OUR TURN: Police group has lofty goals, but temper with justice

A new coalition of area police agencies that plans to work more closely with the incoming district attorney and a state district judge seems like a good idea — so long as the rights of the accused are balanced in the mix.

The recent victory of Wiley B. “Sonny” McAfee in the Republican runoff has made police officers across the four-county 33rd/424th Judicial District ecstatic. And why not? McAfee was a police officer for two decades before he became a lawyer.

Since there is no Democratic challenger, McAfee takes office Jan. 1, 2013.

For the past few years, many high-ranking law enforcement officials have privately voiced concerns about what they say is a revolving door of prosecutors, a backlog in cases — especially those involving sexual predators — and a lack of preparation offered to officers before they have to testify.

Whether founded or not, these perceptions exist. Now officers see a new day dawning in McAfee’s election, and during the months of the bitterly fought district attorney’s race they formed the Hill Country Law Enforcement Association, a group that represents almost every law enforcement agency in the district served by the District Attorney’s Office in Blanco, Burnet, Llano and San Saba counties.

The goal of this organization, which is said to be nonpolitical, is to advance and improve the criminal justice system and to lobby for or against legislation “which we feel can either be helpful or hurtful to the citizens we represent and protect,” according to Horseshoe Bay Police Chief Bill Lane, one of the organizers.

The group plans to meet with McAfee and 424th state District Judge Dan Mills (the latter will be the presiding judge in the region when 33rd state District Judge Guilford “Gil” Jones steps down by Jan. 1).

They want to discuss case backlogs, parole violation revocations and other issues, and develop a comprehensive plan to meet these challenges.

These are lofty goals, and the citizenry should be comforted that law enforcement is taking these extra steps to protect victims. However, let’s not forget the accused are also afforded rights and a guarantee to fair adjudication.

In fact, that is one of the reasons our colonial ancestors fought a battle against an oppressive king, so that we could live in a land governed by laws and not whims.

Striving for swift and fair justice is to be commended, but all concerned must also remember the basic foundation of our jurisprudence is that the accused is always presumed innocent until found guilty.

The onus is always upon the state to prove guilt, not the defense to prove innocence.

McAfee, though untested as a district attorney, has made it clear in interviews with this newspaper that working with defense attorneys to ensure fairness in the justice system is vitally important to him— in addition to protecting victims and cooperating with the police.

He wants to avoid seeing cases overturned, suppression hearings and evidence ruled inadmissible because it was unlawfully gathered. He wants to keep the docket from becoming backlogged by working with the defense before arraignment to see which cases can be handled through pleas — and which cases are so heinous the accused simply must stand before a jury of peers and be judged.

Meanwhile, history has shown the judges in this area are competent and well versed in the law, are not reactionary, do not try to legislate from the bench and have not been routinely called out by any administrative body on egregious breaches.

Their professionalism, coupled with McAfee’s promise to ensure the rights of the accused are always maintained, should ensure the 33rd/424th Judicial District maintains a high standard of ethics while also allowing victims — or their survivors — to see that proper punishment is meted out to the criminal element.

 

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