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District Attorney Candidate “Best Answers”

     Recently, a collaborative effort was made to get a questionnaire answered by the candidates for Collin County District Attorney.  All candidates in the Republican contested primary returned our questionnaire.  (The Democratic candidate has not responded).DAseal

     I thought one way for me to add my commentary is to take what I see as the best answer from each question (sometimes shortened), and post them here.  As was promised to the candidates, the full text of their answers appears at the bottom of this article.

     I hope none of the candidates take my comments too personally.  I consider all three friends.  This is a great race because it is not about who is qualified versus who is not, but rather which is the best from three qualified candidates.  _______________________________________________________________________

BACKGROUND For #1– Right now there are 3 attorneys per misdemeanor court (1
chief, 2 others), and 1 Misdemeanor chief over it all. There are 3 “teams” of
attorneys for District Courts. I believe there are 3 attorneys staffing 3 courts on
one team, and 2 attorneys staffing 2 courts on the other team. Additionally, there
are 4 attorneys in the crimes against children section, 6 in “special crimes” (civil
and criminal), 5 in appeals, and 3 in Juvenile. (These numbers might be slightly
off, but are generally correct.)

1. What do you think about the current structure/staffing of the ADAs? Would
you shift attorneys around?

Best Answer: Greg Willis

     I believe the present District Attorney’s Office staffing matrix lacks a sufficient
number of prosecutors in the individual courts. There are currently seven district
courts hearing criminal cases. Staffing these courts with two permanently
assigned assistant district attorneys will increase efficiency. A felony chief
prosecutor will supervise two or three of these court teams depending on the
respective caseloads for the individual courts. These changes will provide law
enforcement and defense attorneys more access to prosecutors, as well as for
more consistency in handling cases without the need for additional staff and
connected growth in the budget. Additionally, I plan to implement a program of
rotating misdemeanor prosecutors into the felony division before they are
promoted to a chief’s position within the Misdemeanor Division. These
assignments will not only provide these prosecutors with felony trial experience,
but also give them practical experience within the intake and grand jury sections.
The benefits for implementing this specific program are many, not the least of
which is providing better qualified and more experienced misdemeanor court
chiefs to supervise and train new prosecutors who are responsible to handle
misdemeanor cases in the Collin County Courts at Law.

Why This Is The Best Answerr: All candidates addressed the problems with the "team method" of prosecutors currently implemented. However, Mr. Willis’ answer addresses the misdemeanor chiefs. One of the things I envied about the Dallas DA’s office is that they will make an attorney a felony prosecutor before becoming a misdemeanor chief. This helps the prosecutor gain perspective on what cases are important, and what cases are not. It also allows them to be better prepared when training new attorneys — a crucial aspect of the office.

2. What do you think about the criminal special crimes section? Would you make changes in that section, and if so, specifically how?

Best Answer: Jeff Bray

     In addition to taking over the Special Crimes division, I will change it’s
orientation and responsibilities. It is supposed to be a white collar crime section, but it
seems to have drifted over the years to a major fraud/catch-all division. It has also
caused quite a bit of controversy. The Specialized Crime division of the Dallas County
D.A.’s office handles all felony white collar crime cases, starting with a loss value of
$1500. These cases, and these victims, need an experienced white collar prosecutor just
as much as the large cases, but the Collin County Special Crimes division only handles
cases with a loss of at least $20,000, and even then sends many eligible cases to the trial
teams for prosecution after they are indicted. Unless a case goes through the standard
intake process, it should be tried by the prosecutor that prepared it. I believe this division
will be able to handle the cases that need special crimes attention even though we would
be giving up a prosecutor to the new trial team. The section may also handle the same
type of "special" cases it has handled in the past, including investigations of local
attorneys and officials, but these will either be handled by me or under my direct
supervision. If there is any negative impact from one of these investigations or
prosecutions, I will be directly responsible and answerable to the involved parties, the
press, and the voters.
Further, as a former special prosecutor for a neighboring county, I will not
hesitate to call in a prosecutor from another office to take over an investigation if my
office could be perceived as having an improper bias.

Why This Is The Best Answer: Mr. Bray has the edge in experience in complex special crimes investigations.  I like the fact that his face will be part of the investigations and keep him motivated to do the right thing.  Jeff also knows of some cases starting out in that division, then transferring out, and has vowed to stop that practice.

