Hundreds of DA staffers go through diversity training

DA Craig Watkins’ policies could ensure violence against LGBT people won’t go unpunished

CoverStory

NOH8 | The Dallas County District Attorney’s office welcomed Roberta Clark of the Anti-Defamation League to the office for a training on “Why Diversity Matters.” Nearly 300 prosecutors and investigators attended the training. (Tracy Nanthavongsa/Dallas District Attorney’s Office of Communications)

 

STEVE RAMOS  |  Senior Editor

They were the words no mother wants to hear. Maria Ramos, tough ranch woman that she was, must have weakened when the Arkansas official told her that her son was injured and probably wouldn’t live through the day. It was 1985. People weren’t awakened by genial cell phone tones in those days. Instead, a 10-pound phone ringing in the early morning hours roused people like a cattle prod to the brain. The news that your son is near death would only rev that shock to a mind-splintering level.

Minutes after she hung up the phone, Maria’s bags were packed, and she was herding other family members into action. Bad news travels through Mexican neighborhoods faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, and the community circled the wagons around her. Within the hour, family friends were dropping off money to help with the trip. A couple of dollars from one, five bucks from another. Tears from all of them.

Maria and her six other children pointed their cars toward the barely rising sun. Normally, sunrises are glorious in the Texas Panhandle, but the streaks of magentas and oranges would have been lost to the family on that morning. Instead, the sun’s movement westward was only a reminder that time was running out. Doubtlessly, Maria would have prayed 10 rosaries during that tortuous drive — one for each of the hours that separated her from her dying son.

I don’t know who told Grandma what happened to my uncle, or if she knew the details before she left home or was told at the hospital. It doesn’t matter. He was brain dead, the result of a brutal gay bashing. Eyewitnesses reported that a man attacked my uncle from behind, knocked him to the ground and then kicked him in the head repeatedly.

Because. He. Was. Gay.

After the attack, my uncle was able to get up, the witnesses said, but he later collapsed. It was the last time he would walk. We soon learned the assailant had prior convictions of assault in Arkansas and Louisiana and was on probation for assault at the time of the attack. One would think it was an open-and-shut case. But not in Arkansas. And certainly not in 1985.

The district attorney should have just stayed home on the day of the trial. A first-year law student could have swatted away his feeble prosecution like a child slapping a geriatric gnat. He just didn’t care. He allowed the defense to mock the gay eyewitnesses, turning the trial into a finger-pointing at them, that they and my uncle were somehow responsible for the attack — just for being gay. They were ridiculed and humiliated, forced to divulge to their neighbors the personal details of their gay lives. They were on trial. The gay community was on trial. The only one not on trial was the defendant.

It turns out the jury didn’t care, either. Despite the eyewitness testimony that detailed the attack on my uncle, and despite the assailant’s criminal record, a dozen jurors found him not guilty. Imagine a mother being told by 12 people that her son’s life has no value to them. Indeed, as one of my aunts was later walking down the courthouse steps, she overheard someone say, “It’s just one less faggot walking the streets as far as I’m concerned.” My grandmother never recovered.

Sadly, my uncle’s story isn’t a unique one in the LGBT community. Laramie, Tyler, Paris, Dallas, Houston — this list goes on. Dallas Voice reporter David Taffet is working on a story about the Texas Obituary Project that has documented, so far, about 140 violent deaths in the community over the last several decades. How many law enforcement agencies and district attorneys buried LGBT hate crimes during those years or just determined not to prosecute them? How many mothers were told their sons’ and daughters’ lives were of no value to the legal system because they were LGBT? Too many.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins agrees. Watkins announced in February the creation of the Dallas County District Attorney’s LGBT Task Force, and in March nearly 300 of his prosecutors and investigators took part in sensitivity training, titled “Why Diversity Matters,” that will help them better understand the county’s diverse communities.

“The diversity training will benefit our office and the residents of Dallas County as a whole,” Watkins said. “We are better prosecutors, better investigators, when we understand the communities that we serve. Not only will it provide us a better understanding of the people we must prosecute, but equally with the victims and witnesses of crimes.”

