Attorney Austin Reeve Jackson said he is running for Smith County District Attorney out of a sense of responsibility to address the problems he sees in the office.
Jackson cited ballooning budgets, a lack of productivity and incompetence, among others.
“We’ve sort of run the gamut of issues in our district attorney’s office, and it’s time we had somebody with the right education, experience and background step up to address those problems,” Jackson said.
Jackson spoke recently with the Tyler Morning Telegraph editorial board about his campaign.
Raised in Lindale, Jackson attended the University of Dallas and Texas Tech University School of Law.
After graduation, he worked as a criminal trial attorney in Williamson and Travis counties, as well as an assistant district attorney in Gregg County.
In 2008, he opened The Jackson Law Firm in Tyler and since has represented clients exclusively in criminal practice. He is board certified in criminal trial law and criminal appellate law.
Although board certification is not required, Jackson said it’s a mark of excellence and “having that experience and that knowledge means that things like these standard legal procedures are going to be done and done right.”
In his 10 years as an attorney, Jackson has represented clients in cases ranging from Class “C” offenses to attempted capital murder, including capital murder investigations and has handled more than 300 felony appeals in the past four years.
Most of the murder cases he has worked have been on appeal, and he has not prosecuted a murder or capital murder case, he said. Still, he said, he has the qualifications for the DA position.
“I think we tend to forget that the law’s the same whether you’re prosecuting or defending,” he said. “You have to know the law. You have to know the rules of evidence. They’re the same for each side, and I have represented people in murder cases. I’ve defended people who were subjected to being charged with capital murder. I’ve been successful and haven’t had to try any of those cases because I’ve either gotten an alternative resolution that didn’t involve a trial (and) didn’t involve obviously the death penalty.”
Regarding the district attorney’s office’s alleged mishandling of cases, he referenced several specifically.
He cited the William Redwine case as an example of a person who was wrongfully convicted of a crime and a conviction that was reversed.
Redwine was convicted of evading arrest using a vehicle, which is a third-degree felony. However, the appeals court reversed the conviction and acquitted him after finding the state did not carry its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, according to a copy of court documents Jackson provided.
“We convicted somebody of a crime for which they were innocent, and we let (them) off for a crime of which they were probably guilty because we got greedy, and we didn’t take what we had and prosecute the case that was in front of us,” Jackson said.
In the Mark Crabtree case, the appeals court acquitted a man who had been found guilty of the second-degree felony offense of failing to comply with sex offender registration requirements.
Crabtree claimed the evidence was legally insufficient to support his conviction because the state failed to prove he was required to register as a sex-offender, according to court documents provided by Jackson, who represented Crabtree. The appeals court agreed and acquitted Crabtree, according to the documents.
“So, a gentleman who two states have said is a threat to the children in the community was put back on the street because the state didn’t follow the basic legal procedure,” Jackson said. “That’s as simple as it gets, knowing the elements of the offense and being able to prove them.”
Jackson said he would not go so far as to say the Mineola swingers cases constituted wrongful convictions.
However, he said, the problem is people don’t know what happened because the district attorney’s office mishandled the case by concealing evidence.
District Attorney Matt Bingham disagreed.
“We do know what happened because one of them, the one I tried, was convicted and got a life sentence,” Bingham said. “The other ones (pleaded) guilty to it, and we do know what happened.”
Furthermore, Bingham said, his office did not intentionally conceal evidence.
“We didn’t have it, and we weren’t aware of it, so there was no concealing anything,” he said.
Jackson said the DA’s office budget has increased by 49 percent since 2004 when Bingham took office.
Bingham’s data shows a 38.5 percent increase in the office’s budget from 2005 to 2013. That amounts to more than $1 million. However, the office returned more than $1.4 million in unspent funds to the county during that same time period, according to the data.
“Just because we have it, doesn’t mean we have to spend it,” Bingham said. He also said the commissioners court sets his office’s budget each year.
Jackson also provided a cost comparison that showed it costs $514 to dispose a felony case in Smith County compared with $499 in McLennan County and $294 in Brazos County.
Bingham said Smith County tries more murder and capital murder cases than those other counties. In addition, he said, the other counties may have a higher dismissal rate. Bingham said he doesn’t control all costs associated with a defendant from the time of arrest to trial.
Jackson said Smith County also has a higher starting salary for its felony prosecutors than Williamson County, the latter of which encourages board certification.
“I think part of the reason we’re having to pay so much is we have to keep them,” Jackson said. “They don’t want to stay. They’re not happy where they are, and that’s evidenced by the high rate of turnover that Matt’s had with his office.”
Bingham said the commissioner’s court sets the salary schedule for his office with the exception of his salary, which the state sets.
He said the DA’s office has a good retention rate. However, he said, prosecutors do get to a point where there is no opportunity for promotion, so they sometimes choose to leave, and his office can’t compete with private sector salaries.
In the past eight months, Jackson has knocked on more than 10,000 doors as part of his campaign. He said that is a point of pride because he thinks elections are something a person should work for.
“It should go to the person who’s most deserving, most qualified and who’s willing to work for it,” he said. “Because if you’ll work for the campaign, you’ll work for the job, and my goal is to get in there and change the mindset from having the job to actually doing the job.”