Early voting in the Travis County Democratic and Republican primaries began Tuesday February 20 and continues through Friday March 1. The biggest race is the one for Travis County District Attorney.

The Austin Independent reached out for interviews to both District Attorney candidates in the Democratic race. The winner in the Democratic primary will almost certainly win the November general election. Only one candidate, however, responded. That was the challenger Jeremy Sylestine. The incumbent District Attorney (DA), José Garza, did not reply to an interview request to his campaign.

Readers may recall that for a previous story we delayed publication for two days at the request of DA Garza’s Public Information Office. They asked for time to reply to questions the Austin Independent had submitted. Believing this request reasonable, we delayed the story. But, the DA’s Office never replied. 

District Attorney José Garza, photo from his website Media file

Our interview of Sylestine begins below, but for a brief biography we relied on his first person account on his campaign website: “I was born in East Texas and grew up as a member of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe. My grandfather was the Tribe’s Principal Chief. My father worked in the oil fields, and my mother supported our family as a bookkeeper. 

Growing up on the reservation, I understand what it feels like when the government fails you. For me, equity and justice are not just words – they are the foundation for who I am.” 

Sylestine also writes that he currently serves “as the Chief Appellate Trial Judge of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of East Texas.”

The biography continues that Sylestine came to Austin in 1997 to attend the University of Texas. After graduating from UT, he attended the University of Virginia School of Law. He received his law degree from UVA in 2004 and then returned to Texas, working as a public defender in West Texas. He was based in Dumas.

Sylestine then returned to Austin in 2006, to work in the District Attorney’s Office under then DA Ronnie Earle. He worked there for 15 years as a prosecutor and also a trial chief. There, writes Sylestine, “I prosecuted some of the most serious and complicated felony cases on child abuse and domestic violence in a specialized unit, as well as many violent crime cases including capital murder, aggravated robbery, and sexual assault. The convictions I pursued in those cases brought justice and some sense of closure to the victims and made our community safer.”

Sylestine left the DA’s Office in 2021, writing “I felt the DA’s office was moving in the wrong direction, and I chose to step away and start my own private practice in criminal defense.”

I began our phone interview by asking Sylestine to elaborate on why he left the DA’s Office and why he determined it was moving in the “wrong direction.”

Sylestine began his answer by saying that while working in the DA’s Office he learned “what fair prosecution was.” He added, “to be honest with you, I don’t think we were missing the mark by much, if at all. Travis County is a progressive place anyway. So we were doing diversion (from jail), we were making sure the right thing was done. I never felt pressure to convict. It was always (do) what I thought was the right thing. And, when Garza took over it was an immediate shift to focusing on what was right for the offender versus what might be right for victims.”

When Garza took over it was an immediate shift to focusing on what was right for the offender versus what might be right for victims.” Jeremy Sylestine

I then asked Sylestine to elaborate on a quote from the Austin American-Statesman in which he said it was possible to maintain “progressive policies” while simultaneously following “common sense prosecution principles.” 

Sylestine replied that it is possible to “hold those two thoughts in our head,” that is, “it’s OK to be progressively motivated — focus on diversion, focus on mental health, focus on not coming down hard on people who are facing addiction — and at the same time realize that there is a greater responsibility to keep people safe.”

He elaborated on this theme later in the interview, “I’m trying to get people to understand this: You can be a good Democrat and still believe in the rule of law and (believe in) a functional criminal justice system. We don’t have to give up on community safety just because we want to believe in progressive prosecution. That’s the message I’m really trying to hammer home, is we can be smart and use common sense about all this, and still maintain what we believe in our core.”

You can be a good Democrat and still believe in the rule of law and (believe in) a functional criminal justice system. We don’t have to give up on community safety just because we want to believe in progressive prosecution. Jeremy Sylestine

Sylestine also returned to his claim that Garza ignored a progressive history in the DA’s Office before he, Garza, ran for the job. “He tried to make it look like Travis County wasn’t doing any of the things that he wanted to do, yet all of those programs were in place before he got there. Diversion is not a José Garza invention. That was there before he moved to Travis County.” Garza moved to Travis County in late 2015 to head the Workers Defense Project, although he  earlier attended UT Austin, graduating in 2001.

Additionally, Sylestine stressed that he is better qualified for the office than Garza. For instance, in explaining why he ultimately decided to run, Sylestine said, “I think that you kind of respond to the need where you see it. I have a very particular set of skills. To me, it suits me for the job in a way that he can’t ever claim and that not many people in the county can.” 

Sylestine was referring, among other things, to Garza’s lack of experience as a prosecutor. For instance, in a recent Statesman story on the race, the paper described Garza as having “campaigned (in 2020) on having never prosecuted a criminal defendant.” The article added, “In 2020, he (Garza) told the American-Statesman that a long history of ‘career prosecutors’ inhabiting the office of the district attorney has led to ‘gross disparities in the criminal justice system.’ Travis County voters seemed to agree with him: Garza won in a landslide during the primary runoff, ousting one-term incumbent Margaret Moore.” 

Jeremy Sylestine being sworn in as the Chief Appellate Trial Judge of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of East Texas

Sylestine also questioned Garza’s faith in juries. Noting that he, Sylestine, has done “over 75 jury trials” in Travis County, Sylestine maintained, “I have vast experience with Travis County juries and I know from that experience what they think and how they feel about the system. And, I believe that Garza does not trust juries and I think he believes he knows better than them. But, we know from working in the system that it only functions when we have community input from juries.”

The Independent also asked Sylestine about an Austin Chronicle story and endorsement (of Garza) that criticized Sylestine for taking campaign contributions from “right wing donors.” (This is also a Garza campaign talking point.)

