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District Attorney candidates talk about the issues

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 by Mark Richardson

While the debate among the four candidates to replace Ronnie Earle as Travis County District Attorney produced few fireworks Monday night, the candidates did stake out their positions on drug arrest diversion programs, APD violence, the death penalty and other issues.


Candidates First Assistant DA Rosemary Lehmberg, Assistant DA Gary Cobb, Assistant DA Mindy Montford and former Assistant DA Rick Reed gathered at Gene’s Po Boy’s on East 11th St. for the debate. The Texas Moratorium Network and the Central Texas Chapter of the ACLU sponsored the event.


Given the debate’s sponsors, it was no surprise that several questions dealt with the death penalty and crime on Austin’s East Side. Debbie Russell, local ACLU director, asked the candidates if they would support a moratorium on the death penalty beyond the current ban in place while awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court.


Montford came out the strongest against a moratorium. “I’m not going to declare a moratorium,” she said. “The District Attorney is not elected for her opinions. I am charged with following the law. However, I did work with the Legislature on drafting language for the life without parole law, and helped put it on the books.”


Cobb said his opinion on the matter has evolved over the years. “Before I was 30 or 31, I strongly opposed the death penalty in all cases,” he said. “But I followed a case in Houston where a couple of gang members, as a part of an initiation ritual, grabbed a couple of teen-aged girls, raped them, strangled them with their own shoelaces, then went on partying. Based on that, and other cases I’ve seen, I’ve come to believe that there are people who have such low regard for human life should be executed.”


Lehmberg said she struggles with the death penalty question. “I am part of our office’s Capital Murder Review Committee,” she said. “We review every case that comes through our office. Travis County has one of the lowest numbers of death cases pending – five, I believe – but I cannot pledge to not seek the death penalty. However, with penalties such as consecutive sentences and life without parole, we only seeking the death penalty in the most aggravated cases.”


Reed said he was generally not in favor of the death penalty.  “I go all the way back to my first job as a prosecutor with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office,” he said. “I told them if I was assigned a case and told to seek the death penalty, I’d have to discuss that with my superiors. And they hired me anyway. I still believe it’s a mistake to seek the death penalty when you have life without parole as an option.”


On the topic of minor drug arrests, all four generally agreed that too many young African American and Hispanic men are being sent to jail. The panel discussed a report that said, the crimes being equal, a black or Hispanic charged with a drug offense was 31 times more likely to go to jail in Texas than their white counterparts.     


Cobb, an African American, said this issue was one that sets him apart from his colleagues. “I have been out in the community to work with people on resolving this problem,” he said. “Having the community involved in the solution is extremely important . Putting these people in a jail cell just takes up room that is needed for more violent criminals. It’s a health problem, and we need to follow through with treatment.”


Reed said the “War on Drugs” is a failed policy. “Incarcerating people for drug use doesn’t work,” he said. “We have made people into criminals. We need more communication between the police and the courts, and must work with the county and the legal system to fund a drug diversion court.”


Montford said the District Attorney’s office could make a difference in cutting down the number of people being incarcerated. “We have to break the cycle of people using drugs,” she said. “One way, I believe, is to have a prosecutor on duty 24-hours a day to help police make decisions on these cases, and get people into treatment before their cases go to a felony court.”


The four were also asked about what changes they might make in the way police officers are investigated and prosecuted when they are involved in questionable shooting cases.


Reed said he would appoint a special unit to handle such cases. “Whether it is a State Legislator or a police officer, public servants are held to a higher standard,” he said. “If criminal behavior is found, it should be prosecuted. A special prosecutor would understand the process, and would understand that juries tend to give police officers a ‘more fair’ trial that others get sometimes.”


Lehmberg said it is an issue of communication and transparency by the DA’s office. “We need to do a better job of explaining the grand jury process,” she said. “People need to know that the grand jury is an independent entity.”


Cobb said his stance on prosecuting bad officers earned him an endorsement from the Austin Police Association. “It’s a prosecution issue,” he said “If an officer is guilty of poor judgement, I’m his best friend. But if he commits a criminal act, I will prosecute his case to the fullest. And police officers want that assurance.”


The four candidates will be on the Democratic ballot for the March 4 Texas Primary. Since there are no Republicans or independents running, the primary winner will – in all likelihood – be the next District Attorney.

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