Watkins said he’s aware that many LGBT people are reluctant to report crimes committed against them. Their experiences with law enforcement officials haven’t always been good, and as one trans woman recently reported, police officers in Paris told her “Being the way you are, you should expect that” treatment, after she reported to them she was receiving death threats in the East Texas city.

Watkins certainly sees a lot of hate. It’s even been directed at him, Dallas County’s first African-American DA, and as he steers his office toward an understanding of diversity, he’s liable to see more.

“My role is very controversial,” he said, “but I’m going to live up to the principles I believe in. I’ve seen people use their power to hold people back from living the American dream. It’s impossible to change this office overnight, but I am going to set the standard of behavior of what the justice system should be.”

Watkins’ creation of the LGBT Task Force and putting his staff through diversity training could stop the rise in anti-LGBT hate crimes. The FBI and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report an increase in those crimes, and the breakdown is horrifying.  Transgender people and gender non-conforming people continue to experience higher rates of homicide. LGBTQH (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected) people of color represented 53 percent of total reported survivors and victims of all hate crimes, but 73.1 percent of homicide victims.

Watkins said he’s an advocate for change and the Task Force and training will have a ripple effect in his office and in the county. He also believes it will reach the community.

“We’re already seeing it,” he said. “Many LGBT people don’t believe in law enforcement because it hasn’t worked for them. They’ve been marginalized.”

My grandmother, gone for 19 years now, would have loved to hear those words from a district attorney. The Task Force — comprised of four attorneys, an investigator, a case worker, a victim advocate and a spokesperson — will now help ensure no one in the community is excluded from the judicial process. And when LGBT people are on the defendant’s side, they are being told they can expect to face a more understanding prosecutor.

No members of the LGBT community are on the Task Force, but James Tate, LGBT spokesman, said, “We are exploring a future date and time to conduct a town hall meeting. In essence, this would allow us to introduce ourselves to the community and let them know we are here to help.”

Three of the Task Force members identify with the LGBT community, but no members of the community are on it because there will be cases that potentially come before the Task Force that can be viwed only by the district attorney’s office.

As Watkins finishes the last year of his second term, he reflects on how the job has changed him. He earned five times the amount of money in private law practice than he does as the district attorney.

“But I was unhappy,” he said. “I’m happy now. I’m very religious, and I read the Bible. We are all children of God, whether you’re LGBT or a member of any other community. In my office, we need to protect everyone.”

That sentiment did trickle down to the prosecutors in Watkins’ office.

“In some way, almost all of us are minorities,” said Brian Higginbotham, an assistant district attorney in the appellate division. “It may be gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, disability or many other things. As prosecutors, we see all kinds of people at their worst and at their best.”

In our fight for marriage equality, Watkins said, “the Constitution says you have the right to marry.” And he encourages LGBT people to marry “even if it means you’re hauled off in handcuffs.”

“Live your life the way you want to,” he advised.

Twenty-nine years ago, my grandmother saw prosecutors at their worst, but I’m hopeful that I’m now seeing one at his best. The community will hold Watkins’ to the message drawn on his cheek for the NOH8 picture. It’s a powerful symbol for a powerful office, and it’s high time for the changes promised to us.

If members of the community have a concern they want to discuss with the Task Force, they can send an email to lgbt@dallasda.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 18, 2014.

—  Steve Ramos

BREAKING: Federal government to expand recognition of same-sex marriage

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Mark Jiminez, center, and his husband, Beau Chandler, spoke at a GetEQUAL TX marriage rally in Fort Worth on Saturday.

When Dallas LGBT activist Mark Jiminez said “hope is on the horizon” at a GetEQUAL TX marriage rally in Fort Worth on Saturday, he didn’t know how close that horizon was.

Within minutes after the rally disbanded, the Los Angeles Times reported that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. will issue a directive Monday expanding government recognition of same-sex marriages to all federal courtrooms and prisons, and some federal benefits programs.

