The Democratic primary runoff for the next Travis County District Attorney is on July 14th. Have no idea who's even running? Check out our easy-to-read guide below.
Vote. Vote. Vote.
One of the biggest races in this election is for our next district attorney. It’s a competitive race that will impact so many of the issues Austin is currently grappling with – police accountability, racial disparities in our criminal justice system, women’s rights, drug reform… The list goes on and on.
Want to cast an informed vote, but really don’t know much about who’s running or what the heck a district attorney even does? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with our latest election guide.
What the heck is a district attorney anyway?
Don’t know much about what a district attorney does beyond what you’ve seen on Law & Order? That’s okay. We’ll keep it simple.
In Travis County, the district attorney is responsible for prosecuting felonies (aka big crimes). This means they help decide if and how to prosecute police officers accused of wrong-doing, how to handle sexual assault cases, and the appropriate punishment for drug offenders.
So who’s running?
There are two candidates for district attorney in the Democratic primary runoff election – José Garza and Margaret Moore.
Margaret Moore is the current district attorney (aka the incumbent). She’s been the Travis County District Attorney since she was elected in 2016.
José Garza is the executive director of the Workers Defense Project, a local nonprofit organization that “empowers low-income workers to achieve fair employment through education, direct services, organizing and strategic partnerships.”
Key Issue of the Election - Police Accountability
With the national conversation around police violence growing and the heightened focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, police accountability is a big issue not only in Austin, but throughout the US. And it’s the district attorney who has one of the biggest roles to play in deciding what happens to police officers accused of wrong-doing. In fact, it’s up to the district attorney to decide whether or not to prosecute an officer involved in a shooting or lethal use of force.
Making sure that police officers are held accountable for their actions is one of the hallmark issues of Garza’s campaign.
“What really makes me angry about all of this is the fact that in the most progressive county in the state, every year, members of our community, and particularly people of color, are injured or killed at the hands of police,” said Garza during a Facebook Live video posted on his page. “And that In the last 4 years, not one law enforcement officer has been held accountable. Not one law enforcement officer has been indicted for killing a member of our community.”
To try and address this, Garza says that if he’s elected, he will take all cases of police misconduct to a grand jury within 30 days of the incident or within 10 days after forensic results are returned. And if for some reason he’s not able to meet that deadline, Garza says he’ll release a public statement explaining why every 14 days.
“That’s completely unrealistic,” Moore said in an interview with The Austin Common. “You can’t even get the investigation completed in 30 days… You can’t get a medical examiner’s report in 30 days. So that’s just pure demagoguery that will not happen.”
Here’s how Moore handles these cases as the current district attorney (as explained by Moore to The Austin Common):
#1. The district attorney’s office (and its Civil Rights Unit) is called to the scene of the incident as soon as a law enforcement officer engages in a lethal use of force. APD’s Special Investigations Unit is also called to the scene. “We are given unfettered access to the investigation,” Moore said.
#2. SIU continues their investigation, collects evidence, looks at videos, and takes witness statements. As they do that, they may consult with the DA’s office (for example, if they need warrants). A medical examiner then issues a report and if needed, a ballistics report is released and DNA testing is done.
#3. After SIU finishes their investigation, they turn over the case to the DA’s office. “We then examine it from the standpoint of, should we take it to a grand jury or not,” Moore said.
“In the past, all cases went to a grand jury, every one of them, no matter what,” Moore explained. “It didn’t matter if they were shooting at the officer and he shot back, which is a clearly justified shooting under Texas law.”
This whole process could sometimes take a year to 18 months, even when according to Moore, they knew it wasn’t going to go to trial. So Moore and her team talked to community leaders and brainstormed a new system.
“So we decided that in cases where under the Texas law that the grand jury would not indict because the shooting was clearly justified, we would not take it to a grand jury,” Moore said. “We would decline the case. But, because we’re declining it and not taking it to the grand jury, we could issue these declination letters.”
A declination letter is a public publishing of all the legal analysis and facts of the case. “Well that gave us the opportunity to put all these facts out there that before had been cloaked in grand jury secrecy…,” Moore said. “So we thought well, the most important thing here is to show the public why the case can’t be prosecuted.”
#4. If the District Attorney’s office decides a case should go to a grand jury, as Moore explained, “either because there needs to be additional investigation that is conducted through the grand jury process, or because we think the grand jury should have the opportunity to decide whether or not a crime has been committed” then the case proceeds.
PS – What’s a grand jury? Much like a regular jury, a grand jury is made up of regular Austinites who randomly receive one of those jury summons letters in the mail. But unlike a regular jury, grand juries meet two afternoons a week for three months, hearing a wide variety of cases and deciding whether or not to issue an indictment. An indictment formally charges a person, which can then lead to a full trial.
This leads to another change Moore has made since becoming district attorney. For police use-of-force cases, a special grand jury is empaneled that hears these types of cases only.
According to Moore, this reduces bias (because grand juries hear from police officers often and rely on their testimony for deciding other cases), allows the grand jury to be more prepared and educated on the issues, and grants the grand jury more time to seriously consider the case.
Here’s the results of these changes. According to Moore, in the 8 years before she took office, the DA’s office reviewed 96 cases of police misconduct (not all of them lethal). Of that, 33 went to a grand jury and were no billed (which means no indictment is issued) and three went to a grand jury and were true billed (which means they did issue an indictment).
According to Moore, since she took over, there have been indictments against eight law enforcement officers/public servants (for cases including assault, tampering, and abuse of official capacity, but none for lethal encounters.)
“In every one of the cases we’ve declined, the deceased individual brandished, used, threatened with a deadly weapon…” Moore said, making these cases very difficult to prosecute.
