Dana Huffman, a Democratic judicial candidate for Texas’ 469th District Court, held a fundraising reception via Zoom Thursday night with Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot to discuss COVID-19’s impact on the application of criminal justice and Huffman’s campaign efforts.
A press release promoting the event placed a special emphasis on the topic of qualified immunity, a doctrine which protects law enforcement officers from civil liability, but the conversation between Huffman and Creuzot centered mostly on COVID-19’s impact.
“COVID has changed everything we’re doing across the board,” said Huffman. “We’re doing everything virtual right now.”
Moderated by Dallas attorney J. Steven Cooper, the panelists discussed how face-to-face social interactions are essential to campaigns and beseeched viewers to contribute to Huffman’s campaign to offset this impediment. When asked if Democratic candidates have an electoral disadvantage in Collin County, Huffman replied, “We think Collin County is very competitive right now for Democratic candidates.”
She added, “I’d be ready to start the first day, and I know I’d serve Collin County very well.”
Creuzot echoed this sentiment and gave an enthusiastic endorsement for Huffman in saying, “I’m very supportive of Dana and her tribe… I think Collin County will be well-served.”
Huffman’s opponent, incumbent Republican judge Piper McCraw, was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to the 469th District Court in 2015. Prior to this tenure, she worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Collin County and cofounded law firm McCraw-Gantt, PLLC. The court was established two weeks before the start of McCraw’s first term, which makes her the court’s first presiding judge, and Huffman the first Democratic nominee to run for the seat.
About halfway through the reception, Creuzot and Huffman discussed how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting jails and jury trials. Creuzot stated that Dallas County officials are working to keep the number of occupants at the Dallas County jail down to 5,000 or less, and he expressed that Dallas County has converted two grand jury rooms to accommodate social distancing guidelines.
“99.8% of all criminal cases are resolved without a jury,” Creuzot explained. “Even though we’re not having jury trials, it’s not affecting many of the dispositions.”
Despite the lack of jury trials happening in Dallas County, Creuzot and Huffman both contended that Zoom sessions impeded a criminal defendant’s right to confront witnesses. This right is outlined in the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, which states, “[I]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”
The moderator, Steven Cooper, shoehorned a question on qualified immunity into the discussion about 10 minutes before its conclusion, while telling viewers to Google it.
“As a criminal defense attorney, I’m always shocked when people are surprised that minorities are having the crap beaten out of them on a regular basis, or murdered,” Cooper said. “These bodycams, when the police turn them on – the proof’s in the pudding.”
Qualified immunity has been at the forefront of national debate since the May 25 death of Minnesota man George Floyd, who was killed after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for approximately nine minutes. The incident sparked international outrage and was a catalyst to hundreds of Black Lives Matter protests, some of which have yielded to violent confrontations with law enforcement.
Creuzot added to this in saying, “[Floyd’s death] was so graphic and so brutal and so uncaring in the manner in which it happened, and his pleas went unheeded…For some reason, that one caught the conscience of a lot of people.”
A time-pressed Cooper ended the session following scarce dialogue on qualified immunity. Despite the press release’s emphasis on the issue, Creuzot and Huffman briefly expounded on non-violent drug offenses and law enforcement’s use of body and dash cameras as a means of transparency.
“I love the body cameras and the dash cameras,” Huffman said. “When I started, we didn’t have any of those things.”