The new policy, which Holder plans to announce Saturday night at a gay rights dinner in New York City, means the Justice Department will not object if gay or lesbian partners refuse to testify against their spouses in federal criminal and civil cases, and will push for them to be accorded the same rights in bankruptcy court as other married couples.

These privileges will be extended to same-sex couples even in states that do not recognize their marriages as long as they were legally married in another state.

FULL COVERAGE: Gay marriage in the Supreme Court

Same-sex marriages also would be recognized for some federal programs, including one that provides death benefits to surviving spouses of police officers and firefighters who are injured or killed in the line of duty, as well as the compensation fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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Cd Kirven, regional state leader for GetEQUAL TX, spoke at a marriage rally Saturday in Fort Worth.

While the changes may not affect large numbers of people, the gay advocacy community views them as another important step in the growing movement toward gender-based equality since the Supreme Court issued two rulings last June that expanded the rights of gay couples.

“While the immediate effect is that all gay married couples will be treated equally under the law, the long-term effects are more profound,” said Fred Saintz, vice president for communications at the Human Rights Campaign, which Holder will address Saturday night. “Today, our nation moves closer toward its ideals of equality and fairness for all.”

According to Holder’s prepared remarks, the government will take the position that married same-sex couples should be eligible to file jointly for bankruptcy and receive the same protections in bankruptcy court as other married couples.

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About a dozen people gathered in Fort Worth on Saturday for a GetEQUAL TX marriage rally.

Married same-sex couples in federal prisons will receive the same visitation privileges as other married inmates under the new policy. They also may be eligible for furloughs or even compassionate release in the case of a crisis involving their spouse.

Holder will remind the audience that he is the first African-American attorney general, and that his predecessors played a key role in the civil rights movement five decades ago.

“As all-important as the fight against racial discrimination was then, and remains today, know this: My commitment to confronting discrimination based on sexual orientation runs just as deep,” Holder will say, according to the advance text.

In Dallas County, the first black district attorney also drew upon the mistreatment of minorities as a catalyst to establish an LGBT Task Force that will work to eliminate discrimination in the judicial system. Dallas County DA Craig Watkins said Friday he “was disappointed to hear that many victims of domestic violence or hate crimes were afraid to speak out because they feared lack of a law enforcement response.”

Those sentiments of working for equality boomed from Cd Kirven, regional state leader of Get EQUAL TX, during Saturday’s rally.

“This is a country founded on principles bigger than religion,” she said to the dozen people who gathered. “It’s religious slavery to say I can’t marry the person I love, by telling me who I have to marry. And we have the nerve to point our fingers at Sochi. Marriage equality is coming, but we have to keep fighting for it.”

The marriage rally was held as a show of support for a marriage lawsuit filed by a Plano and Austin couple in San Antonio federal court. A hearing for a temporary injunction to prohibit state officials from enforcing Texas’ marriage ban takes place Feb. 12.

—  Steve Ramos

Dallas County DA Watkins announces LGBT Task Force

Prosecutors will go through sensitivity training to ensure better communication with the LGBT community

Craig-Watkins

EQUALITY | Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins announced Friday he established an LGBT Task Force that will help his office better communicate with the community. (Steve Ramos/Dallas Voice)

Steve Ramos  |  Senior Editor

In a move that demonstrates the growing LGBT influence in public policy, the Dallas County District Attorney’s office has created a task force that will address how that office interacts with the community.

“Several months back, I took the opportunity to meet with leaders in the LGBT community and discovered there was a communication gap between many law enforcement agencies and the LGBT community,” Dallas County DA Craig Watkins said. “I was disappointed to hear that many victims of domestic violence or hate crimes were afraid to speak out because they feared lack of a law enforcement response.”

The task force, comprised of attorneys, an investigator, a senior caseworker and a spokesperson was established to ensure there is communication between the DA and the community, Watkins said. He added that it goes into effect Friday.

