With early voting underway for the runoff in the Travis County district attorney’s race, voters are casting their ballots in a much different world than they did during the primaries.
Incumbent Margaret Moore and challenger José Garza are now facing off in a county in which all criminal court proceedings are virtual, all jury trials are on hold and voters have a heightened focus on criminal justice issues.
Both Garza and Moore are keenly aware of voters’ new attention on police reform, as evidenced by recent efforts to highlight their past work and future plans.
For 12 months, Garza has campaigned against Moore for what he sees as overly harsh punishments against nonviolent offenders. Moore has said Garza, a former public defender on the Texas-Mexico border, misrepresents Travis County’s progressive criminal justice system and ignores the reform that she and others have accomplished. Garza counters that Travis County is not as progressive as Moore says it is.
Several months ago, many of Moore’s challengers were accusing her of not prosecuting enough sexual assault cases. This month, however, as demonstrators have spilled into the streets to protest racial injustice, the talking points have shifted.
Garza, co-executive director of the Austin-based nonprofit Workers Defense Project, hosted an online panel last week about police accountability and pledged not to accept campaign contributions from police unions. Moore last week released a white paper detailing the purpose of her civil rights unit that investigates unlawful use of force by police officers.
Throughout his campaign, Garza has criticized Moore’s leadership decisions, including on police prosecutions.
“In the last four years, not one officer has been charged with a crime for killing a member of our community, and not one officer has been convicted of a crime for any misconduct,” Garza told the American-Statesman.
Garza said, if elected, he will bring all police shootings and more police misconduct cases before a grand jury. When Moore took office in 2017, she ended a policy by previous District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to take all cases in which an Austin police officer shot a person to a grand jury, who would then decide if the officer should be indicted.
Moore said that her office reviews the cases and only focuses on the shootings that were potentially unlawful or cases in which the facts were in dispute. Moore also created a civil rights division within her office that focuses on these shootings as well as other cases of officer misconduct.
“This was a top priority for me, coming into the job,” she told the Statesman. “It is a deeply important matter for me, to win the confidence of this community in the fairness, thoroughness and transparency of these investigations.”
Moore consulted with community activists as she built the unit and recruited defense attorney Dexter Gilford to head it. Gilford’s team only focuses on police use of force and misconduct and remains separate from the rest of the office that relies heavily on the investigative work done by the Austin Police Department for their cases.
Moore said her unit investigates cases thoroughly, and she cannot promise indictments and convictions.
“You can’t guarantee outcomes — the outcomes are in the hands of citizens when they serve on these juries,” she said. “But I can guarantee the process, and I’ve lived up to that guarantee.”
Moore’s office has only brought one case to trial involving Austin police officers. Officer Robert Pfaff used a stun gun on a man who later won a $75,000 settlement when he sued the city for excessive force. Pfaff and Officer Donald Petraitis were later fired and tried together, as prosecutors and police accused them of falsely writing in their report that the man looked like he was about to bolt.
The jury acquitted them, and an arbitration hearing later reinstated both officers.
Austin Officer Nathaniel Stallings was set to go to trial a couple months ago on charges of assault and abuse of capacity after, according to a disciplinary memo, he slammed a woman’s head against a patrol vehicle. However, that trial was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gilford said.
The civil rights unit took to a grand jury the case of Hugo Alvarez, who was shot and killed by an Austin police sniper the night of March 25, 2018. SWAT officers had surrounded his home after Alvarez fired shots from inside, police said. SWAT team members had used a robot to breach the home’s front door. Moments later, officers radioed that Alvarez and his mother were coming out the front door, and the sniper shot him seconds after they came out.
Reports indicate that Austin police were aware of the possibility that Alvarez had left his gun inside the home before they came out, according to the city’s civilian-run Office of Police Oversight.
A grand jury declined to indict the police officer in that case.
The DA’s office is still reviewing seven police shootings — three of which happened in 2018 and four that occurred in 2019 — to decide whether to take them to a grand jury. Moore said she also has decided to bring two high-profile cases to a grand jury: the deadly shooting of Michael Ramos by an Austin officer and the death of Javier Ambler after Williamson County deputies used a stun gun on him multiple times. However, she said a grand jury will likely not hear those cases until August, because of pandemic constraints.
Garza said that if a district attorney’s office prioritizes police misconduct cases, more cases will result in indictments and convictions.
“I have thought a lot about how long Ms. Ramos (Ramos’ mother) has had to wait, how long the Ambler family has had to wait and how long so many families have had to wait,” Garza said during last week’s online panel. “I am committing to prioritize these kinds of crimes.”