“Yeah,” replied Sylestine, “what they fail to recognize is that my donors are Travis County citizens and/or Texans. So I truly don’t care why someone is supporting me. I think there are myriad reasons why someone might want José Garza out of office. What you don’t hear is my platform changing to suit anybody.”

Sylestine added, “I have been a lifelong Democrat. Since I’ve been voting I have voted in Democratic primaries and I have certainly voted in more Travis County Democratic primaries than José Garza ever had. But, to criticize the donor base is to take away from the fact that these are people who are invested in this community and who are sick and tired of feeling, and being, unsafe when they are out and about. The evidence is very clear that the decisions he is making are causing harm to actual victims and survivors and creating dangerous situations for others.”

The Austin Independent asked Sylestine about a few procedural processes in the court system. Specifically we asked about instances during Garza’s term in which his staff said they opposed lowering bonds and that the judge granted it anyway.

Sylestine answered, “I think what you are hearing from the Garza camp now is a cop-out because when he took over he wrote down and disseminated, and had us all sign, the bail policy that said it was the prosecutors job to seek out cases where a lower bond would be appropriate as the least restrictive condition. He’s now coming back around, because he realizes how unpopular and unsafe that is, and he’s putting it on the judges. And, the judges, I will tell you this, bristled when that became the policy, because they could not fathom a system where the DA was coming to them on violent cases and saying, ‘Judge, let’s lower the bond.” Sylestine added, “People in nonviolent cases, people with little or no criminal history, they should be entitled to bonds because you don’t need to sit in jail just because you can’t afford it [bond]. But, when you have committed or you are alleged to have committed a violent crime sometimes that’s exactly where you need to be.”

The Independent also asked Sylestine about his criticism of Garza for eliminating the “intake unit” or “grand jury” unit in the DA’s Office. This is the unit that evaluates cases when they come from the police and prepares the ones they determine merit moving forward to a grand jury, to be considered for indictment. If the grand jury chooses to indict, explained Sylestine, “Then the line prosecutors would have the benefit of all that work.” When Garza eliminated the unit, he continued, that “puts all the burden on the line prosecutors” and “doubles their load.” The heavy work burden in turn, “leads to delays and you’re fighting for grand jury time and cases don’t get indicted in a timely way.” 

Sylestine added that the extra burden on line prosecutors comes on top of a reduction in experienced prosecutors who have left during Garza’s tenure. One result, says Sylestine, is that “people are missing simple deadlines that result in lower bail and people get out and hurt people. The most egregious example is the Hilario Adrian case.”

Sylestine is referring to Hilario Chavez Adrian who in April 2023 was a homeless man who, according to an arrest affidavit, got into an altercation with another homeless man in the “the rear parking lot of the 7-Eleven located at 917 N Lamar Blvd (SE comer of 10th and Lamar Blvd).” 

The arrest affidavit in the case reports that according to an eyewitness, a video taken by that eyewitness, and investigation by police officers who arrived on the scene, Adrian was menacing another man, alternately, with a golf club and a hatchet. The other man pulled a knife, but after viewing the video, talking with the eyewitness and engaging in further on the scene investigation, police determined that Adrian was the aggressor throughout the altercation and that the other man pulled the knife in self defense. The other man also said he wanted to press charges. According to a report by CBS Austin, “Adrian has a record of fifty-seven arrests.”

Adrian was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He was in jail for 90 days, during which time Garza’s DA office failed to move forward on indicting him. After Adrian’s 90 day stint in jail, a state law kicked in that says anyone in jail for that long without being indicted must be released on personal bond or their bail must be reduced to an amount that they can afford to pay. As Adrian was an indigent, the amount was $1 in his case.

Thus, Adrian was released by order of Judge Karen Sage on August 22, 2023. Three and a half months later Adrian was arrested for stabbing another homeless man to death in downtown Austin near 6th and Congress. 

At that point representatives of Garza’s office returned to Sage’s court asking her to revoke the $1 bond and set a new bond of $100,000. 

Travis County District Attorney José Garza, photo from his campaign website Media file

A filing from Garza on December 13, 2023 cited law that says in setting bond a court can consider, “the future safety of a victim [dead in this case] of the alleged offense and the community.” 

Thus, continued Garza’s filing,

“The State asserts that the following developments show that the current bond amounts and conditions are insufficient: 

1) The Defendant was arrested for a subsequent offense of Murder on December 10, 2023 . . . where the Defendant is alleged to have been in possession of a knife, and is alleged to have stabbed the decedent. 

2) The Defendant’s actions display an alarming disrespect for obeying the law and the lawful orders.”

The new bond was approved. According to Travis County jail records Adrian’s bond is now $1 million.

Clearly from the above interview, Sylestine bases much of his case on a belief that Garza’s policies have made Travis County less safe and that he has instituted policies that disrespect victims of crime. We will explore this question in an upcoming installment and also look at some of the related political factors in the race. We also explored one set of cases in regards to Garza’s treatment of female victims of violence in an earlier story.

In closing this segment I want to note that I gave José Garza two days notice for an interview, the same as with Sylestine — not an unreasonable request for candidates on the eve of early voting. In Garza’s case those two days included 24 hours after I interviewed Jeremy Sylestine. That would have allowed Garza to address any issues raised by Sylestine in his interview. And, even if Garza had responded before we interviewed Sylestine, I would have offered him the opportunity for a follow-up session after my interview with Sylestine. As noted earlier, Garza did not respond to our invitation.

Also, I have not found any criticism by José Garza of Jeremy Sylestine’s tenure at the DA’s Office. If I had found that in my research of his campaign website and media reports, I would have asked Sylestine about it and written about it.


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