El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza is one of those elected officials that people don’t see a lot of.
Even when a big trial is coming up or has wrapped up, Esparza has always been more inclined to offer a “no comment” than to grab a headline.
But October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and that’s a cause Esparza is always happy to discuss. He and his office have won awards for their contributions in that area.
This week’s Walk A Mile in Her Shoes event will focus attention on the problem of domestic and sexual violence and raise money for the YWCA’s Independence House, a shelter for women who are homeless due to family violence.
So it seemed like the perfect time for a long talk with the man who has been the chief prosecutor for El Paso, Hudspeth and Culbertson counties for more than 20 years.
Esparza, 56, is a graduate of Burges High, the father of three young men and a young woman, all in their 20s. His wife and their mother, Noelia, is the librarian at Roberto E. Duarte Elementary in the Socorro school district.
Rumored for years to be the next Democratic candidate for Congress, Esparza said he’s a little flattered by the persistent talk but has never been interested in higher office. That was particularly true for the one his close friend, former Congressman Silvestre Reyes, held for 16 years.
“There’s not a politician in the family except for me,” he said. “And I’m the only lawyer in my family.”
Not for long, though. Two of the Esparza children are in law school, a third appears to be headed that way and a new family tradition is taking shape.
Call it an accident, but Esparza has coached Americas High School’s mock trial team for a decade and, he said, “all of my kids, poor guys, have been mock trialers.”
“Three years ago, we were the state champs and finished fifth in the country,” he said. “I spend a lot of time on that.”
Esparza only brags about a few things. The third is the work he and his office have done and the innovations they have developed to go after domestic violence.
That has been his passion, not because he experienced it growing up, but quite to the contrary, because he and his four sisters and three brothers grew up in a home where the parents loved each other and the kids were safe.
Esparza spoke to El Paso Inc. about his family, the special programs in his office aimed at domestic and sexual violence and about crime in El Paso.
It was a long conversation that starts here in print and finishes online at www.elpasoinc.com, where he shares his thoughts on legalizing marijuana, the DIMS program and how the federal corruption investigation has tainted county government.
Q: What would you say about the level of crime in El Paso?
I think it’s accurate to say we’re one of the safest cities, if not the safest city in the country for our size. But I believe when we say that, people get the idea that there is no crime. There is. There is still violent crime, and there’s petty crime.
Here in the DA’s office, we are extremely busy. This year in the budget, I asked for paralegals in an attempt to lessen the load on the prosecutors and the assistants because we have so much work. I know the Police Department and Sheriff’s Department are extremely busy. So even though we are safe, that doesn’t mean we are without crime.
Q: What is the crime you see the most at the felony level?
I’d have to look at my numbers, but we have lots of drug crime. At the district level we don’t see a lot of DWIs but we do see a good number of intoxication manslaughters and we still have aggravated robberies. Our murder rate is really low but we still have those cases.
Q: What do you think accounts for the low level of violent crime here that makes El Paso, statistically speaking, the safest big city in the country?
I don’t have the answer, but I’ll tell you what my guess is. I hear people joke that it’s the lithium in the water. But there is research being done on those communities that are so multicultural like we are. We’ve had to learn to get along with each other – Hispanics and Anglos and whoever else is in this community. I think that is why we get along so well. I believe they’re studying all along the border to see if that’s the case, and my best guess is that when they figure it out, our multiculturalism is going to be a big part of it.
Q: When it comes to law enforcement and prosecution in El Paso County, what do you think is not getting done that is important and should be done?
We work hard on DWI. I’m sure we could spend more effort on it. It’s always a tragedy when a drunk driver kills an innocent person. For the last five years, we’ve really worked hard to address domestic violence. That’s a huge problem in this community and across the state.
For me, if we could get a better understanding for that crime by judges, police and the criminal defense bar, I think that’s an area that needs to be addressed. I really think we need to try and change the culture.
Q: Domestic violence is clearly a very special interest of yours. Why have you made this such a priority for the DA’s office?
Several years ago, I realized that this office was not prosecuting these cases in the most thoughtful way. I thought it demanded more of our attention to make sure that the outcome was something that wasn’t just good for the family but also good for the community.
Q: We have seen some appalling, heartbreaking domestic violence cases in El Paso of men killing their wives, girlfriends and children. Of course, it’s not just here but across the country. Then, there are the everyday run-of-the-mill cases of husbands and boyfriends beating up their wives and girlfriends – a lot of them. What is wrong with men today?
