Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson has sent disclosures to defense attorneys in thousands of criminal cases after recently discovering notes from past misdemeanor prosecutors that raised questions about the credibility of 16 officers and 3 breathalyzer operators.
In response to a Star-Telegram inquiry Saturday, Wilson confirmed in emails to the newspaper that she launched a massive review after 22 3-inch binders were found in misdemeanor offices and brought to her attention after she took office in January.
She said the binders contained more than 6,000 handwritten notes entered by past misdemeanor prosecutors on pre-printed forms seeking their personal observations about officers who served as witnesses in prior misdemeanor trials.
The forms, dated from 1993 to 2014, included an option of “Fudges: (Good/Bad)” under the section about testimony given during the trial. She said the documents raised questions about the credibility of 16 officers, as well as three breathalyzer operators.
“In 19 of the forms, the officer (or operator) is said to have lied but not always on the stand,” Wilson said.
As a result, Wilson said her office has sent out about 4,000 Brady notices to defense attorneys who had a past or current criminal case in which the 19 officers and operators were in any way involved. Those cases could include felonies, she said.
Under Brady disclosure, named for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must make available to the defense any exculpatory or impeaching information and evidence that is material to the guilt, innocence or punishment of a defendant.
More recently, the Michael Morton Act also requires that Texas prosecutors share their files with the defense and keep records of the evidence they disclose.
“The Criminal District Attorney’s Office has not determined the accuracy of the statements made about any of these officers,” Wilson emphasized. “Our legal and ethical obligation under Brady is to disclose. Courts would have to make the determination of accuracy.”
She said she will also make available for defense attorney review the remainder of the discovered notes that were not applicable to Brady requirements.
The Star-Telegram inquired about the probe after some defense attorneys told the newspaper that Wilson had discussed it at a speech given Thursday before the Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
“Right thing to do”
Greg Westfall, a Fort Worth defense attorney, said he received a Brady notice late Friday afternoon that dealt with a Fort Worth officer who had played a minor role in a still pending misdemeanor DWI case that Westfall is working.
“In my case, all the guy did was an inventory of the car. He didn’t play a major role at all,” Westfall said. “I can see where there could be situation where the guy did play a play a major role and that would be an important thing.”
He applauded Wilson for bringing the issue to light and said her actions are in line with what criminal district attorneys are required to do — seek justice in cases.
“It’s not changing the way I’m handling the case, but it’s really the right thing to do,” he said.
Another Fort Worth defense attorney, Jim Lane, also expressed support for Wilson’s actions.
“She has shown, I think, the voters and the defense bar and people that are involved in the criminal justice system that she is going to be transparent and open,” Lane said. “Her administration didn’t create the list but her administration is the one who had to disclose it and I think she’s done the right thing.”
Wilson said the forms had apparently been used by other misdemeanor prosecutors.
“We understand the chief of the misdemeanor section for years had asked the misdemeanor attorneys to complete DA Officer Update Forms when they completed a trial,” Wilson said. “The forms were put in binders for other prosecutors to review to help them analyze their officer witnesses.
“We have no reason to believe that (former District Attorneys) Joe Shannon or Tim Curry were aware the updated forms were being used,” she added.
Wilson declined to release the names of the 19 individuals whose credibility had been questioned in the forms, but said their departments have been notified.
At the time that the forms were completed, she said, the 19 were working with the following police agencies: Arlington, Bedford, Crowley, Euless, Fort Worth, Grapevine, North Richland Hills, Watauga, Willow Park, as well as the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office.
Training and new policy
Wilson said her office is continuing to investigate the 19 forms and are not conceding that the statements are “either admissible, material or favorable to a defendant” nor that they were willingly or inadvertently withheld by the state.
“The attorneys reported their comments to their supervisor by completing these forms on an individual basis, but there was no policy or procedure to take the next step of applying it to subsequent cases,” Wilson said.
She said her office is now focusing on training and has an official policy in place in which any concerns by a prosecutor must be reported to a designated senior attorney.
In the wake of the discovery, Wilson said her office and police chiefs in Tarrant County have also joined together to create a first-of-its kind Discovery Compliance Policy.
The policy stipulates that any suspected misconduct or criminal acts by an officer must be shared between police, the district attorney’s office, and defense attorneys in future cases to ensure that Brady obligations are fulfilled.
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655