Former Smith County Judge Cynthia Stevens Kent said Monday she is looking forward to her new position as an assistant district attorney.
She will be working with Smith County Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Wickel as a liaison between the district criminal courts and cases involving Child Protective Services for the county.
Ms. Kent will help share information in cases where criminal defendants who are currently being prosecuted in a district court also will have pending Child Protective Services cases, Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham said.
"I am excited about the new opportunity and looking forward to working with prosecutors to make a difference in our community," Ms. Kent, 57, said. She will be supervised directly by Smith County First Assistant District Attorney April Sikes.
Ms. Kent retired from the bench as a Smith County District Judge in the 114th District Court in 2008 after 24 years in the county, both as a county court-at-law judge and a district judge. After retiring, she went to work at a civil law firm, Kent, Good, Anderson and Bush, owned by her husband, Don Kent.
The position with the Smith County District Attorney's Office is newly created and is a one-year contract position financed by funds seized from criminal cases in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tyler, Bingham said. He added that his office also has a forfeiture fund from defendants in state criminal cases.
"Not a penny of Smith County taxpayer money was used," Bingham said. The U.S. Department of Justice approved creating the new assistant district attorney job, which may not be renewed, Bingham said.
He said his office pays for a retired Internal Revenue Service investigator from state forfeiture funds and works with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"We share in those funds with the U.S. Attorney's Office," Bingham said about the source of money used to pay Ms. Kent's salary.
Ms. Sikes said the Department of Justice authorized the district attorney's office to pay up to $100,000 per year in salary for someone with Ms. Kent's experience.
Bingham said Ms. Kent approached his office in February about coming to work there as a prosecutor, but there were no openings at that time. He said his office had a real need for an attorney who could help gather and share information in situations where there is an individual with an ongoing criminal case who also has pending CPS cases. Bingham said the liaison position was not created with Ms. Kent in mind.
Ms. Sikes said a prime example of the type of case that Ms. Kent will be working on will be similar to that of convicted capital murderer Kimberly Cargill.
"Ms. Cargill was on trial for capital murder but had about 1,800 pages of records involving her children with Child Protective Services," Ms. Sikes said. "If there is a criminal case going here, Ms. Kent will make sure all of the information is provided -- she will bridge the gap between CPS cases and criminal cases."
Although Ms. Kent will work mostly in the 321st District Court of Judge Carole Clark, she will help with the upcoming capital murder case of Simon Lopez, Ms. Sikes said. The trial of Lopez, who is accused in the 2010 murder of his girlfriend's toddler son, has been set for 2013. Lopez has a CPS case pending before Judge Clark. Ms. Kent will make sure the information flows freely between the family court and the district court in that case and in similar cases, Ms. Sikes said.
Ms. Kent was the first elected female judge in Smith County when she became County Court-at-Law No. 2 judge in 1984 at age 30. She was also one of very few Republicans to be elected in a then heavily Democratic county. She was pregnant with her third and youngest son, whom she called her "bench baby" in a 2008 interview, at the time of her election and was involved in a lot of firsts in Smith County courts.
She helped write legislation that allowed county court-at-law judges to preside over family and civil cases with unlimited jurisdiction to help move them more quickly through the system.
Hers was one of the first courts in the state to volunteer in a pilot project placing interlock devices in cars of DWI offenders, which has become common practice. She organized a campaign in 18 counties as regional director on the Victims Rights Constitutional Amendment passed in Texas.
She also was the first judge in the county to use home arrest with electronic monitoring, the first to start ordering DWI offenders to go to victim impact panels and she was the first judge in Smith County to start the Free Press Program to allow cameras in the courtroom. She said she wrote the guidelines to allow cameras in the courtrooms, which are used in Texas and other states.
Ms. Kent was elected judge of the 114th District Court in 1989 and continued implementing and enforcing new programs in the county while presiding over thousands of criminal and civil cases. She also was district judge presiding over cases in Wood County, along with her Smith County duties, for 11 years. She has presided over 39 capital murder cases. Judge Christi Kennedy currently serves as judge in that court.
In 2006, Ms. Kent organized the Alternative Incarceration Center, a program designed to alleviate jail overcrowding, which has saved the county millions of dollars by keeping nonviolent offenders out of jail.
"None of them (the programs) were just me," she said. "There were always hard-working prosecutors, other judges, the sheriff's office and probation office that would partner with me to work on the programs."
Staff Writer Casey Murphy contributed to this report.
Former Smith County Judge Cynthia Kent will join the Smith County District Attorney's Office to help ensure information gets from Child Protective Services and criminal courts. (Staff File Photo)