DA Does Have an Open-File Policy....Not

Dallas County District Attorney's Office flack Rachel Raya can say whatever she wants, but she may be the only person who actually believes that Bill Hill has a real open-file policy. A few months ago, I spoke to several defense attorneys who describe a haphazard, unpredictable process that clogs up the system and infringes on the rights of defendants. This is in stark contrast with how they do things at the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office, which gives the defense all the information they need to try their cases.

"I can pull up all the reports on any Tarrant County criminal case I'm involved in," says defense attorney Tom Lochry about the Tarrant County office's computer system. In Dallas County, "you sort of do a soft-shoe shuffle, begging and pleading and cajoling the prosecutor for information."

In Dallas, when defense attorneys prepare for a case, they say they can't even count on receiving an advance copy of the prosecution's report, which typically includes witness statements and police notes about the alleged crime. Sometimes, if the defense attorney is lucky, the prosecutor on the case will let him or her take notes in a noisy workroom, which in Dallas is regarded as an act of generosity.

"You don't have time to copy verbatim," Lochry says. "You just have enough time to get the gist of it, and that leaves you vulnerable to overlooking stuff. When you go back to see your clients, you have a bunch of chicken-scratch notes to show them."

In Dallas, defense attorneys have no idea when or if they'll receive information that's crucial to the case, including witness statements, lab reports and police notes. Often they can't even expect to learn that the only eyewitness against their client completely reversed their story until minutes before trial.

In contrast, in Tarrant County, where Craig Watkins' new hire Terri Moore learned the right way to prosecute cases, defense attorneys can access nearly every relevant document online without having to leave their office -- and they can do so well in advance of trial.

"In Tarrant County, you get everything you want," says defense attorney Richard Carrizales.

In Dallas County, there are some prosecutors who play fair; others, however, take the "hard-to-get" approach, making the practice of law in Dallas County more unpredictable than it ought to be. "I think the problem Dallas has is that nobody really knows what the policy is," says defense attorney Deandra Grant. "I've had cases before where the prosecutor photocopies everything for me; I've had other cases where I've had to bother the prosecutor to say, 'Hey, can you give me this? Can you give me that?'"

And keep in mind, nobody is about to confuse Tarrant County with Berkeley, California. If anything, a real open-file policy helps move more cases through an overcrowded system.

"I think they're afraid they'll have to try more cases, and I submit to you it's the exact opposite," says Lochry. "A good defense attorney is more likely to work for a deal if he knows the evidence against him rather than having to have a trial by ambush."

Recently, we wrote about how prosecutor Shelley Hallman cut out a picture of a defense attorney who had been critical of her and placed it on a firing-range target. That pretty much sums up how prosecutors feel about defense attorneys -- at least according to defense attorneys who are waiting to see if Craig Watkins understands what they insist Bill Hill never did. --Matt Pulle

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky