Travis County DA-Elect José Garza Picks Primary Challenger To Lead Special Victims Unit
José Garza, Travis County's incoming district attorney, has picked his primary challenger in the March election to lead the office’s special victims unit. Attorney Erin Martinson will oversee cases involving sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.
“The criminal justice system in Travis County has repeatedly failed survivors. That ends today,” Martinson said in a statement. “Under José Garza’s leadership, we are going to build a justice system where victims are believed and treated with dignity and respect – starting from day one.”
For more than 20 years, Martinson has worked as an advocate for victims of violent crimes. She spent over a decade in the Travis County attorney’s office working in the Protective Order division, leading the department for a majority of her tenure. During that time, she traveled the state training other law enforcement professionals on how to implement trauma-informed approaches to victims in crisis.
In 2016, she was recruited by the nonprofit Texas Legal Services Center to run its statewide Crime Victims Program and worked there until she decided to run for Travis County district attorney last year.
Martinson says she did not know Garza before the DA race, but because both were running progressive campaigns, they supported each other throughout.
“While we were competitors, we really worked very well together because we both shared the same goals. I think we both gained a mutual respect for one another, and there was that comfort of having someone there in the fight with you.”
“While we were competitors, we really worked very well together because we both shared the same goals,” she told KUT. “I think we both gained a mutual respect for one another, and there was that comfort of having someone there in the fight with you.”
Garza said he chose Martinson for her decades-long experience working with victims. Throughout his campaign, he has said he wants to reform the way Travis County prosecutes sexual assault cases.
One way to do this, he said, is to create a more victim-centered approach, which involves reaching out to survivors of violent crimes, listening to their stories, and letting those experiences inform how the DA's office handles these prosecutions going forward.
“We should be clear that the task ahead of us is enormous,” Garza said. “There is no singular strategy. It’s going to require a multifaceted approach.”
Outgoing Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore faced criticism over her handling of sexual assault cases by those who thought the office wasn’t prosecuting enough of these crimes.
Marina Garrett is a sexual assault survivor who has been publicly critical of the way the DA’s office handled her case. In 2018, she and other female victims filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the mishandling of rape cases in Austin-Travis County was due to gender discrimination. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in February, but attorneys for the victims have since appealed.
At a press conference Thursday, Garrett said she was encouraged by Garza’s choice to bring in Martinson.
“Erin has been a champion for survivors, sometimes against impossible odds,” she said. “She knows what it takes to build a justice system survivors can trust. Not only has she personally touched my life, she has of countless survivors across Travis County.”
Martinson has promised to return Travis County prosecutors to the Austin-Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team, or SARRT. The group, formed in 1992, brings together different stakeholders with the goal of improving the community response to sexual assault cases. In 2017, Moore broke away from the SARRT, saying she felt it wasn’t productive.
Martinson said community outreach is her top priority – and rejoining SARRT is a big part of that effort. She said she also plans to hire more victim advocates, because one of the needs most expressed by victims is regular updates on what's happening with their cases. Due to heavy workloads, prosecutors do not always have time to check in with victims.
“[The way] we can address that is by having trained advocates in the division who understand the support that’s needed,” Martinson told KUT.
She said her ultimate goal is to involve more victims in the process and let their experiences guide how she handles prosecutions – not the other way around. She said her background as a victim advocate gives her a unique ability to come to the job from the perspective of a survivor.
“In order to create a system that responds to victim's needs, we need to listen to them first,” she said. “And so, really focusing on centering the victims in this process rather than presuming to know what's in their best interest."
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