Most defendants are male, but not all. That’s my disclaimer. As a prosecutor, I can’t claim to know that answer. I think I have reviewed over 10,000 cases in our (24-hour Initiative) project. Normally, they’re fighting over money or they’re jealous or they’re intoxicated. I think people who are in healthy relationships also fight over jealousy and money and when they’re intoxicated. The difference here in these cases is that it’s a violent fight.
I think the research is pretty clear that these are relationships where one person has to exert power and control over the other. I always hear that his problem is anger control. I say that’s not true because when he goes to work, he can control his anger. When he’s with his friends drinking beer, he can control his anger. It’s when he comes home that he wants to have that power and control over his girlfriend, wife, whomever.
We need to address that issue. The Center Against Family Violence has counseling; we call it BIP for Batterer Intervention and Prevention Program, where we address the issue of power and control.
Q: What is going to change that, aside from criminal prosecution that taxpayers would be willing to invest in?
We get good results from our BIP program, which the Center Against Family Violence operates. They do a really good job. It’s a 13-week program for batterers, and they try to teach them what a healthy relationship is. Some of these individuals don’t know. There’s nothing wrong with having a disagreement with your girlfriend or your spouse, you just can’t settle it through violence. You cannot have power and control over your girlfriend or boyfriend, your spouse.
Q: You have been recognized for a lot of things you’ve done in this field, among them the 24-hour Initiative you just referred to. What is that?
It’s an innovative way of addressing these cases. It’s really smart. It took a little while for it to evolve. What you need to know about domestic violence is most people don’t think it’s a crime, but it is a crime. And every criminal case – and this is not unique to domestic violence – is hurt by delay, every case. But domestic violence is especially hurt by delaying action on the case because domestic violence is unique in that the defendant and the defendant are almost always going to have a relationship after the case is resolved. They don’t separate. Some do, but a lot don’t for a lot of reasons: because of marriage, love, the kids, finances, they stay together.
So, what we strive to do in 24 hours is contact the victim to let them know we’re involved and provide them with information about the services in the community. But most especially, we want to know if they’re safe.
But in 24 hours, we also do this: We get the case ready, so that the case we review today will be ready to go to trial tomorrow. We review the criminal history, the offense report, the 911 tape, the photographs if there are any. Nowadays, because we’re pretty innovative, we also video the victim at the scene.
We take all of that and all the information we get from the victim and that case is ready to go to trial the next day. Then, not everyone goes to jail. We put them on probation. We want them to get counseling. We just want that family protected.
Q: In September, the Foundation for Justice in Atlanta gave you its Paul H. Chapman Award for the 24-Hour Initiative, which you started in 2008.
It was great. They flew Noelia and me to Atlanta and put us up at the Four Seasons Hotel. The dinner was really great. Six of these prizes are awarded a year. It comes with a metal, a lapel pin, a certificate and a stipend of $10,000. It’s a really high honor.
I’m going to tell you what I told them. As a prosecutor, I’m supposed to do justice, and we struggle with that issue every day, trying to do what’s right. When somebody recognizes you nationally for improving the process, it’s one of the highest compliments that they could give me.
Q: Have other DAs around the country imitated that program?
They have. We’ve had people come from across the state to see what we do and how we do it. Jurisdictions in Texas and across the country have adopted what we’re doing. I’m going to Anchorage, Ala., in about two weeks because they want to do something like our program in domestic violence. They have a huge problem, and they want to see if they can address it the way we do.
Q: Has it improved your conviction rate?
What I classify as the accountability rate is way up. In cases involving soldiers, we refer them to Fort Bliss and the military holds them accountable. For us, we get conviction. Sometimes, all we do is get counseling for evidentiary reasons. But we hold him or her accountable.
In court, our conviction rates are probably about the same. They’re up, but we’re still having to try lots of these cases because, I think, the defense bar is still testing us.
Q: You have been in office since 1993, one year short of your predecessor Steve Simmons’ 21 years as DA. Are you the longest-serving El Paso County official now in office?
Oh, no, Judge Bill Moody has been in office longer. He was a judge when I went to work for Simmons.
Q: Simmons used to try all the murder cases himself. You don’t do that, but you do try some, right?
I do. I used to try one or two a year, but I haven’t tried anything since the David Marmolejo murder case in 2011, so it’s been over a year. Next year, I will try one. It’s really the best part of the job.
Q: Seems like you’d need to keep the knife pretty sharp to do trial work.
