The forum allowed each to highlight their experience and priorities for the office should they be elected to replace retiring DA Sharen Wilson.
Matt Krause, who has served as the state representative for House District 93 for 10 years, highlighted his policy experience. He said that the position of DA is more policy and administrative in nature and that he has experience leading on policy and fighting for conservative positions. While acknowledging it was not an official endorsement, he said Wilson told Tarrant County GOP chair Rick Barnes that she wanted Krause to replace her because he has good leadership qualities and is honest. Texas Right to Life and Texas Values Action have endorsed Krause in the race.
Phil Sorrells, who has been a county criminal court judge for 25 years and was a prosecutor for five years, highlighted his experience working in the criminal justice system. He believes he is the candidate who is the most conservative with the most experience, and that he could help train young prosecutors with the skills needed to succeed. Sorrells has been endorsed by former Governor Rick Perry and State Republican Executive Committee member David Wylie.
Mollee Westfall was an assistant district attorney in Tarrant County for 10 years before becoming a felony district court judge in 2006. She recently left that position to run for Tarrant County DA. She highlighted her judicial leadership, having been appointed to leadership positions by the Supreme Court of Texas, and managing some of the county’s most high-risk offenders through her court. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, among others, has endorsed Westfall.
The candidates were also asked about what their priorities would be in their first few months in office.
Sorrells highlighted that the restrictions on court action during 2020 due to COVID-19 has created a backlog of cases and warrants. He would make it a priority to solve the docket issues, he said.
Westfall also pointed to the docket backlog and said she’d set up special courts with retired judges to get the docket caught up. She also mentioned the recent rise in violent crime in the county and said she’d place a high priority on making Tarrant County safer by holding violent criminals accountable.
Krause said he would start by making personnel his priority and by getting the right team in place to operate well. He emphasized that prosecuting election integrity issues would be a priority for him, given the recent Court of Criminal Appeals decision that DAs are responsible for prosecuting election fraud.
Handling Plea Bargains
When asked about how to properly balance the use of plea bargaining with full prosecutions, all the candidates agreed that plea bargains are a necessary tool. Westfall said that Tarrant County typically has 20,000 cases in the felony system each year, and the courts can only try about 500. She said prosecutions must focus on the worst of the worst.
Krause acknowledged it is a tough issue to deal with. He said that bond and bail reform can help and that one must have trusted assistant DAs working within a framework that keeps the community safe.
Sorrells compared dealing with cases to emergency room triage – evaluations must be made to decide which cases to prosecute. He emphasized that plea bargains are a necessary tool, but that the DAs office must “have the right people to make the proper evaluation.”
Krause said he would measure the success of the DA’s office by whether consistent, fair justice was meted out. “We can give no favor and can place no targets on anyone,” he said, adding that he would pursue due process while keeping the community safe.
Sorrells agreed that keeping the community safe would be a measure of success. He would use various statistics about the DA’s impact on crime for accountability. He also would evaluate those working in the DA’s office to see if they are considered leaders in the state in their particular prosecutorial arena.
Westfall said she would measure success by “seeking justice in every case, but also reducing crime by holding offenders accountable.”
Each candidate was also asked a question individually. Krause was asked about his experience as a state representative and his qualification to serve as the Tarrant County District Attorney. He said that his policy experience actually gave him more experience with many of the issues now faced by the DA.
In facing decisions about how to handle difficult situations that might arise such as riots or a police shooting, Krause said the conservative principles he has followed as a policymaker would guide him. “I have not been swayed or intimidated,” he said. He also pointed to his work on various criminal justice efforts and leading investigations in the Texas House of Representatives as an important part of the experience he brings to the office.
Sorrells was asked about his support for the police and how that would be balanced with holding the police force accountable. He was unapologetic for supporting law enforcement in the county. “The police have to know the DA has their back,” he stated emphatically. He acknowledged that they are human and can make mistakes and even commit crimes. He said they’d be held accountable if that were the case.
Police need feedback about what happens to their case, Sorrells added, and they need to be educated about how they can improve the preparation of a case the next time.
Westfall was asked about how she would deal with offenders with mental health issues in the Tarrant County jail. She acknowledged that mental health must be considered and weighed as part of prosecutorial discretion. In more serious cases, mental health issues weigh less, but with less serious offenses, like criminal trespass by homeless people, she supports a diversion center. She said that the jail wants help handling people with mental health issues also.
The primary election for Tarrant County District Attorney will be March 1.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.