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Tarrant County Criminal DA tackles workload, expects future growth

🕐 3 min read

The Tarrant County Criminal District’s Attorney’s office expects cases to keep multiplying as case scrutiny intensifies, according to Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson.

Since taking the reins from Joe Shannon in early 2015, the former state district judge and criminal district attorney for the state’s third-most-populated county has watched criminal cases multiply as staff struggles to keep up with the workload.

“Backlogs are growing, and that’s only going to increase,” said Wilson, speaking April 13 at a breakfast meeting sponsored by Fort Worth Business. The gathering saw Wilson serve as keynote speaker and featured a question-and-answer session moderated by editor Robert Francis.

Just as transportation planners struggle to accommodate a growing North Texas population, so does Wilson’s office cope with a mounting caseload. She cited an effort to maintain her office’s quality of work even as its 300 full-time employees — including about 155 attorneys — handle an average of 45,000 cases in any given year.

Helping fuel that resolve was the Michael Morton case, named after a Texas County supermarket manager wrongly convicted and sentenced to die for the murder of his wife.

“That’s a horrible case,” said Wilson of the 1986 crime. “The prosecution withheld evidence that would have found him not guilty.”

Instead, Morton spent almost 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife before his 2011 release, despite what many observers considered copious evidence demonstrating his innocence.

“Because of the Michael Morton Act [Texas Senate Bill 1611, intended to ensure a more open discovery process], cases are going slower,” said Wilson, pointing to DNA evidence and related technology as tools in prosecution while also crediting the human element.

“You’re still going to have humans look at everything to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” Wilson said.

The CDA’s office workload is formidable with or without technology. Its four divisions — civil, criminal, investigation and chief of staff — handle thousands of cases each year, with mental health and domestic violence among cases increasing in recent years.

Asked by why mental health cases are multiplying, Wilson said, “I don’t know. Those are not all separate, distinct individuals.”

Such cases jumped 21 percent to 3,804 in 2015 compared to the previous year.

The introduction of online case filing may have increased numbers of public filings “because we’re more accessible,” especially for protective orders, Wilson noted.

Meanwhile, the criminal division is seeing more family violence, driving while intoxicated and marijuana possession cases, the top three offenses in the division, while ID theft, and real estate deed theft also are on the rise.

In the civil division, lawsuits filed again elected officials keep attorneys busy.

“Guess who gets sued the most. That would be the sheriff,” said Wilson, adding that CDA attorneys “have to know a little about a ton of issues.”

Asked to give some advice for young lawyers, and Wilson said, “Be ethical because the one thing you can’t get back is your reputation. Don’t be afraid to know the law greater than anyone else in the county.”

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