Cece Cox, Resource Center CEO, said there have been times when the community has faced discrimination and bias from law enforcement and legal institutions dealing with hate crimes and family violence. But she is hopeful that the task force will help eliminate that problem.

“The task force, along with the liaison positions that currently exist at Dallas Police Department and the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office, is a positive step toward ensuring that LGBT persons will be treated with dignity and respect,” she said, “and that hate crimes against them will be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted.”

Watkins’ office isn’t without an LGBT presence. His community relations consultant, James Tate, is out, and he contributed to the dialogue that created the task force.

“I had an ongoing discussion with the DA, telling him how important it is for us (LGBT) to be heard and that there are people who are apprehensive about reporting crimes,” Tate said. “With the creation of the task force and other initiatives the office is planning, it makes me feel incredibly proud to work with such a progressive and maverick leader.”

The task force’s operations will begin with an initial sensitivity training for all prosecutors in the DA’s office, with additional future training for new prosecutors. Ellyce Lindberg, chief of intake and grand jury, will conduct the training.

“Mr. Watkins’ new initiative is just one more of his innovative steps toward protecting and respecting victims of crime,” Lindberg said. “It comes at an ideal time in his administration due to his new electronic case management system, which is soon to be implemented.”

Lindberg added that there never has been a systematic way to track the kind of cases inherent to the LGBT community, but with the ability to electronically manage cases, those that have been designated as part of the task force initiative will be better monitored.

As of press time, the DA’s office didn’t have the statistics available that would indicate how critical the lack of communication has been, but Watkins affirmed he’s prepared to correct it.

“As Martin Luther King Jr. stated, ‘A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ and this Task Force will assist in ensuring that members of our community receive protection from criminal harms, regardless of their orientation or identity/expression,” he said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 7, 2014.

 

—  Steve Ramos

Craig Watkins backs marriage equality, proposes domestic partner registry

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Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins addresses Stonewall Democrats of Dallas on Tuesday as President Omar Narvaez, right, and Jay Narey look on.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins came out in support of marriage equality Tuesday and proposed that the county establish a domestic partner registry similar to one administered by Travis County.

Watkins, a two-term incumbent who is facing a possible challenge in next year’s Democratic Primary from former Judge John Creuzot, addressed Stonewall Democrats of Dallas during the group’s monthly meeting at Ojeda’s Restaurant on Maple Avenue. Watkins delivered what appeared to be his standard stump speech to the group’s membership, and he didn’t mention LGBT issues. But he spoke to Dallas Voice in an exclusive interview after the meeting.

“This is America, and we shouldn’t discriminate against anyone for whatever reason, and so I think it’s a disservice for us as Americans to say that just because you are a certain lifestyle, that you can’t have the same rights as someone else,” Watkins told the Voice. “I think it goes towards, you know, when we were going through the civil rights movement, issues that we dealt with back then, which, basically, I can understand very clearly because of who I am. … “

“It goes back to quality of life issues, and as a DA, I’m responsible for improving the quality of the lives of all of the citizens I represent,” Watkins said. “I’m the lawyer for everybody in Dallas County, and so I can’t be against something that will make your life better. So I’m for whatever we need to do in Dallas County to make the quality of life better, and in my opinion to have that —marriage equality and the registry — it makes lives better for citizens of Dallas County.”

—  John Wright

DA Craig Watkins says Club Dallas charges were dismissed based on U.S. Constitution

On Wednesday we reported that charges have now been dismissed or rejected against all 11 men arrested in the Dallas Police Department’s October raid of The Club Dallas, a gay bathhouse in Deep Ellum.

Today, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins for the first time publicly addressed the reasons behind his office’s dismissal of the charges, issuing a one-sentence statement.

“Based upon the U. S. Constitution and the applicable Texas statute, the elements of the offense were unprovable,” Watkins said.

Watkins didn’t specify which portion of the Constitution he was referring to, but undoubtedly it’s the right to privacy.

