Monday, November 02, 2020

Presumptive Travis DA Jose Garza on death penalty, women's jail, and membership in TX state prosecutors association

The Marshall Project's prolific Keri Blakinger generates more copy than her employers will publish, so she's been sending Grits an occasional email featuring unpublished odds and ends. Today, we have a few tidbits from a recent interview Keri conducted with Jose Garza, Travis County's presumptive Democratic District Attorney pending tomorrow's election (he has an opponent, but the Democratic primary is the real race in Austin).

Keri spoke to Garza about the death penalty, building a new women's jail, and whether he intended to retain membership in the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Enjoy!
Hey Grits,

A couple weeks ago I had a chance to Zoom chat with Travis County DA candidate Jose Garza. A lot of our talk was on background - but I just wanted to pass along some of the points that were not, and that might interest you and your readers. These are kind of off-beat questions because I was trying to ask about details I hadn’t seen discussed elsewhere - and the many prior interviews he’s done have covered a lot of the basics, plus his website is pretty detailed.

So at this point we already know that he’s pledged not to use civil asset forfeiture without a conviction, that he will stop prosecuting less than a gram drug cases, will put more resources toward serious crimes like sex assault, and various other things you have outlined previously.

Given how progressive his platform is, I was interested in whether he’d pull Travis County out of TDCAA. A few months ago on Twitter, he was pretty clear that he would: “TDCAA has been one of the largest impediments to progress at the TX state legislature,” he tweeted. “I’m running for DA to build a system that lifts up working people and people of color. When elected I will not be joining the association.”

And some elected prosecutors elsewhere - like Philadelphia and California - have cut ties with their respective DA associations because they were too regressive or “out of touch.” But as you pointed out to me, TDCAA provides training and other support that would have to be replaced so it’s not as simple as just walking out the door. When I asked TDCAA, they said that about 30 elected prosecutors in Texas are already not members. So it seems there is some precedent here for non-membership.

When I asked JG about all this a few weeks ago, initially he said that he would be evaluating existing relationships to figure out which are in line with the office’s goals before making any decisions. But when I circled back to ask if that was different than what he’d tweeted in January he clarified that he still hopes to exit TDCAA and basically is just figuring out what that looks like at this point: “It remains a goal to me,” he said. “It remains a goal to make that there is a better structure for truly representing the views of district attorneys and the people they are accountable to.”

I realize this is a lot of words I just spent on what is really a very niche thing to be interested in, but I hopefully Grits and Grits readers might share my niche interest.

In other, slightly-less-niche interests, I also asked him some about capital punishment. He’s talked before about opposing the death penalty, but I wanted to know if that meant that he would actually stop defending the existing death sentences that are in post-conviction litigation now - which is about half a dozen cases. When we spoke, he pledged to review those cases, but didn’t say whether he would defend death sentences if the convictions themselves seemed solid.

“We will be reviewing all of those cases to aggressively seek out innocence but not just innocence, constitutional defects in cases,” he said. “I presume that post conviction that there are probably challenges, there are probably actual innocence claims… as a matter of course no we are not just going to presume that all of these cases should continue to be defended.”

It’s not quite a clear answer to what I was getting at, but I’ll be interested to see how this develops.

The other thing we talked about the most on the record was the new women’s jail, which he’s previously said he opposes. As Grits readers probably know, Travis County has been working on building a new women’s jail for some time now. The proposal to replace it would create more beds, but the current one is shitty and doesn’t have good program space. As someone who has actually spent time in a jail, I always want to know exactly why when people oppose doing something that would improve shitty living conditions.

“I’m in favor of less shitty,” he said, “but for me this is about math and this is about resources. I think what the county is attempting to accomplish and what the sheriff is attempting to accomplish is admirable and is the right thing because there will continue to be people in our jail and we have a responsibility to make sure everyone there receives the best care.”

But not if it requires a bigger jail - which he believes will be even more unnecessary when he’s in office:

“There are a couple of hundred people in the jail right now and it’s about 500 short of capacity – it’s at something like 30 percent capacity, for women in particular,” he said. “And on top of that Travis County is going to have a new DA and new county attorney that have pledged significant steps that would reduce the jail’s population. I’m not convinced that when the trendline is decreasing jail populations… that the best way to care for the shrinking population of people in the jail is to build a brand new $98 million facility.”

Anyhoo, that’s a lot of words and I’ve droned on quite a bit about some obscure topics here so enjoy.
Grits here: Just to say so, since Keri didn't, Garza's answer on pulling out of the DA's Association was insensible, answering a yes-or-no question about a pretty-clear campaign promise with pure squish.

To be clear, I like Jose, while TDCAA has for two decades resided on Grits' frenemies list. It would tickle me to no end if DAs from the big counties started to walk away from the state prosecutors' association. At the same time, I marveled when Garza made that pledge in the first place. My immediate first thought was, "He hasn't considered everything that would entail." So Grits wouldn't blame him for not knee-jerk pulling out of TDCAA in January without a plan. After all, that's the organization that provides most of their training.

Plus, Garza will be arriving just as the legislative session gets underway: The biggest complaint about TDCAA from reformers is them thwarting reform bills behind the scenes. Once session begins, Garza can assess for himself whether it's possible to influence the organizational culture from within.

TDCAA has historically been a problem for the Texas #cjreform movement, and Garza along with other elected big-county prosecutors perhaps can help solve it, whether by working from within or leaving and doing their own thing. Their rural counterparts may outnumber them when it's time to vote for board members, but big counties' dues provide most of their funding.

RELATED: From the Texas Observer, "Jose Garza redefines 'progressive prosecutor'"


Steven Michael Seys said...

As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Politicians and lawyers talk for a living. Statesmen act. In the first year of Jose's term we will see what cloth he's made of.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm actually quite optimistic. I like Jose. I just think there was more to this issue than he'd considered when he took a position during the primary campaign. Fine as campaign signaling (for an Austin Dem primary in 2020, at least), but the devil's in the implementation. I won't complain if he can't do this one in the first year. By year four ...?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure whether his death penalty answer really means anything. Technically, the State Prosecuting Attorney has the authority to represent the State before the Court of Criminal Appeals. (That includes writs of habeas corpus, by the way.) If a D.A. chose not to defend a death penalty conviction, I think the SPA would take over the case pretty fast. I think that same thing might result if he tried to concede in what looked like an otherwise solid conviction. And, of course, only the AG represents the State in federal death penalty habeas actions.

So it sounds like fairly empty rhetoric. And where is he getting this actual innocence stuff? These cases aren't normally whodunnits. I would be shocked if out of the six or so pending post-conviction Travis Co death penalty cases, there was even one where there was a serious question about guilt. (Yeah, I know --- yogurt shop, Alfred Brown, etc ---- but I would just be surprised if there was one out of these six, that's all I'm saying.)

James S.