From Garza’s perspective, Moore’s efforts simply have not gone far enough in ensuring true police accountability in Travis County.
“I won’t speak to what the district attorney’s intent was,” Garza said in an interview with The Austin Common. “I can only speak to what the results have been. There are cases of police misconduct, police involved shootings, stemming back to 2017, 2018 that the district attorney still has not made a decision about. And so regardless of the intent, what we know is that this new system has not resulted in more quick, more transparent, more efficient decisions.”
Moore has a different take on the situation. “Now my opponent says I haven’t held any officer accountable,” she said. “Well, I disagree with that characterization. Because I do think you are being held accountable when every aspect of that shoot is investigated, when every aspect of it is thoroughly examined by the district attorney, and when every aspect is published to this community, that’s accountability.”
For Garza, it really all boils down to the type of leadership Travis County wants to see in the district attorney’s office.
“We are in a moment where there has been, I think, a new level of consciousness about the brutality that has been committed against people of color, against Black people in our community, for generations, by law enforcement,” Garza said. “And part of the job of the district attorney is to be a vocal leader on issues like this, to educate the community, so that they can discharge their duty in a grand jury setting in accordance with our societal norms and in accordance with the law.”
Key Issue of the Election - Sexual Assault
This has become a big issue in this race, largely because there has been a lot of controversy in the way Moore and her office have handled sexual assault cases and interacted with sexual assault survivors including:
Moore has been named in 2 lawsuits (one which has been dismissed), alleging that her and her office have mishandled sexual assault cases
Moore ended the DA office’s long-time collaboration with the Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Resource and Response Team (SARRT), which brings together advocates and law enforcement to improve the local response to rape and the treatment of survivors
Under public pressure, Moore resigned from the state’s Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force earlier this year
All of this feeds into long-standing issues in Austin and Travis County in the way sexualt assault cases are investigated and prosecuted. As the New York Times reports, in 2016, APD closed two out of every three sexual assault cases without making an arrest. Also in 2016, the APD DNA crime lab was forced to shut down because of poorly trained staff and outdated methods. The shutdown only worsened Austin’s large backlog of hundreds of untested rape kits.
For Garza, this has created a completely unacceptable situation, especially in a place that claims to be as progressive as Austin.
“In 2018, the district attorney’s office prosecuted approximately 70 cases of sexual assault,” Garza said. “That was less than 10 percent of all sexual assault cases brought forward by the Austin Police Department in that year. In the same year, by comparison, the district attorney’s office prosecuted 2,700 drug cases. That’s a clear picture of the priorities of our district attorney’s office.”
Moore sees it differently. She says that many of the issues surrounding how Travis County deals with sexual assault cases started before she took office. Since becoming the district attorney, she says she’s tried to improve the situation by creating an Adult Sexual Assault Unit with more resources for trying these types of cases. She also created an Interagency Sexual Assault Team to bring together law enforcement agencies from across the county (including from UT, Pflugerville, St. Edward’s, and Manor) to collaborate on improving training methods for officers.
According to Moore, this has created real change in the way sexual assault cases are prosecuted in Travis County.
“So if you look at the three years before I came and the three years after I came, we tripled the number of jury trials, we’ve had a 114 percent increase in pleas and findings of guilt that are not tried,” Moore said. “So we’ve had more cases go to grand jury, more cases go to trial, and more cases disposed of successfully.”
As for the lawsuits, Moore says, “One, the facts have just been totally misrepresented. Two, one of the things that my opponent continually raises is, well, you got sued. Well, I’m not the only one who got sued here. This was a lawsuit brought by plaintiffs who were unhappy across the board. They sued the police department and the sheriffs office….”
“Yeah, there was a lot of pent up anger and frustration, and I totally get that,” Moore said. “But we dove in to address that from the beginning.”
For Garza’s part, if he’s elected, he says he will be sure to do things differently, prioritizing and honoring victims, ensuring that all his staff have trauma-informed and victim-centered training, collaborating with local community groups, and being transparent about how sexual assault cases are being handled.
In a story for KXAN, Julie Ann Nitsch, one of the sexual assault surivors involved in the class action lawsuit against Moore (as well as APD Chief Brian Manley, and the former district attorney) put the current situation this way, “You just have this overwhelming sense of anger and frustration. You have District Attorneys that are far more concerned with their prosecution rate than they are with justice within their community.”
Each of the candidates has a long list of other changes they’d like to make and priorities they’d like to focus on if elected. Below is a brief summary of their top issues:
Wants to end the direct file of criminal cases by the police – this would allow prosecutors to review cases before they’re even filed, to help reduce police bias
Have trained interviewerers to work with adult sexual assault victims, to improve the experience for the victim
Deflect out certain drug cases and into treatment right away
Truly end the cash bail system in Travis County
Will refuse to prosecute the sale or possession of a gram or less of narcotics, helping to reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system
Will expand diversion programs to keep more people out of jail, ensuring that someone’s ability to pay does not impact whether or not they can participate
“What I’m trying to do is truly change our system, and to do it, you’ve got to know it,” Moore said in an interview with The Austin Common. “We all want to get to the same place, I just think I’m a better pilot, because I’ve actually flown the plane.”
Garza summed things up this way. “I believe it is time to re-shift our priorities. To focus our resources and our energy on prosecuting the kinds of crimes that will make our community more safe. The district attorney’s office every single year, brings more drug cases than any other kind of offense…Prosecuting low level drug offenses is one of the greatest drivers of racial disparities in our criminal justice system,” Garza said, explaining that if elected, he’ll spend his time focusing on prosecuting sexual assault cases and holding police officers accused of wrong-doing accountable.
“I believe that our community deserves a district attorney who will use that power to protect the most vulnerable, not to protect the most powerful,” Garza said.