By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
On the side of the defense.
In a rather counter-intuitive subplot in the district attorney's race, two out of the three Republican candidates have come out in favor of a broader open-file policy, a procedural issue that has far-reaching implications in how just about every criminal case is tried and defended in Dallas County. Under an open-file policy, the prosecution hands its case file to the defense well in advance of the trial. That information covers not just so-called Brady material--evidence that is favorable to the defense--but nearly all reports that could help the defendants and their counsel prepare their case or decide whether to pursue a trial at all. That may include statements the defendant made to authorities, witness accounts, ballistics evidence and lab reports. As it stands now, Dallas prosecutors are not required to turn over some of that evidence until the day before trial.
Wyde says that the district attorney's lack of a real open-file policy is also why it's so slow in resolving criminal cases.
"Now you can go back and tell your client, 'They have a lab report, and it shows you had the blood of the victim on your hands.' Now do you understand how that moves cases?" Wyde says.
The Tarrant County District Attorney's Office has had an open-file policy since the 1970s. There, the defense counsel has access to the prosecution's case notes as soon as the case is filed on all misdemeanors and most felonies. Often, defense lawyers can simply download the files from the district attorney's Web site. On serious charges like murder, the defense lawyers will still be able to review the file within two weeks of the indictment, which still gives them plenty of time to prepare for a trial.
"It promotes a sense of fairness; there's no sense that we're hiding something," says Betty Arvin, the deputy chief of the criminal division for the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office.
As you might expect, Republican candidate Toby Shook, current felony bureau chief under District Attorney Bill Hill, is not quite as enthused about adopting Tarrant County's open-file policy, although he says he's interested in at least exploring the option. But fellow Republican and former Judge Vic Cunningham has spoken unequivocally in favor of it, as have all three Democratic candidates for district attorney.
"I want the playing field to be equal," says Democratic candidate and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Jarrett. "We're not going to hide the ball."