3. Will you get in the courtroom and actually try cases? Why or Why Not?

Best Answer: Jimmy Angelino

     Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a politician who will just sit behind a
desk drawing a paycheck. I am the only candidate in this race who has extensive jury
trial experience, with over 190 jury trials taken to a verdict as a prosecutor. Of the cases
I took to trial, I had a 98% conviction rate. I am a skilled prosecutor and I don’t think I
should just shelve those skills, but I have to balance that with the time commitment
managing and training will take up.
Because of that, especially at the beginning, I do not expect to be in the
courtroom trying cases on a daily basis. Not to mention there are plenty of excellent
prosecutors who need to be left to do their jobs. I do however expect to second-chair
trials occasionally in order to help our junior prosecutors develop their trial skills,
especially in the misdemeanor courts. Training and mentoring the Assistant District
Attorneys will be a priority for me.

Why This Is The Best Answer: Conviction rate doesn’t mean much to me.  Any attorney can win all of their cases if they pick the right one.  Plus, there are many cases that you shouldn’t be winning in the  interest of of justice.  However, I like the fact that he singles out the misdemeanor division to sit in on cases and help out.  Mr. Angelino’s background with trial and DWI prosecution would be helpful to new attorneys.

4. In general, what changes would you be making if you became District Attorney?

Best Answer: Greg Willis

     First is my commitment to make
the just prosecution of criminal cases the number
one priority of the Collin County District Attorney’s Office. I will permanently
assign prosecutors to the individual courts. Assistant district attorneys will take
ownership of their cases as I implement a new protocol that not only gives each
prosecutor more discretion over their individual cases, but also broadens the
authority of chief prosecutors. My administration will work hard to build interagency
relationships with law enforcement throughout Collin County to increase
our investigative and prosecution effectiveness. My administration will also
create an on-call system, making veteran prosecutors available to Collin County
law enforcement officers on a 24 hour / 7 days a week basis as we strive to make
the pursuit of just results the guiding principle of the District Attorney’s Office.

Why This Is The Best Answer: Both Bray and Willis discuss giving individual prosecutors more discretion by making cases their own.  I have thought and blogged about that being a major problem within the office.  However, Willis also writes about the implementation of an "on call" prosecutor to assist law enforcement.  I think this would be a welcome addition by local law enforcement agencies.

5. Right now, only three people in the District Attorney’s office have authority to dismiss a case. The misdemeanor division chief for misdemeanor cases, the first assistant for felony cases, and of course, the elected District Attorney. What do you think of this policy? Would you allow misdemeanor court chiefs and or felony court chiefs to dismiss cases they feel should be dismissed?

Best Answer: Greg Willis

     I believe those individual assistant district attorneys assigned as court chiefs
should have my support in the day-to-day operations of their courts. Those
individuals must demonstrate integrity, professionalism and wisdom in order to
justify occupying this very important role. Any prosecutor working with me in
that capacity will have the ability, when justice requires, to reduce charges, reduce
sentence recommendations and in appropriate cases, dismiss charges.

Why This Is The Best Answer: Both Willis and Angelino propose allowing misdemeanor prosecutors to dismiss or reduce charges.  However Angelino prefaces it by saying that there is less of a need when proper screening of cases occurs.  I think that is a myth.  No office (on a misdemeanor level), can ever "properly screen"  all the misdemeanors that come in.  Unless Mr. Angelino is proposing that all DWI cases that come in will come in with videos that are watched before the filing of the case (what can show a rightful on non-rightful arrest), there can never be "proper screening" of cases.  Mr. Willis gets the nod on this question by unequivocally stating his answer. It also shows the benefit from #1, allowing misdemeanor chiefs to first gain experience felony prosecutions before starting that  position.

6. Current DA John Roach recently proposed using funds to purchase weapons and body armor for the Investigators in the office. What do you plan on doing with these weapons, and will your investigators continue to train to be a emergency security staff for the court?

Best Answer: Jimmy Angelino & Greg Willis & Jeff Bray

    You can read all the full answers linked at the bottom to this question.  I didn’t find this questions to be a major differentiator of candidates.

Why This Is The Best Answer: All three answered pretty similarly.  That they aren’t going to create a SWAT team out of investigators.  They would seek out the advice of local law enforcement to see how they could best be utilized.

7. Do you have any plans to expand or develop alternative/deferred sentencing programs? What programs have you seen or heard of that you would implement?

Best Answer: Greg Willis

     Yes. The current system is bloated with criminal cases that would be more
appropriately handled by diversion out of the courts and into an alternative
program of rehabilitation. I would favor diversion for youthful, non-violent
offenders
with a demonstrated desire to change their behavior in exchange for
keeping their record clear. This means I will expand the current divert program
within the misdemeanor division and create a felony diversion program.