Seven of the men were charged with public lewdness, which is defined as sexual intercourse or sexual contact in a public place. However, defense attorneys have raised questions about whether the confines of the Club Dallas are considered a public place under the law.

Three of the men were charged with indecent exposure, which is defined as exposing one’s genitals with the intent to arouse or gratify and in a manner that is “reckless about whether another is present who will be offended or alarmed …” But defense attorneys say it’s difficult to argue that sex in a bathhouse is recklessly offensive when all members typically sign waivers saying they acknowledge it takes place.

—  John Wright

DA’s office confirms that charges have been dismissed or rejected in all 11 Club Dallas cases

The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office has now dismissed or rejected charges against all 11 of the men arrested in a controversial police raid at a gay bathhouse in October.

Jamille Bradfield, a spokeswoman for the DA’s office, confirmed today that 10 of the cases have been dismissed, while one was rejected and therefore will not be filed.

Bradfield said District Attorney Craig Watkins was out of the office and unavailable for comment. Bradfield said it’s possible that Watkins will be available for comment Thursday about why the DA’s office chose not to prosecute the cases.

Watkins previously has declined to discuss the matter because some of the cases were still pending.

Defense attorneys have said they believe the cases were dismissed over questions about whether the bathhouse, Club Dallas on Swiss Avenue in Deep Ellum, is considered a public place. Court documents say only that the cases were dismissed “in the interest of justice.”

Ten of the 11 men were charged with public lewdness or indecent exposure after undercover officers observed them engaging in various sex acts inside the business. An employee was charged with interfering with police after he refused to allow uniformed officers into the club to execute the arrests.

Dallas police have said they conducted the raid, the first of its kind in recent memory, in response to a citizen complaint. But police officials have declined to comment on whether they’ll conduct vice operations at Club Dallas or other gay bathhouses in the future, given that the DA’s office dismissed the cases.

“The Dallas Police Department recently learned that many of the charges involving activities at The Club Dallas in October 2010 were dismissed,” DPD said in a statement last month. “The department plans to meet with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office as soon as possible regarding these cases. The purpose of the meeting is to determine the cause of the dismissals, and to determine what, if any, procedural changes may be needed. An update will be provided following the meeting.”

—  John Wright

Did the DA’s Office file a new case just to avoid discussing its dismissal of Club Dallas charges?

Charges have now been dismissed against seven of the 11 men arrested in the Dallas Police Department’s raid of The Club Dallas in October, according to Dallas County court records.

In addition, as of this morning, there was no record of charges ever being filed by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office against three of the 11 men.

Oddly, though, a new case was filed against one of the 11 men on Jan. 28, and it’s now pending.

We say oddly because all of the other cases — the original seven — were filed in November or early December. And most of them were dismissed in early January, with the last one dismissed on Jan. 27 — just one day before the new case was filed.

So, why has the DA’s Office now chosen to file a new case against one of the remaining four men arrested in the raid?

We’re trying to get an explanation from the DA’s Office, but here’s our best guess:

District Attorney Craig Watkins has declined to comment on his office’s decision to dismiss the cases. Watkins’ stated reason for not commenting was that at least one case was still pending. He said commenting on the dismissed cases could affect prosecution of the pending case. But that’s BS. Watkins’ real reason for not commenting was that he simply didn’t want to comment on this sensitive topic. And he still doesn’t, so in order to keep his excuse valid, his office has to ensure that at least one case is pending. So, after the lone case that was previously pending was dismissed, his office had to file a new one.

Again, this is just a theory, and it could be totally off. Who knows, maybe it’s typical for the DA’s Office to file seven of 11 cases stemming from the same incident, then dismiss most of them a month later, then file one of the other four a month after that. After all, Instant Tea is not a prosecutor.

—  John Wright

More on Club Dallas

We’re still trying to get in touch with someone at the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office to explain why prosecutors have chosen to dismiss charges against several of the men who were arrested in the Dallas Police Department’s raid of a gay bathhouse in October. However, it appears we are running into the same roadblock as the Dallas Morning News. The DMN reports that District Attorney Craig Watkins has designated one person to handle all media inquiries, and prosecutors in the DA’s office have been instructed not to talk to the media at all, and some fear getting fired if they do.

