure enough, Becky was elected DA in 1989, which puts her a hair in front of Charlotte.

            Unless someone has access to some courthouse history that updates our “Final Four,” I think we have found the first women to be elected to the various prosecutor offices in Texas. I am proud to have served with and for our female prosecutors, elected and otherwise. Our profession in Texas is more than 50-percent female today, and we are stronger than ever!

Elected Prosecutor Conference

The TDCAA staff has been pretty excited these last couple months because we have had the pleasure of planning an actual live training! We will begin with our Elected Prosecutor Conference, which was postponed from December 2020 to June 2021. We intend to be very cautious with how the conference takes place. For example, there will be two sections of attendees so that we can observe 6-foot distancing, with each attendee at his or her own table. This means that we have had to limit attendance, and I am sorry if you didn’t get the chance to register before the course filled up.

            In addition, face masks will be mandatory, and we will minimize the amount of paperwork changing hands. The way we see it, these are minor inconveniences that we all will gladly accept to receive four days of quality training! And if you didn’t get into this course, have no fear—we are on schedule to host the 2021 Annual Criminal and Civil Law Conference in September and the 2021 Elected Prosecutor Conference in December. See the article by TDCAA Training Director Brian Klas on page 6 for more info on our 2021 courses.

Goodbye to Russ Thomason

I want to give a warm thank-you to Russ Thomason, CDA in Eastland County, who is retiring at the end of May. Russ has been a steady hand and a great friend of the association, and he has had a great 18-year run. Thanks, Russ, and good luck! 

Prosecutor Management Institute (PMI) training

With a return to live training, I want to remind folks that we are ramping up efforts to bring our ground-breaking management training to you. We are planning to host a conference soon for management-level assistant prosecutors and are prepping our training teams to come to your office or host regional courses. If you want more information, please contact Training Director Brian Klas.

Amazon Counterfeit Crimes Unit

I don’t know about you, but I love the magic of Amazon. I can just think of something I want, and after a few mouse clicks, it appears on my doorstep a couple of days later. But I also hate it when the item I receive is not the one advertised on the website. 

            Enter Kebharu Smith and the Amazon Counterfeit Crimes Unit. Many of you already know Kebharu, who was an ADA in Harris County before going to the United States Attorney’s Office in Houston. His rising star soon found him in Washington D.C. as the Senior Corporate Counsel with the Department of Justice Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. Last summer Kebharu joined Amazon to spearhead its effort to curtail counterfeit products that might enter its supply stream. In the future you might be hearing from Kebharu in his professional capacity.

            You can read about Amazon’s new anti-counterfeit initiative at www.aboutamazon.com/news/company-news/amazon-establishes-new-counterfeit-crimes-unit.

Annual Report from Tarrant County

I was delighted again this year when my mail included a copy of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Annual Report for 2020. Sharen Wilson, CDA in Tarrant County, has done a terrific job of sharing the successes of her office and the challenges of the profession yet again, and the report is worth a read—it could even be a guide for how other offices might go about highlighting their work. In the report you will find raw data on crime, discussions of innovative programs, a recitation of trial successes, and articles honoring her employees’ hard work.  And what would a report be without a picture of the adorable emotional support dog Brady?

            You can read the report online at www.tarrantcounty.com/content/dam/main/Criminal-District-Attorney/annual-cda-reports/CDAAnnualReport2020.pdf. Well done, Sharen!