Why This Is The Best Answer: Mr. Willis goes the furthest in saying he’d like to expand to felonies.  I give Mr. Angelino a close second on this one.  I’m not sure if Mr. Angelino agrees, although he stated he wanted to expand the current diversionary system.  I would have liked to hear the candidates opinion on the current system (which is rarely used, and riddled with problems in my humble opinion).  Mr. Bray wont commit to saying what if any programs he’d use until he learns more which makes sense. However, I think that all candidates running for DA should have already researched or experienced programs that worked.

8. What lessons should the Collin County District Attorney learn (if any) from Dallas County’s experience with their Innocence Commission?

 Best Answer:  Greg Willis

     When the Dallas County District Attorney became aware that innocent individuals
had been convicted and incarcerated, he moved swiftly to rectify these injustices.
Such actions are completely consistent with Texas law — a district attorney’s
paramount duty is to seek justice. As District Attorney it will be one of my
priorities to make sure that Collin County prosecutors and all of our law
enforcement agencies take full advantage of the important lessons we have
learned from uncovering and studying the kinds of problems that led to those
wrongful prosecutions and convictions of all those innocent individuals, who have
now finally been exonerated.

     Beyond the grave injustice to the wrongfully convicted, a credible criminal justice
system simply cannot tolerate the number of violent criminals who (as a result of
charging and convicting innocent citizens) were never prosecuted, but rather were
allowed to remain at large to commit additional crimes against our citizens.
After meeting with the various law enforcement agencies these past few months, I
am confident that the professionals at all levels of the Collin County criminal
justice system sincerely want to be respected by their peers and by the public for
performing their duties aggressively by zealously investigating and prosecuting
criminal offenses, while at the same time diligently protecting the rights of our
citizens.

Why This Is The Best Answer: All candidates give good answers to this question.  I don’t know that there is a "right answer" to this question.  I think that good hiring and creating an atmosphere of it being OK to do the right thing is key.  Through Mr. Willis’ answer, I get the feeling that this would be accomplished. 

9. Do you believe our indigents are well served and fairly treated in our “Indigent Defense Plans”? What changes to the plans might you recommend to the Board of Judges?

 Mr. Willis gave a REALLY long answer with links to studies, etc. — You can read the entire text below. However, one line struck me as the most telling:

"I believe an emphasis should be placed on working to keep well qualified defense attorneys involved with the programs and removing those with records of inadequate representation."

Why This Is The Best Answer: Truth is, this question was designed more to get at the core of the candidates ideals than to find real answers to the problem (if any).  The judges are the ones in charge of the Indigent Defense Plan, however the DA certainly sees what works and what doesn’t.  I think quality of court appointed lawyers is always an issue, and some attorneys don’t treat it with the respect it deserves.  Mr. Willis being a judge and seeing a plethora of court appointed and retained attorneys in court and trial gives him some insight that others may not have. 

10. Would you bar defendants from open pleas before a judge if a plea agreement can not be reached, or would you reserve the right to object if you thought the judge might be more lenient than your plea offer was? Which level of prosecutors in the office would be allowed to make this decision?

Best Answer: Greg Willis & Jimmy Angelino

WILLIS (partial answer): "The decision to waive a jury trial on behalf of the State is not a decision that can be lightly made and must be evaluated on a case by case basis. Certainly, it is not my intention to universally bar defendants from open guilty pleas to the Court but every case must be independently evaluated on its particular merits. . . If the question asked is whether I will predicate a decision to request a jury trial solely on whether or not I believe we can obtain a greater sentence from a jury, my answer to this question is no.

ANGELINO (full answer): In general, I believe defendants who want to plead guilty to the charge against them, should be allowed to enter a guilty plea. This is because guilty pleas avoid the necessity of a trial which takes up the time of the jury members and extra cost to the taxpayers. The DA’s office should generally not bar defendants from entering open guilty pleas, except for extraordinary circumstances.

Why This Is The Best Answer: I thinks these two answers explain for themselves why they are the best answers.  Judges are also elected, and sometimes we need to allow the elected judges to make the decisions on punishment.  It is also a GROSS waste of money and time to have a "sham" trial, just to allow the prosecutor to get another win at trial, when a person wanted to plea guilty in the first place.

Jimmy Angelino’s full responses are here

Jeff Bray’s full responses are here

Greg Willis’ full responses are here

Full Disclosure: I have been a supporter of Greg Willis’ campaign. Although I haven’t "campaigned" for him, I have sent in a donation to his campaign.

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 Hunter Biederman is a DWI / Criminal Defense Attorney in Collin County. He publishes his blog (www.friscodwilawyer.com) which focuses on the Collin County and Texas legal system. He can be reached at friscolaw@gmail.com or (888) DWI-FRISCO.