Anyhow, we’ve requested an interview with Watkins himself about the decision to dismiss the charges. The DA’s office’s media representative informs us that she’s passing along our request. It seems as though when the Dallas Police Department goes out of its way to raid a gay bathhouse and arrest 11 people — then the DA’s office declines to prosecute — there ought to be some sort of public explanation. The raid was hugely controversial in the gay community and made national news. We could speculate, as others have, that the DA’s Office believes these cases would be difficult to prove and doesn’t view them as a priority. Again, though, that’s speculation and hearsay — something prosecutors don’t typically like.

We also haven’t received any response from DPD as to what the department thinks about this decision by the DA’s office. We’ve spoken with both LGBT liaison officer Laura Martin and Chief David Brown himself, and both have promised to get back to us. Specifically, we’d like to know whether DPD plans to continue conducting these types of raids in the future knowing that the DA’s office isn’t going to prosecute those arrested. Imagine all the resources it took to plan and conduct the raid, then complete all the paperwork and book the 11 men into jail. And all for nothing, apparently. In extremely tight budget times, that shouldn’t sit well with anyone.

—  John Wright

Dallas Cty. races neck and neck in early voting

Early voting results are in, and countywide races in Dallas County are, for the most part, neck and neck between Democrats and Republicans. Early voting is expected to account for roughly half of all turnout, so it can be a good indication of where local races are heading. However, Democratic turnout is typically higher than Republican turnout on Election Day, so the fact that Democrats are even or ahead after early voting is a good sign that the county will stay blue.

“Our assumption is that we will continue to climb on Election Day, and that’s traditionally the case in gubernatorial years,” said openly gay District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who led Republican opponent Tammy Barnes by fewer than 1,500 votes after early voting, out of more than 200,000 ballots cast.  “At this point, I’m feeling pretty good. I think this is where I wanted to be, over 50 percent with early vote. Right now the results seem to be consistent with what everybody was expecting.”

While Fitzsimmons has a slight lead in his race, other Democratic candidates for countywide office were slightly behind. District Attorney Craig Watkins trailed challenger Danny Clancy and Democratic county judge nominee Clay Jenkins trailed Republican Wade Emmert.

In another Dallas County race of significant LGBT interest, Democrat Dr. Elba Garcia led Republican incumbent Ken Mayfield by fewer than 1,000 votes as they vie for the District 4 seat on the Commissioners Court.

State legislative races didn’t look quite so good for Democrats after early voting. Incumbent State Reps. Allen Vaught, Carol Kent, Robert Miklos and Kirk England all trailed their races after early voting. Democratic challengers Pete Schulte and Loretta Haldenwang were also behind.

—  John Wright

Republican DA hopeful visits Log Cabin — PLUS, full text of Rob Schlein’s intro for John Cornyn

Danny Clancy

Danny Clancy, the Republican candidate for Dallas County District Attorney, will speak at Log Cabin Republicans’ monthly meeting on Monday night, Sept. 27.

Rob Schlein, president of Log Cabin, said Clancy’s campaign manager approached him and asked whether the candidate could address the group.

“I think it’s his first time to our club, and I think it may be the first time we’ve had a DA candidate.” Schlein said, adding that he thinks District Attorney Craig Watkins, the Democratic incumbent, is “vulnerable.”

“I think Dallas County’s going to go red,” Schlein said. “Republican voters are energized about this election, and Democratic voters are not.”

The meeting is at Mattito’s Restaurant, 3011 Routh St., at 6:30 p.m. Monday.

Also, Schlein sent over the full text of his remarks last week, when he introduced Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn at a reception prior to Log Cabin’s National Dinner in Washington, D.C. We’ve posted Schlein’s Cornyn intro in its entirety below.

—  John Wright