Trying cases is something you have to do to stay sharp. When I was a young lawyer, I went to trial all the time. I’ve tried over 100 jury trials. I miss that part of the job.
Q: What kinds of cases?
They’re going to be the kinds of cases with the more serious injuries. I’ve tried a couple of death penalty cases and murder cases. I may not have tried anything less than a murder case. I like cases that are interesting. So cases that have really caught the public’s eye, I feel I should try those cases.
I’m an OK administrator; I like to think I’m a better trial lawyer. You learn all the time. The case of Marmolejo, the one who killed his mom, was a challenge to me. The jury here in El Paso hung up 11 to one for not guilty. If I win a case I like to think I had a lot to do with that. In this case, I had a lot to do with the 11 to one verdict. I don’t think I was on my best game. But we retried the case in San Antonio, and I got him. I was really lucky that that one juror held out in El Paso. I thought the jury would acquit him.
Q: You’re kind of private, and we don’t hear much about your family, so I’ll ask. You have four children, Enrique, Elena, Adrian and Diego. How old are they and what are they doing now?
They’re even years, 20, 22, 24 and 26. Diego is in this third year of law school at Texas Tech and he’ll graduate in May. The only one who’s got a real job is Adrian, and he’s a software engineer for a company called Dot Hill in Boulder, Colo.
Elena graduated from Brown University in May, and she’s at UT law school in her first year. They’re all smart, but she got a free ride to law school. Enrique is a sophomore at UT-Austin. He might end up going to law school, too.
Q: Was there anything that happened in your family that gave you a special interest in domestic violence?
What I tell people all the time is that I come from a large family of four sisters and three brothers. My mom and dad, I watched how they interacted with each other. My dad never hit my mom. They respected each other, they loved each other, and it was a great place to live. Home was safe. I think everybody should have that.
Q: What did your parents do? Tell us about them.
My mom, Alicia, she was a registered nurse, but back in the old days, you weren’t degreed. She was a graduate of Hotel Dieu (Hospital). She’s 85 or 86 now. My dad had a degree in chemistry and was a teacher for a while. Then he was a draftsman. He’s got great penmanship. But for the bulk of his career, he was a computer programmer for the government at Fort Bliss. His name is Angel and he’s 91.
I like to brag on my parents because all of us kids have college degrees. They didn’t make a lot of money, but all of us went to college. A sister’s got a Ph.D. A sister’s got a master’s. Two are electrical engineers. My younger sister has a degree in fashion design. The sister after that is a degreed registered nurse and my younger brother is a computer scientist.
In this extended interview with Jaime Esparza, El Paso County DA, he talks about why he’s against the legalization of marijuana, the DIMS program and the federal corruption investigation.
Q: How does the DIMS program – the District Attorney’s Information Management System – play into this?
We’ve done a lot of smart things in 21 years. But DIMS, the way we process cases here, is a really smart and thoughtful way of taking cases as police officers make arrests.
It’s not for every case, but it’s good for all misdemeanors and routine felonies. That’s a really good idea we’ve had for over 12 years here that is a huge cost saving for the county and the city.
Q: Can you explain it?
All we do is collapse the time it takes for a prosecutor to say yes or no to a criminal charge after the police have made the arrest. We review the case with the police officer right after it happens. So, before the officer’s shift is done, the officer will know if we took the case or not.
Only two communities do that in the state – us and Houston. I took it from Houston where I used to be a prosecutor. The reason a lot of communities don’t use it is because you have to charge right away and a lot of prosecutors are afraid of making a mistake. But the cases we are charging here are routine cases. If it’s a murder, it’s not going to go through DIMS, so I don’t really think that argument works.
Q: How did it used to work?
What used to happen was that defendants could sit in jail for two weeks until we got the case, which makes no sense. The county has to house those people for that time. We know that generally we don’t accept about 20 percent of the cases that come through DIMS. The community benefits because if we’re not going to take the case, why should he sit in jail for two weeks when I’m going to say no and he’s going to lose his job? We should we let him go about his business.
Q: You have another program called Portal. What does it do?
What the portal does is it allows defense lawyers, once they signup and register, to view our files, including the police report and videos, over the Internet. It’s a great tool because they can see everything in our file. The discovery process in criminal cases – you know, what we show the other side – has been a big issue across the state. Not in El Paso. We just got recognized by the Project Appleseed because of the way we make our files accessible to the criminal defense bar.
