Meet the candidates, part 1: the 83rd District Attorney

As the primaries approach, The Big Bend Sentinel is letting candidates introduce themselves. First up: the 83rd District Attorney for the State of Texas.

TRI-COUNTY — Election season is upon us, with primaries for a variety of state and national races falling on March 3. The deadline to register to vote in the primaries is February 3 — less than two weeks away.

Those who are not yet registered or need to update their registration, can do so at the tax assessor’s office at the Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa or at the county annex office in Presidio. City libraries in both towns also have voter registration forms, as do a number of Marfa businesses, including The Sentinel, The Get Go, Frama, Do Your Thing Coffee and the Wrong Gallery.

As the primaries approach, The Big Bend Sentinel has reached out to candidates and given them an opportunity to introduce themselves and their campaigns. Each week, we’ll introduce contenders from a different race in the tri-county area. We’ve edited these interviews for clarity and brevity.

First on our list is one of the few contested local elections: the race to run the office of the 83rd District Attorney for the State of Texas, which covers Presidio, Brewster, Jeff Davis and Pecos counties. In this race, incumbent District Attorney Sandy Wilson will face off against Ori White, a Fort Stockton-based lawyer, in the Republican primary. There is no one running for DA on the Democratic ticket. Here they are, in their words.

SANDY WILSON, INCUMBENT (R)

Introduce yourself. Why are you running for office, and what are your qualifications?

I was born and raised in West Texas, and this has always been my home. I became a licensed vocational nurse in 1976 and a registered nurse in 1987 and worked in local hospitals until 2007, when I passed the Texas bar to become an attorney.

I practiced in almost all areas of nursing and spent my last 20 years working in critical care areas, such as high-risk labor and delivery, surgery, intensive care and cardiac care and the emergency room. I have extensive experience in dealing with people from all walks of life who were experiencing some of their worst moments through the confusing and scary maze of the medical field. That training has been vital in my role as district attorney because it taught me to triage, become very detail-oriented and showed me how to deal with people from all walks of life in very emotional, uncontrolled situations.

I passed the Texas bar in November of 2007 and have practiced my entire career in this area. I practiced family, criminal, ad litem and probate law in the Midland-Odessa area as well as in the four counties in my district. My main experience is criminal law, both federal and state, and I spent many years defending those who committed crimes. I then switched to the prosecutorial role and worked for several years as an assistant district attorney for the 83rd from 2010 through 2013. I began my term as your district attorney on January 1, 2017. My experience on the defense side showed me another way to look at a case and how to dig deeper for the truth and justice.

My nursing and legal background have more than prepared me for this position because I have a unique understanding of human nature and can relate to just about any situation that I have faced these last three years as your district attorney. Most people think prosecutors want to put everyone in jail, but our primary role is to ensure justice is served. That means fully understanding the complexity of each case that comes into my office and searching for the best outcome for everyone.

I have worked very diligently to ensure that victims are heard by contacting them as soon as we receive the case and working closely with them through the often-scary process of the legal system. I strive to listen closely to the victims to ensure their wishes are followed as closely as possible, while ensuring that the community remains safe.
I also ensure that someone is not being wrongfully charged by going the extra mile to gather as much information as possible so my grand jurors can review all aspects of a case and make a fair, informed decision.

What sets you apart from your opponent?

The fact that I have a very strong work ethic as well as a firm belief that everyone will be treated the same in my office. My campaign is based on integrity and accountability and I look at the merits of each criminal case that comes into my office before I consider who the suspect is. My job is not to play favorites but to ensure each case meets the elements of a felony.
I have worked closely with law enforcement to help ensure they comply with very strict discovery rules as well as preparing their cases for review by my office. I have provided hundreds of hours of training for local law enforcement officers in areas they need to maintain their certification with the state. I have been able to obtain top notch instructors who have been willing to travel to the Fort Stock-Alpine area to teach.

With the guidance of my judges, I also revamped plea documents to comply with new changes in the law while ensuring that defendants’ rights were not violated. I hope to have a paperless system fully operational for all four counties and all thirteen law enforcement agencies in the 83rd District by the end of 2020.

Finally, I will ensure the Alpine office remains open so our citizens and law enforcement officers in the south counties don’t have to travel to Fort Stockton to be heard.

I have an amazing staff who share the same goals and work ethic as I do and we have worked very hard the last three years to clean up the large backlog of cases and bring this office to a point where it is functioning very smoothly and efficiently.

What are the main law enforcement concerns facing the 83rd?

Remoteness and lack of funding for training and competitive salaries. Our small counties cannot compete with larger counties and rely on grants to cover expenses. As a result, law enforcement agencies tend to be short-staffed and have difficulties getting adequate training for their officers who cannot travel longer distances to meet these needs. My main concern is providing officers with up-to-date training by state recognized instructors who travel to us, so they can better serve the citizens of my district, as well as stay as safe as possible while on duty.

Every other year, the Texas Legislature makes new changes to the laws officers enforce. I have worked tirelessly to get them the necessary training and books they need to adequately protect the citizens of my district. We recently bought updated books for the departments that include updated laws, field manuals to assist the officers, and even an offense manual they can utilize when obtaining evidence at crime scenes.

