Published by The Daily Texan
By Hooman Hedayati
On March 4, Travis County residents will vote for a new district attorney. Ronnie Earle, the current district attorney, announced last year that he is planning to retire after more than 30 years in office. Four of Earle’s assistant district attorneys, Rosemary Lehmberg, Rick Reed, Gary Cobb and Mindy Montford, are running to replace him. This race is probably the most important local race and is being watched nationally. The Travis County DA is a unique position because it has the special privilege of investigating and prosecuting public officials through the Public Integrity Unit, and for the first time, there is a chance that Travis County might take the death penalty off the table. Last year, when Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka announced Earl’s plan to retire, he said that “a DA is supposed to be the conscience of the community.” This brings up the issue of how the next district attorney should handle death penalty cases in a county where a big majority believes that the death penalty system in Texas is broken. Each candidate is running in the upcoming Democratic primary without a Republican challenger, so whichever one wins the Democratic primary will be the next DA.
All four candidates have years of experience working as prosecutors. Lehmberg, Ronnie Earle’s choice to replace him, has headed many divisions in the DA’s office, from chief of the Trial Division to director of the Public Integrity Unit. Montford is the only candidate who has legislative experience. She worked as general counsel to Texas Sen. Eddie Lucio and helped write the life-without-parole legislation. Cobb is the only black prosecutor in the race and has the endorsement of the Austin Police Officers Association. Reed has prosecuted the most cases out of any of the candidates, and has taken the most progressive stances on the issues.
But three of the candidates remain pro-death penalty. Lehmberg is the status-quo candidate who promises to continue with the current system, and Montford has also said that she would continue to use the death penalty. Cobb has made the strongest pro-death penalty statements, having said that “some people didn’t deserve to keep living.”
Cobb also came under fire when he used a coerced confession to convict Lacresha Murray, an 11-year-old girl charged with capital murder in 1996. Cobb was the lead prosecutor in her case, which was later thrown out by a Republican appeals court after receiving national coverage on “60 Minutes” questioning the reasoning for charging someone so young with a capital crime.
The only candidate who has come out against the death penalty is Reed, and his adamant anti-death penalty platform would bring fundamental change from the status quo, pro-death penalty campaigns of the other three candidates. Reed is by far the most progressive candidate in this race.
Reed’s view on the death penalty is not the only thing that sets him apart. He supports expanding the use of drug courts to divert more people charged with drug possession into treatment, freeing up more prosecutors for other crimes. He has promised to work closely with the Innocence Project to investigate cases of possible wrongful convictions, as has been done recently by the Dallas County DA. Reed wants to decentralize decision-making in the office, giving front-line prosecutors more discretion over their cases. Most importantly, he spearheaded the money-laundering case against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and he told the Texas Observer that he was the only person within the DA’s office pushing for an indictment against Delay, while Lehmberg opposed prosecuting the powerful politician.
A large number of voters believe that the death penalty system in Texas is broken and should not be used until steps are taken to address the problems, and many oppose the death penalty altogether based on principle. Either way, there is likely to be a large amount of support in Austin for candidates who take stands against the death penalty, especially in a race in which the winner has the power to unilaterally end the use of the death penalty within Travis County. It is not too late for the other candidates to take a position on the death penalty that reflects the values and priorities of the progressive community from which they seek votes. All the candidates for Travis County DA should follow Reed’s example and say that they will not support the death penalty.
Hedayati is a government junior, Students Against the Death Penalty President and a Campus Progress at the Center for American Progress advisory board member.