Editor’s note: You’ll notice a correction in this post—a common refrain from Saturday’s event was that there is no head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, and the candidates used that point to ding D.A. Faith Johnson. That is not correct; the DA’s office says that prosecutor Cynthia Garza has led it for the past eight months, but has a title of Special Fields Bureau Chief. We’ll have a story exploring all this soon.
“I understand better than most the power that the DA’s office wields,” Anthony Graves began, just before introducing the two Democratic nominees for Dallas County District Attorney. The three spent their Saturday afternoon at a community question-and-answer forum sponsored by the ACLU of Texas. In his job at Smart Justice Initiative Manager for the ACLU, Graves brings lived experience to his role – he served 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, largely due to the malfeasance of a prosecutor who was eventually disbarred.
Elizabeth Frizell, a defense attorney and ex-District Judge, and John Creuzot, also an ex-judge, were there, while the current Republican District Attorney Faith Johnson declined to attend. “At least 66 percent of the candidates are here,” announced Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College, to derisive laugher. (While Johnson was not expected to attend, I heard that she considered it before backing out.)
Dallas County is under scrutiny for its tough-on-crime policies, and the race for its district attorney is unfolding as the state of Texas contends with implementing reforms to the criminal justice system. In January, the ACLU, along with Civil Rights Corp, several individual plaintiffs, and other grassroots organizations, sued Dallas County for what they describe as unconstitutional bail practices that disadvantage the poor. The lawsuit comes after a similar one was successful in Harris County, resulting in a federal judge ordering all jailed misdemeanor defendants to go free.
At the state level, the Texas Legislature recently passed the Michael Morton Act, named for another famous exoneree, requiring district attorneys to be more diligent in turning over potentially exculpatory evidence. And Dallas County has tried to move more first-time offenders into programs like DIVERT Court (Dallas Initiative for Diversion and Expedited Rehabilitation and Treatment), which was heavily championed by Creuzot and provides substance abuse treatment and allows for criminal records to be expunged.
Sitting in the library at a historically black college in South Dallas, audience members, many of them with first-hand knowledge of the criminal justice system, asked probing questions of the two candidates, who, in a rare event, are both black and running against a black incumbent. One woman in attendance, Pearl Harper, said she had served five years in prison for a minor drug crime even though she said the arresting officer had harassed her for years. Of the 20 arrests this officer made, all had their charges dropped except Harper, who had requested a speedy resolution to her case so she could get back home to her newborn daughter.
Since she pled without knowing about the weak evidence against her, it was too late to change her mind. She went to prison anyway. “What would you do to prevent this from happening?” she asked. She said later she was so anxious she couldn’t find her glasses, which were hooked on the front of her bold red blouse.
On paper, Frizell’s and Creuzot’s positions aren’t that different – both oppose money bail, support diversion programs for low-level offenses, and neither will agree to stop seeking the death penalty. Their differences emerge in demeanor and style.
Elizabeth Frizell, the candidate favored by the Texas Organizing Project, a grassroots group, and the ex-DA Craig Watkins, was fiery and animated as she discussed her positions on increasing the use of diversion, eliminating civil asset forfeiture, and creating penalties for prosecutors who cross the line by hiding evidence or otherwise committing misconduct. “Why can’t that prosecutor go to jail if it’s conscious disregard, if it’s intentional?” she declared, speaking of prosecutors who repeatedly fail in their legal obligation to turn over evidence to defense attorneys. People clapped.
Creuzot, who nearly ran in 2014 and is favored by mainstream Democratic groups and a long list of Dallas politicians, took a more measured response to the questions asked of him. He often requested clarification and clearly resisted the temptation Frizell created to heat up the crowd and generate a dynamic call-and-response. For example, he said he could not support the elimination of asset forfeiture or cash bail in its entirety. He also relied on his extensive background in establishing diversion programs for those charged with drug offenses. Creuzot also spoke a great deal about being “willing to collaborate” and called for better data collection in the DA’s office: “We know arrests and sentences, but not in between.”
Creuzot did take some shots at Frizell when he seemed confident of having the upper hand. When Frizell said she could confidently divert eight people from jail per week, Creuzot mocked her. “Eight is way low for me. I think it can be bigger!” (Not to be outdone, Frizell later clarified that she meant eight per court.)
Across the country, groups like the ACLU and Right on Crime have shined the spotlight on prosecutor elections. As law academics like John Pfaff have argued, prosecutors, who have the power to choose to prosecute and set plea agreements, have an outsized impact on the number of people in prison. The level of discretion they wield makes their personal views on the criminal justice system more salient to voters. And, with the election of ex-defense attorney and foe of cops Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, the “reformer prosecutor” is now a force to be reckoned with.
With Dallas’ history of more 30 DNA exonerations and the presence of Graves, exonerations and preventing wrongful convictions were big topics at the event. Ex-DA Craig Watkins created the Conviction Integrity Unit after he took office in 2007, but in the past year under Faith Johnson, the candidates argued that the post for head attorney has remained vacant, spurring a discussion over Johnson’s lip service to doing justice by those who are jailed but innocent. (And here is where that editor’s note comes in: The DA’s office says this is incorrect. This is an argument made publicly by both Frizell and Creuzot, as well as the ACLU. As noted above this post, Elizabeth Saab, Johnson’s head of communications, says prosecutor Cynthia Garza has led the CIU for the past eight months. Saab requested we email her further questions about the unit—We’ll have a follow-up with more details about the CIU under Johnson, including the number of staffers and cases they’re working.)
Both Creuzot and Frizell pledged to make the CIU vigorous so that it could do its job by increasing staff. Creuzot emphasized that the “integrity of a case begins at the time it’s brought in, and extends to the appeal.” Frizell focused on partnering with the Innocence Project affiliates and including the voices of exonerees, like the moderator Graves.
Part of the allure of a forum such as this one is to remind candidates that they ultimately answer to the people. This is a role the ACLU hopes to fulfill. As Udi Ofer, the Director of the Director, Campaign for Smart Justice for the ACLU, said, “As candidates for Dallas district attorney make commitments, the ACLU of Texas will stick around long after the election to make sure that the next DA lives up to the commitments they made.” Simply to see people asking the questions signifies that, even for tough-on-crime Dallas, the time may be coming for change that is more than lip-service to the trends of the moment.