Q: Your office and the county attorney’s office have the “Don’t Let Yourself” Initiative. It has to do with dating violence and the name of the 2011 initiative takes the first three words from “Don’t let yourself be disrespected, stay silent, be abused, be hurt, give up, repeat the cycle.”
How does it work and what kind of success have you had with it?
It’s a joint project with the county attorney, Jo Anne Bernal, and we develop curriculum and video to talk about healthy relationships to teenagers. We make ourselves available to present to classes to talk about healthy relationships. The video itself won three Addy awards from the El Paso Advertising Federation.
You can get it at www.dontletyourself.org. Anybody can download it, and they do. Just the other day the Texas attorney general wanted permission to use the campaign. They’re going to make it part of a teaching curriculum for schools. I’ve shown it at schools too, and taught it.
Q: The Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 344 this year and it took effect last month. The law is the first of its kind in the nation and will allow courts to grant new trials to defendants in cases that could be affected by technological and scientific advances. Citing that law, lawyers for Robert Avila are seeking a re-examination of the evidence that led to his conviction and a death sentence in 2001 for stomping his girlfriend’s child to death. What is the status of that case?
It’s on appeal. Mr. Avila’s Jan. 15 execution date was recently postponed indefinitely for the purpose of allowing the defense to litigate the issue of whether or not they are entitled to present that kind of evidence. So, we‘re litigating that issue now. I’m a little restricted because it’s pending.
Q: There’s always been a lot of speculation about you and politics. Some thought you’d run for Congress last year but Silvestre Reyes decided to run again and you weren’t about to run against him given your friendship. Do you have any interest in higher office?
I heard all those rumors. They told me I was running for Congress, and I hear that all the time. It’s kind of nice, I guess, but I don’t. Congressman Reyes is a good friend of mine. We stay good friends. I helped him on his campaign.
I’ve never been interested in running for Congress. I know it sounds trite, but this really is a good job. I’m really blessed to have it. It’s the kind of work I enjoy doing and when I’m no longer DA, I’ll just be a lawyer.
Q: Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana. Before he became a congressman, Beto O’Rourke as a city representative sought to make the case that the war on drugs hasn’t worked because drugs, particularly pot, are more available than they were four decades ago. What do you think now?
I disagree with Congressman O’Rourke on the marijuana issue. I still think it should be illegal. I wouldn’t characterize our efforts as a winning effort. I think it’s a struggle and the reason I say that is I see way too many families whose lives are disrupted because of drugs: cocaine, heroin and meth.
I believe marijuana is still a gateway drug. If medically it’s helpful, that’s fine if it alleviates pain or something, I don’t have a dispute with that. But I strongly disagree that it should be legalized.
Q: The federal public corruption investigation became public in 2007 when federal agents raided the courthouse offices of County Judge Anthony Cobos and two commissioners. Since then a number of former county officials have been convicted. Do you think that investigation made a difference in the El Paso community and in county government particularly?
That’s a good question I have had to deal with over time because it was a federal investigation that brought this to light. I will tell you I believe the county has done a lot of things and changed a lot of processes to try to prevent that from happening again. I think with the new commissioners and county judge, they’ve been smart about making sure the new procedures try to prevent that kind of corruption.
But on the flip side, I think these corruption cases have unfairly tainted county government. Most of us do our jobs. We care about what we do, and we know we represent the taxpayer in this community and we do it well. A few decided they would do something else, and those were the corruption cases. After being a prosecutor for this long, I know that if someone wants to commit the crime, they’ll commit the crime. They’ll make the backdoor deal. They’ll take the cash when they’re not supposed to. They’ll do it under the table, and it’s very hard to isolate that kind of activity and prevent it.
But I would say the county has taken smart steps to try to prevent that from happening and has tried to create an environment that will not tolerate that type of corruption.
Q: There was a lot of pride in the passage of legislation establishing the El Paso County Ethics Commission, the first of its kind in Texas, and authorizing the creation of a county ethics code. It’s up and running now. Has it made a difference?
I think the most important thing that the Ethics Commission did was to demonstrate the importance that the county places on ethics and ethical behavior. We haven’t seen a lot of cases come out of the commission, but I don’t think that’s as important as the signal the commissioners sent by saying we won’t tolerate that sort of behavior and ethics is important to us.
We want you to do your job in an ethical way and if you are put in a position that would call on you to do something that is not ethical or that is questionable, there is a place for you to complain.
But most important was the message that it sent to us, and I think it has made a difference.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.