Contenders for the vacant criminal district attorney seat answered questions about fairness in the judicial system and low-level crime prosecution in a candidate election debate sponsored by the Fort Worth Report, KERA and SteerFW at Texas Wesleyan University.

Current criminal district attorney Sharen Wilson would not be seeking another term, the race attracted six candidates, likely leading to a runoff in May

Three Republicans — Phil Sorrells, Mollee Westfall and Matt Krause — faced off in one debate, and three Democrats — Tiffany Burks, Albert Roberts and Lawrence Meyers — faced off in their own party debate. 

Aaron Dean trial

Among the hot button issues in Tarrant County’s courts is the Aaron Dean trial, which is expected to be a high-case profile and attract national attention. Candidates were asked how they would handle high-profile cases like the Dean trial in a way that promotes fairness and inspires confidence in the judicial system.

Dean, a former Fort Worth police officer, shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in 2019 during a wellness check

Sorrells, 57, said the case should be handled the same way as any other trial and not be influenced by external factors. 

“Justice is what is contained within the facts of the case,” Sorrells said. “The No. 1 purpose of the DA is to see that justice is done, and that’s what we have here.”

Westfall, 52, said she plans on ensuring transparency throughout the trial and allowing cameras into the courtroom — something she has done in the past as assistant district attorney. 

“While it does change the dynamic and everyone is concerned about it, it is very important to continue the trial process just as you do for every single case, including cases when there are cameras in the courtroom or not,” Westfall said. “The community deserves transparency in cases that are a high concern.”

Krause, 41, emphasized that the high-profile nature of the case will require some political maneuvering, something he said he has plenty of experience in. 

“You’re going to have to have somebody who can be the face of law enforcement, be the face of what’s going on in the community,” Krause said. 

During the Democrats’ debate, contenders also echoed similar sentiments about sticking to the facts of the case but also being aware of the attention this trial will bring to Tarrant County. 

Meyers, 74, said he’s handled several high-profile cases in the past and that this one should also be fair, accurate and thorough.

“We just make sure that all facts and the law are accurately applied,” Meyers said.

Roberts, 40, emphasized that this might be the first high-profile case Tarrant County has seen in years and how the trial is handled will determine how the community heals. 

“The delay of the trial is unfortunate, but we need strong leadership at the top to potentially address the issues and rebuild those relationships with the community,” Roberts said.

Burks, 51, also touched on the importance of transparency and involving the community in the judicial process through open and honest communication.

“Officer-involved shootings and officer-involved cases are the same as civilian cases,” Burks said. “And, by that I mean, the district attorney’s office usually does not make a recommendation in that case, but under my administration, we will be making recommendations just like we do citizen cases.”

Charges for low-level crimes

Texas criminal district attorneys also have the ability to reduce caseloads by not bringing charges against non-violent, low-level crimes. This policy was a priority of Wilson’s agenda.  

When questioned about what specific policies they would propose to keep county courts running efficiently if elected, the contenders said they want to see more programs that keep people out of jail and the criminal justice system. 

“We need to not clog our jail for possession of marijuana and we also need to divert people who can be diverted from the criminal justice system who don’t need to be prosecuted. They just need to be educated,” Westfall said. 

Krause concurred and said implementing such policies will be more beneficial to taxpayers in the long run. 

Sorrells argued that policies like cite-and-release should fall in the purview of local law enforcement rather than the district attorney’s office, who should just focus on applying the law. 

“This is like at home with your children,” he said. “You’re not going to stop correcting them or disciplining them for when they do things wrong. The law is there, and we’re going to enforce the law.”

Democratic District Attorney candidates Albert John Roberts, center left, Tiffany Burks, center right, and Lawrence “Larry” Meyers, right, participate in a debate moderated by Sam Baker. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Democratic candidate Roberts said he is in favor of not prosecuting marijuana possession under two ounces. 

“Low-level, nonviolent offenses don’t need to be sitting in jail. People sitting in our jail are suffering from mental illness, substance abuse and poverty,” Roberts said. “We’ve got more violent offenses, serious crimes that we need to be spending our time and taxpayer resources on.”

Burks said she wants to change the diversion program to become the norm rather than the exception. 

“Low-level, nonviolent offense will all be looked at through a diversion unit so that we can figure out where in the community we can divert resources and divert people so we can move them from the pipeline of incarceration into a pipeline of self-sufficiency,” she said. 

Meyers said he would continue with the current administration’s policy on this issue. 

Other issues

Candidates were also asked if there was anything else they would do differently from how outgoing District Attorney Wilson is currently running the office. 

Democrat Burks said wants to bring back a narcotics unit to deal with an increasing number of cases involving opiates and prescription drugs. 

“It’s important that we work with law enforcement to try to stem the tide of overdose and other drug addiction issues that are plaguing our community,” Burks said. 

All three Republicans said they were pleased with Wilson’s work, especially when it came to elder fraud and child abuse. 

“I think there are some things that she’s done that is going to leave a legacy,” Krause said. “In terms of what’s different, we’re just different individuals.”

Fort Worth Report fellow Sandra Sadek may be reached at sandra.sadek@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Sandra Sadek

Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Houston, she graduated from Texas State University where she studied journalism and international...

Leave a comment