Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Please prove me wrong: Jose Garza wants to make Grits eat my words

Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza is trying to change Grits' mind about "progressive prosecutors." He hasn't succeeded yet, but in the early days of his administration, he's giving it the ol' college try.

In the last week, Garza announced indictments of two officers who'd allegedly engaged in excessive force but weren't punished by police management, and said a grand jury would soon consider charges in the deaths of the police officers who killed Mike Ramos and Javier Ambler. Then yesterday, his office agreed Rosa Jimenez - the babysitter falsely convicted 18 years ago of murdering a child in her care - could be released on bail pending her appeal, and Judge Karen Sage agreed. 

These are major shifts in policy. In recent years, we've seen Texas prosecutors seek indictments for cops following publicity and public pressure - as in the Mike Ramos and Javier Ambler cases - but seldom in less high-profile situations, and never when the police department failed to discipline them. The indictments of officers cleared by APD Internal Affairs amounts to another "no confidence" vote for police Chief Brian Manley, this time from the sitting District Attorney. And it validates public concerns that the department's disciplinary process fails to hold certain officers accountable. 

An equally big shift involves the level of transparency Garza pledged to provide about such cases. He released the first of what he promised would be bimonthly reports on cases involving alleged law-enforcement misconduct. Under Margaret Moore, the DA's office amounted to a black hole from which no light emerged unless she imagined it would cast her in a flattering manner.

Indeed, Garza effectively countered complaints from police about the indictments by doubling down on his commitment to transparency:  "To the extent that Chief Manley and others have concern about the grand jury determination in this case," Garza told the Statesman, "they should immediately release all of the relevant video footage so that our community can see the conduct for themselves." By contrast, Moore's practice was to tell APD not to release video in such cases.

Meanwhile, Grits couldn't be happier that Rosa Jimenez was released pending appeal of her habeas writ. Six judges have now said Jimenez is innocent or at least deserves a new trial, but under state law, Attorney General Ken Paxton controls the appellate process in federal court and he has appealed all their rulings. Because of the innocence findings, under Texas law, Judge Sage can release Jimenez on bail pending the final outcome if the DA agrees. Former DA Margaret Moore chose instead to defer to AG Paxton, so this is evidence elections definitely matter.

Jimenez should have been released years ago. She was convicted based on junk science after the trial judge refused to pay for defense experts to counter misinformation presented by Travis County prosecutors. So this was an incredibly happy day. If it weren't for COVID, your correspondent would have gone to the courthouse for the event. When the news came, I literally shouted for joy. (Bilbo the Criminal-Justice-Reform Dog, I should add, was rather confused and taken aback at this outburst.) It's possible she may be released and reunited with her (now adult) children as soon as Friday.

So let me take this opportunity to say "thank you" to Jose Garza, and for that matter to Judge Sage. I'm proud of and grateful to both of them for this.

Even so, Grits has never been comfortable with the phrase "progressive prosecutor." I think of the prosecutorial function as inherently regressive: a one-trick pony whose "trick" is to punish people for violating state dicta. As I wrote five years ago, usually when a new District Attorney is elected:

management changes, but the day-to-day operations remain much the same as they functioned when our grandparents ran much-smaller versions several decades ago. Any differences between electeds play out at the margins of just a handful of individual cases. But the overarching structure and purpose of the institution inevitably remains undisturbed. Even when DAs take a progressive step, there are almost always pragmatic, internal reasons for it.
Grits added, however, that this wasn't an inevitability: "That's not to say it wouldn't be possible for a DA to fundamentally redefine the job. They have enough discretion to where all sorts of interesting possibilities might present themselves if smart people put their minds to it." But the first round of Texas DAs elected after campaigning as "progressive" - including in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi - have fundamentally continued to perform the office's functions in the same way they've always operated.

That's an observation more than a criticism. Change is hard. And slow. Plus, there exist few models for alternative approaches that might truly merit a "progressive" label. The cases described above - indicted cops and an innocent person released - still boil down to decisions whether or not to use the stick. We've not yet seen a fundamental reimagining of the prosecutorial function in Texas, and arguably anywhere (although admittedly, I don't closely track what prosecutors are doing in other states).

Still, Jose Garza is showing how much discretion matters. So far, these fall into the category of cases that "play out at the margins." But they're welcome moves, and evidence that he really does intend to operate the office differently. To me, the real test will come when we see how more workaday, less-high-profile cases get handled, particularly on drug and sexual assault charges. At this point, I'm hopeful bordering on optimistic that Garza will prove me wrong about "progressive prosecutors."

Like Fox Mulder in the old X Files series, I want to believe.

MORE: See Garza's 3-page memo on new policy changes he's implementing at the Travis County DA's office.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said the officers who shot Javier Ambler and Mike Ramos had already been indicted. In fact, Garza has said he will take their cases before a grand jury in the current term. Grits regrets the error.


ChingaLosPuercos said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Mr. Garza has secured more indictments of dirty cops in his first three weeks in office than Margaret Moore, Rosemary Lehmberg, and Kamala Harris did in their entire careers, combined.

Gadfly said...

Within Texas urban areas, and I know he's new ... how's he compare to, say, Creuzot in Dallas?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

His campaign platform was more aggressive than any of our sitting DAs. If he follows through on it all, and it appears he intends to, he'll be a leader nationally on this stuff, not just statewide.

DebC said...

I love that you are "cautiously optimistic." I am too. What I also appreciate -- is you giving credit where credit is due on the few steps forward. Keep being fair...