The district attorney is considered the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system. These prosecutors have total discretion when it comes to pursuing criminal cases, operating with broad legal immunity.
The Travis County District Attorney's Office prosecutes a range of felony offenses, from low-level drug convictions to aggravated sexual assault to capital murder. (The county attorney’s office, meanwhile, is largely responsible for prosecuting misdemeanor offenses.)
DAs are the ultimate decision-makers on whether to file charges, and, if they decide to do so, these prosecutors hold considerable influence throughout the lifecycle of a case. From plea bargains to trial evidence to sentencing recommendations, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office weighs in at every stage of the process.
José Garza hopes to unseat Margaret Moore, the incumbent district attorney, in the Democratic runoff. Garza, a former public defender on the Texas-Mexico border, is executive director of the Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit organization that largely supports immigrant workers in Austin. He is running on a platform of sweeping progressive reforms to fix what he calls a “broken system.”
Moore on the other hand, touts her experience and has said her record speaks for itself. First elected to the position in 2016, she has decades of experience practicing law in Travis County. She served as assistant DA in the late 1970s and has also served as Travis County attorney and on the Commissioners' Court.
Garza says he is pursuing this office because he believes the current DA prioritizes nonviolent offenses over violent ones. He points to the difference between the number of cases involving drugs and sexual assault. In 2018, the DA decided to pursue roughly 2,700 drug offenses. This same year, the office took on just over 70 adult sexual assault cases out of the more than 530 reported to the Austin Police Department. (Data from the Office of Court Administration shows a similar ratio each year of Moore’s tenure.)
Ending the prosecution of low-level drug offenses and focusing more on diversion programs, Garza says, will make the community safer.
“The data is really clear,” he says. “Every day that a person with substance use stays in jail, the likelihood that they’ll commit another crime goes up.”
The pursuance of drug offenses is also one the greatest drivers of racial disparity in the criminal justice system, Garza says. Black people make up 33% of the Travis County Jail, despite making up only 9% of the county’s population. Latinos are also disproportionately charged for crimes in Travis County. While they make up a third of the population, they account for more than 38% of the jail’s inmates, according to county data.
“Although substance use is consistent across Travis County by race and ethnicity,” Garza says, “it is people of color who are overwhelmingly arrested and prosecuted for those offenses.”
Moore refused to speak with KUT for this story, but in an interview with KXAN, she denied her office treats people of color differently once they enter the criminal justice system. The DA's office, she said, currently dismisses about 59% of felony drug offenses, but she does not believe the DA should stop prosecuting these cases.
“We have neighborhoods that are riddled with drug use and crime,” Moore told KXAN. “Those neighborhoods ask for relief. They call the police because they want enforcement.”
Recent protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have made police accountability a prominent issue in this race. Closer to home, the deaths of Michael Ramos, who was killed by Austin police in April, and Javier Ambler, who died last year after Williamson County deputies tased him multiple times, have fueled demands for justice. Ambler's death is being prosecuted by the Travis County DA's office because it occurred within the county.
Moore said she will present both cases before a grand jury to decide if the officers should be indicted. But Garza has criticized her for taking too long to make these decisions, waiting more than a year in Ambler's case.
Garza has promised that, if elected, he would bring all cases involving police misconduct before a grand jury within 30 days. If the DA's office is unable to do it within this timeframe, Garza has said he pledges to release a public statement explaining why.
“Victims’ families shouldn’t have to wait for justice,” he says. “It’s unacceptable that people had to wonder whether these cases would be prosecuted.”
Former District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg had presented all police misconduct cases – both deadly and non-deadly – to a grand jury. Moore ended the policy when she took office and has decided to decline cases if the evidence clearly proves a lawful use of force.
Moore also notes Texas law doesn't allow a grand jury to share details of a case unless it leads to indictment, and as a consequence, a community is never fully informed about these incidents.
“By declining a case, we could issue declination letters that include a thorough presentation of the facts and evidence," she says on her campaign website.
Moore created a Civil Rights Unit to review cases of police misconduct, including officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, and provide recommendations on how to proceed. But Garza says, during Moore’s tenure, no police officer accused of killing a civilian has been convicted with a crime.
“No law enforcement officer should be allowed to commit a crime, especially under their authority as a police officer, and not be held accountable,” he says.
(Again, Moore declined to be interviewed for this story.)
During her tenure, DA Moore was a defendant in a class-action lawsuit accusing her office of inadequately addressing adult sexual assault cases. Plaintiffs said their cases were mishandled because of bias and gender discrimination. A federal judge ultimately dismissed the case in February.
Moore has stood firm that her office has done more for sexual assault victims than any other DA before her. She argues the reason there was only one jury trial for sexual assault in all of 2017 is because of issues surrounding the DNA lab closure at the time. Jury trials and guilty pleas have increased since 2018.
The incumbent has also touted her creation of the Interagency Sexual Assault Team (ISAT), a group made up mostly of area police departments. She says the goal is to better train officers on how to support sexual assault victims.
But, Garza says, Moore created this new agency after she broke away from the Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team. The group was created in 1992 to improve the community response to sexual assault. It’s made up of law enforcement, advocates, sexual assault victims and others. Moore left SAART after former co-chairs of the group released a letter harshly criticizing the current criminal justice system.
Moore’s decision to walk away from difficulty is not a sign of leadership, Garza says, and, if elected, he pledges to return to SAART. He also says he will prosecute sexual assault cases more aggressively than Moore.
“What we need in this moment is someone who is accountable to the movement for change that is happening all around us” he says. “Someone who is willing to be a vocal leader to [help] reimagine our criminal justice system."
Early voting continues through July 10. Election Day is July 14.
Got a tip? Email Nadia Hamdan at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nadzhamz.
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