Two VZC District Attorney Candidates Present Qualifications, Ideas for Moving Cases at Forum
Two candidates for Van Zandt County (VZC) District Attorney: Heath Chamness and Tonda Curry, presented their qualifications and ideas to help move cases through the justice system Tuesday, evening, February 13, 2018 at the Canton Civic Center. The Van Zandt Republican Club and Edom Tea Party jointly sponsored the Republican Primary Election Candidates Forum to help citizens make an informed decision before casting their ballots.
Three moderators: Ken Hilton of Mercy Ships, Bob Reese with Re/Max Landmark Realty, and Brad Blakemore, Publisher of the Van Zandt Newspapers asked questions of candidates, which were submitted ahead of time by interested citizens.
Chamness made his opening statement first and said, “I want to bring the County back to the citizens of Van Zandt County. How do you do that? There’s a lot of different ways. One of the ways you do that is you actually take cases before citizens of this County, and you let them decide what the value of those cases are. Instead of seeking to plea bargain multiple cases, you allow the citizens to make a determination as to what they believe take priority… The other thing is… the District Attorney’s Office can have an enormous impact on the resources of the County. 1) the quicker we get those cases prosecuted, that’s less time that you’ve got court-appointed attorneys working on those cases, that’s less time they’ve spent in jail, that’s less time feeding those folks. If they need to go to TDC, they go to TDC; and if they’re probation eligible, and they’re worthy of probation, you put them on probation and they begin paying fees into the County. There are several ways that that can affect the overall budget.”
“Finally,” continued Chamness, “I’m a supporter of the Constitution and I firmly believe that everybody has a right to trial. I do not believe that individuals should have criminal cases hanging over their head for eight, seven, six, five years before they’re resolved. And if elected, I will be a working District Attorney. I will be in court.”
Curry opened with a pledge, “…At the end of this campaign, regardless of the outcome of the election, you will be able to say, Tonda Curry never lied. …Any fact or figure I give you tonight, I have the documentation to back up right here with me… I have the experience to handle all aspects of the job of District Attorney. I’m committed to making our community a safe place to live. There’s only one person in this race who has 14 years of prosecution experience. There’s one person who has less than two years. I started my career as an Assistant U.S. Attorney right here. I was prosecuting organized crime and drug trafficking organizations in Van Zandt County and all over east Texas. Doing that, I had the opportunity to lead FBI agents and DEA agents in investigations. I have led multi-disciplinary teams of professionals who investigate and prosecute child abuse and sexual abuse of children. I have picked capital murder jurors. I have done every aspect of this job. Like the rest of the County, I didn’t know that our current District Attorney [Chris Martin] was not going to seek reelection. It’s been accused that I moved here just to run for District Attorney. I want to dispel that rumor now. That is not the truth. I am running for District Attorney because there is no other lawyer in this County who has the prosecution experience to do the job.”
Question: How much experience do you have as a prosecutor, and explain details of that experience, including how many cases and what types of cases they were.
Chamness answered first, “I started off straight out of law school, at the Smith County District Attorney’s Office. During that time period…I worked as a misdemeanor prosecutor, up until the point that I got ready to leave the District Attorney’s Office, at which I assisted on some felony cases. At that point in time, I left that office, I went into civil practice. The majority of those misdemeanor cases…DWIs, simple assaults, etc. I even went back to the District Attorney’s Office in December of 2016 and I hired in as a felony prosecutor. During that time period, I worked on every single type of case you can think of, other than a capital murder case. During that time period, we had 23 different felony charges that went to trial in Smith County, each of which resulted in a conviction. I can’t sit here and list every case. I can tell you I have worked on all of them, but capital murders.”
