From U.S. presidents to Texas governors to San Antonio City Council members, annual “state of …” addresses have become regular events on the calendar. Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood added to that mix with the first-ever State of the District Attorney address on Wednesday.
LaHood took office in January 2015 after defeating longtime incumbent Republican Susan Reed, propelled by a seven-figure campaign contribution from plaintiff’s attorney Thomas J. Henry.
The theme of LaHood’s speech was justice.
The main responsibility of the D.A.’s office is “to seek justice, to look out for justice, to go find it, not wait for it to come to us,” he told more than 200 people at the luncheon hosted by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at the Embassy Suites San Antonio Riverwalk.
The 43-year-old San Antonio native said his view won’t change as he moves further into his term. He cited several initiatives launched under his watch.
LaHood created the Child Abuse Unit, an organization comprised of 22 prosecutors who seek justice for abused and neglected children and provide resources for families and parents who have abused their children.
“Children do not choose their parents, they’re stuck with them, and we deal with some kids who are stuck with some crappy parents, and that’s just a fact,” LaHood said. “In the past, (the parents) were stuck in a crappy system. What do you think that will produce?”
LaHood is working to reform the system. Social workers who work closely with the prosecutor and the investigator for each case aim to keep families together throughout the trial process. From 2014 to 2015, the number of child abuse felony trials grew from 47 to 87, and the conviction rate for those felonies increased from 54% to 70%. So far in 2016, there have been 35 child abuse felony trials and the conviction rate has remained at 70%.
“That’s because cases are not falling through the cracks anymore,” LaHood said. “Our prosecutors know that they have a purpose when they come to work every day. They know that their purpose affects other peoples’ lives for generations – not just the person or the child, but their children’s children will be different people if we get it right.”
The Domestic Violence Task Force works toward the same goal. Bexar County ranks second after Harris County for the highest number of reported adult domestic violence cases, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence. The D.A.’s group of 10 prosecutors assigned to the task force work to handle “repeated assaults involving violations of protective orders and assaults involving choking.”
Another measure of maintaining justice, LaHood said, is always asking, “‘Did I get it right? How is the D.A.’s office making sure that we got it right, that someone before us got it right?”
Sometimes, the answer is not always “yes.”
Questionable cases are brought to the Conviction Integrity Unit, which investigates claims of innocence or wrongful conviction made by convicted persons who have already gone through their trial and appeal processes.
LaHood cited the case of Michael Morton who was wrongfully convicted in 1987 for murdering his wife. He served 25 years in prison. DNA evidence and an investigation conducted by the Innocence Project concluded that Williamson County prosecutors withheld key documents pointing to Morton’s innocence. The DNA evidence used in the investigation concluded Morton was not the perpetrator and he was exonerated. Former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson entered a guilty plea to criminal contempt, served a 10-day jail sentence, resigned from his position, and permanently relinquished his law license.
LaHood will meet Morton for the first time in July.
“We have to make sure we get it right,” LaHood said. “Every D.A.’s office should be that way.”
When the Conviction Integrity Unit was founded, LaHood said there were only nine such groups across the country. Now there are more than 30. Since its inception, Bexar County’s unit has reviewed cases for 428 defendants – 144 of which involved DNA testing – and has recommended relief in two cases.
Justice must be upheld among elected officials, too, LaHood said. Through the Law Enforcement Integrity Unit, his office currently has 60 cases pending against law enforcement officers. He also has hired a special use-of-force prosecutor.
A number of fatal police shootings of unarmed African-Americans have raised concerns among citizens that officers lack adequate training and are over-reacting in situations where subjects must be subdued or are considered potentially dangerous.
Two San Antonio Police Department detectives, whose identities have not yet been released to The Rivard Report, are currently under investigation for their involvement in the fatal shooting of 36-year-old Antronie Scott. The officer who shot Scott, Officer John Lee, remains on administrative duty as SAPD has turned its internal investigation of the shooting over to the LaHood’s office. After several months the case is still pending.
The use-of-force prosecutor will undergo specialized training, LaHood said. They’ll receive training on other investigative techniques to ensure that they accurately investigate the officers in question. LaHood wouldn’t identify the prosecutor, but said that information will be released soon.
LaHood has come under fire for what some have perceived as his failure to aggressively pursue prosecutions against police officers involved in fatal shootings of unarmed citizens. One such case was the failure of a grand jury’s failure to indict former University of the Incarnate Word police officer Christopher Carter for the fatal shooting of UIW honors student Robert Cameron Redus in December 2013.
LaHood is currently engulfed in a public feud with Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) over a “perceived conflict of interest” involving LaHood’s Chief Investigator Willie Ng Jr. and a contract Ng holds with the County. LaHood maintains that there is no conflict of interest since state law allows county employees – even commissioners – to pursue county contracts, if they don’t vote on them.
LaHood hopes to build community support for his office by creating a community advisory board that will meet quarterly, he said, and a Trial Advocacy Program to provide additional trial training for soon-to-be attorneys. His office is ready to fight virtual crime with its cyber forensic unit, the first such unit in any district attorney’s office in Texas, LaHood said.
He cited the number of felony trials and the conviction rates since he took office. In 2014, there were 102 felony trials with a 52% conviction rate and 102 misdemeanor trials also with a 52% conviction rate, he said. In 2015, there were 165 felony trials with a 57% conviction rate and 165 misdemeanor trials with a 55% conviction rate. This year, he said, there have been 70 felony trials with a 77% conviction rate and 49 misdemeanor trials with a 63% conviction rate.
LaHood’s office processed more than 70,000 cases last year, he added, while the number of defendants awaiting trial jailed in the Bexar County Jail has been reduced to an average of 325 inmates. The numbers have remained consistent between 2015 and 2016, bringing the total estimated annual savings to the county to $5,931,250.
The costs are small compared to preserving integrity and justice in Bexar County, LaHood said.
“Justice doesn’t just apply to someone I know, or someone you know, or someone who is connected, justice is applies to everybody,” he said. “We have to do what’s right, not what’s easy.”
Top image: Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood gives the state of the District Attorney address. Photo by Scott Ball.