Most officers have bodycams now, but need more experience handling them, so I have secured some much-needed training on bodycams, as well as policies and procedures to ensure proper use.

Texas recently legalized hemp, causing issues with enforcing marijuana laws. What is your stance on prosecuting low-level marijuana charges?

Possession of marijuana is still illegal under the Health & Safety Code. However, law enforcement is affected [by the new rules] because the statute states that the item is hemp if it has a concentration of less than 0.3 percent THC. Both hemp and marijuana smell the same, and the burden is on law enforcement to prove the item is hemp instead of marijuana or THC. Currently there are no state-funded labs capable of determining the percentage of THC in the item, forcing prosecutors to outsource to private labs for expensive analysis of the product. If the defendant is indigent, the costs shift to the taxpayers. The Agriculture Code places some requirements and restrictions on the person claiming the item is hemp, but those are not finalized, and officers have not had training on what is required by the new law.

Most low-level marijuana charges are misdemeanors, so they do not affect my office. My experience shows that the majority of persons with simple possession of marijuana do not commit any other crimes and pretrial diversion programs offer them the benefit of not creating a criminal history with a one-time possession.

For multi-drug possession, most citizens are not aware that the state funded laboratories are only analyzing the drug with the highest criminal punishment, and usually do not analyze the marijuana or THC oil if the person also has a drug like methamphetamine or cocaine.

Because of the serious nature of addiction and increased crime by those using methamphetamines, opioids, cocaine and heroin, my office focuses on those drugs and will not pursue analyzing the lesser amounts of marijuana or THC. Drug charges run concurrently, so it is less costly to the taxpayer and we can achieve the same results of offering drug rehabilitation and getting the person back on track without prison time for the higher offense. Because our prison system is so overloaded, inmates with no violent or extensive criminal history are being released almost as soon as they get processed. We offer probation to the majority of them, to ensure they get treatment.

What events do you have coming up?

I will be in Fort Davis and Marfa this Saturday, January 25, putting up signs and meeting folks. On Sunday, January 26, I will be in Terlingua, Lajitas, Study Butte and Presidio. In addition, I have a meet-and-greet at the Republican Headquarters in Alpine at 6 p.m. on January 30, as well as another meet-and-greet at the Large Community Center in Rooney Park in Fort Stockton on January 31 from 4-6 p.m., where we will be serving brisket and all the trimmings. I have other events in the works and will give daily updates on Facebook as we secure the buildings in other towns. Please come out and meet me and my staff so we can answer your questions and explain all of the great work we have done over these last three years.

 

ORI WHITE, CHALLENGER (R)

Introduce yourself. Why are you running for office, and what are your qualifications?

My name is Ori T. White. I’ve been proud to call Texas home my entire life, and when I saw the trials that the people of this great state go through, I knew that accountability had to be taken. We’re Americans, and we believe in justice. I want to restore the people’s faith in the values and principles of accountability, responsibility and common sense. People have the right to safety and security. My 16-year history as a prosecutor demonstrates that I fight to bring down a culture of miscommunication and elitism.

I’ve served this great state for 16 years as a prosecutor, eight years as a district attorney and eight years as the Pecos County attorney. During that time, one of my highest honors was working and assisting devoted and certified law enforcement officers in their pursuit of justice. My office was built around people who not only cared, but were devoted to independence, efficiency and results. It was a lesson that my dad taught me, not only through his words but through his actions, and it’s one that I carry close to my heart to this day. The key to my success over the 16 years that I served Texas was choosing the right people who excel in serving victims and law-enforcement officers.

What sets you apart from your opponent?

My long and varied experience as a prosecutor. My opponent only has a little over three years experience as a prosecutor. My offices always maintained the highest standards of integrity, accountability and openness. My staff is always devoted to going above and beyond for the people we serve.

We know the communities we serve. We fought for diversity and the ethical application of the law in every case, using a balanced approach and the discretion we’re provided to find the best balance. I consistently have managed a prosecutor’s office that is open and accountable, dedicated to safety and security and willing to examine the circumstances of the cases we are presented. I am also fluent in Spanish.

What are the main law enforcement concerns facing the 83rd?

Border Security. The dangerous drugs crossing our border are destroying lives and families. The dealers don’t care about the safety of our families, and they don’t care about the security of our towns and homes. They only care about the money that they gain by addicting our family, our friends and our communities to drugs. They belong in prison, where they can’t harm anyone anymore.

Texas recently legalized hemp, causing issues with enforcing marijuana laws. What is your stance on prosecuting low-level marijuana charges?

This issue can bring up a lot of confusion from a legal standpoint, since marijuana is legal in some states. In others, including Texas, it’s legal for specialty doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to treat multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, terminal cancer, autism, seizure disorders and other medical problems. This led to confusion, especially in the past. For example, not too long ago, a person with a valid prescription for medical marijuana in another state could be arrested and prosecuted — leading to probation, fines and even jail time just for being unaware of the laws of the state they were traveling through.

While I was serving as county attorney, for most low-level marijuana cases we offered pretrial diversions. The diversions included fines, community service and a requirement that they avoid breaking the law for six-plus months. Most of the defendants successfully completed the diversion and paid their debt to society, which led to their cases being dismissed.

What events do you have coming up?

I will be advertising upcoming events and am looking forward to a great campaign.


 
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