Curry responded and reminded the crowd of more than 200, that she had started out as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and did that for 12 years. Additionally, she said, “Twelve years, every day, I walked in and out of the courthouse, as a prosecutor. Twelve years, every day, I dealt with law enforcement officers, I dealt with laws, I dealt with locking up criminals. I worked briefly at the Smith County District Attorney’s Office in 2011, where I was a felony prosecutor. While there, I was charged with representing the District Attorney himself; at all murder scenes, I was the one in charge of making sure that the evidence collection methods used, by the officers were Constitutional, correct, and would result in admissible evidence. I spent 11 months doing that for the District Attorney’s Office in Smith County. I also sat on the CAC – the Children’s Advocacy Center’s team, and oversaw all sexual abuse of children and physical abuse of children. For the last year, I’ve been your Chief Felony Prosecutor in the Van Zandt District Attorney’s Office.”
Question: What are your specific plans for addressing the backlog of criminal cases in the Van Zandt courts?
Chamness replied, “My specific plan would be to number one, identify the cases quickly. When you screen in a case, once a case has been indicted, you need to be making offers on that case immediately, getting that offer to the defense attorney. That way, we’re not trying to figure out whether that case is potentially going to be a trial case on the day that it comes to trial for the first time. The other thing is, we need to be more aggressive in trying cases. As I mentioned earlier, in the last calendar year, there have been 23 different felony charges in which me and my trial partner were part of, a jury trial or a bench trial, in Smith County. That’s one way. The other thing is, there are sometimes individuals who may be probation eligible, but they’re in jail because they can’t afford the bond. The District Attorney’s Office needs to understand that situation, and if that’s the case, that’s a probation case, we need to get that individual before the judge, get the plea done, get them out of jail, and get them on probation immediately, so that the County is not paying for them to sit in jail on a probation case.”
Curry answered, “Well it would be great if we had an intake division, and could screen a case right after Grand Jury. We do our own intake. The Van Zandt County District Attorney’s Office is small. There are four criminal lawyers in addition to the DA. We don’t have the luxury of having someone who does nothing, but take cases to Grand Jury. I’ve been to Grand Jury. I’ve taken cases to Grand Jury. At the Smith County DA’s Office, that’s done for them. So, my plan is this: when a case is filed with the DA’s Office, it doesn’t get filed with the clerk, like it does now. When a case is filed with the DA’s Office, it’s going to be filed with me, as the District Attorney. The law enforcement officer is going to have a direct line to me. We can look at that case, we can make a decision right then and there, if there’s evidence missing, if there’s a witness that needs to be talked to further. We can make that decision immediately; and that, folks, makes the case stronger. And, a strong case makes a plea case.”
In regard to the budget and hiring and firing of personnel in the DA’s office, Curry expressed confidence in the lawyers currently working in the DA’s office, and believes her confidence in their abilities will contribute to the retention rate in the office. Curry took a moment to brag, “We have the best staff in the world at the DA’s Office in Van Zandt County.” She also expects to be able to work with the County Judge and Commissioners Court to stay within budget. Chamness addressed what he called a “fear” of him coming into the office and “cleaning house,” to which he responded, “I cannot run the DA’s Office all by myself.” He went on to say, that there would be a “few changes,” but that he wants to work with the staff, along with the County Judge, and Commissioners in regard to the budget.
He concluded his answer with, “One thing that I think we can do, is we can emphasize more with multi-level agency agreements, to where, that those asset forfeitures that can occur in large drug bust cases, where you may be working with the DEA or ATF and things like that, that’s ways to bring money back into the County, and that’s one thing I would seek to do.”
In closing, Curry pointed out that contrary to her opponent, who hasn’t voted in a Republican Primary in 10 years, she is a lifelong Republican and owns 28 years of criminal law experience.
Chamness in his closing statement, acknowledged that he hasn’t voted in every Republican Primary in the County, but claimed to share the same values with citizens who reside in the County he loves to call home.
The Primary Election is Tuesday, March 6, 2018, and determines which one candidate in each major party will be placed on the ballot in the November General Election. Early Primary voting begins Tuesday, February 20, and goes through Friday, March 2.