In February 2016 [sic], the incumbent District Attorney in Nueces County, Texas, Mark Skurka, lost his primary race to Mark Gonzales, a defense attorney who lacked prosecutorial experience and had “not guilty” tattooed across his chest; Gonzales had promised greater transparency and a crackdown on prosecutorial misconduct.Here's a bit more detail:
In March 2016, in what local media called “a huge upset,” the well-known District Attorney of Nueces County, Texas, career prosecutor Mark Skurka, was turned out of office in the Democratic Primary. Skurka lost to Mark Gonzalez, a longtime criminal defense attorney with no prosecutorial experience with “not guilty” tattooed across his chest. During the campaign, Gonzalez embraced his identity as a hard-charging defense attorney. The principal issues on which he ran were prosecutorial misconduct and, in particular, the improper withholding of exculpatory evidence. He emphasized a string of cases in which convictions obtained in Nueces County had been overturned on appeal and the prosecutors had been accused of misconduct. Every prosecutor, Gonzales said, should have “not guilty” tattooed “on their heart,” because until convicted at trial, “everyone accused of a crime is not guilty.”In a preview of the Nueces DA race, Grits earlier noted that Skurka was "the hometown DA for the Democratic Chairman of the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and the Republican Chairman of the House Calendars Committee, giving him out-sized political influence for a Democratic office holder." A significant scandal just weeks before the election probably helped seal the incumbent's fate. At 56-44, the race was pretty much a stomping.
None of this means Gonzales will be a shoo-in. He faces a Republican candidate and in 2012 Nueces County went for Romney. His best hope will be if Donald Trump inspires significant numbers of Republican voters to stay home. And even if he is elected, what meaning can one derive from it? You can argue Democratic primary voters were making a statement, but if Gonzales loses in the general along partisan lines, would that be a pro or anti-reform statement? Neither, really. It just means partisanship outweighs nearly every issue in the minds of general election voters, which is hardly news.
While attempting to rebut arguments that prosecutor elections are poor vehicles for reformist aspirations, Sklansky does recognize the "limitations" on elections' ability to hold DAs accountable:
Perhaps the most serious [limitation] is that voters generally are poorly positioned to assess the performance of an elected prosecutor. Prosecutors do much of their most important work not in open court but behind closed doors: that is they consult with police officers, make charging decisions, determine what evidence needs to be disclosed, and hammer out plea deals. And prosecutors’ offices tend to be secretive and opaque, far more so than even most police departments. So the public often lacks basic information about how a district attorney’s office is operating. Moreover, it isn’t even clear what information the public should want or should care most about; there is remarkably little consensus about what distinguishes good prosecutors’ offices from bad ones. It isn’t just that people disagree; most of us have, within ourselves, conflicting expectations for prosecutors. We want them to be zealous advocates and dispassionate ministers of justice; champions of justice and instruments of mercy; creatures of the law and exercisers of discretion. All of this —the lack of transparency, the disagreements and conflicting expectations about how prosecutors should do their jobs— makes it difficult to assess the ultimate significance of ... any of the election results we’ve been discussing.Real prosecutorial reform must extend beyond elections to the statehouse and the judiciary. But when the opportunity arises for voters to make a statement, it's encouraging to find that increasingly more and more are willing to do so.