Q&A: Palo Pinto County District Attorney

Feb. 12—Get to know more about the two candidates running for Palo Pinto County District Attorney, Jett Smith and Kriste Burnett.

Responses are listed in the order each candidate will appear on the ballot.

Jett Smith

Age: 38

Occupation: Assistant District Attorney — Erath County

Education/background: I am a fifth generation native of Palo Pinto County. After graduating from Mineral Wells High School in 2004 as part of the Elite Ram Society, I began my college career at Texas A&M University. At A&M, I obtained a degree in Business Administration, and graduated with honors in 2007. I attended law school at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, and while going to school worked as an intern for the Bexar County District Attorney's Office, where I was attached to a felony court. In 2011, I became a fully licensed attorney, and have since then dedicated my career to prosecuting criminal offenses.

My involvement in the community has been local and focused on Palo Pinto County. I am a member of the Palo Pinto County Sheriff's Posse, serve on the Board of Directors of Texas Frontier Trails, and was chosen as a Mineral Wells High School Distinguished Alumnus in 2014.

My wife, Liz, teaches school at Houston Elementary, and my sons Henry and Thomas are both proud students at Mineral Wells ISD.

Relevant experience for this office: I have over 12 years of experience as a criminal prosecutor. I began my career in San Antonio, where I was chosen as lead prosecutor of the Bexar County Veteran's Court. There, I was able to help our honorably discharged veterans, by providing them with the medical, psychological, and social support they needed. During that time, I also served as an instructor for the San Antonio Police Academy, and a continuing education instructor for the San Antonio Police Department.

Currently, I work as a felony prosecutor in Stephenville. In that capacity I have specialized in prosecuting Sexual Assaults, Internet Sex Crimes, Domestic Abuse, and Crimes Against Children. I serve as a member of the Multi-Disciplinary Team, responsible for combating child sexual and physical abuse, as well as the Sexual Assault Response Team, which addresses these same issues where the victims are adults. I am also a founding member of the Domestic Violence High Risk Team, which helps victims of physical abuse to end the cycle of violence.

I was also proud to be part of the team that successfully prosecuted the murderer of Chad Littlefield, and Chris Kyle, the American Sniper.

Website or page where people can learn more about your campaign: People can find out more about my campaign on Facebook at "Jett Smith for District Attorney of Palo Pinto County." I can also be reached directly at jettsmithforda@gmail.com.

Q: Describe the job duties included in this office.

The foremost duty of a District Attorney is to prosecute criminal offenses in a manner that serves the interests of justice. Further, the office operates almost as a small law firm, with a staff and a budget that the District Attorney is responsible for managing. Criminal cases must also be evaluated for legal and factual sufficiency, and processed through the court system.

Q: Does this office need a larger staff, fewer on staff or is it about right?

There is currently a case backlog at the Palo Pinto County District Attorney's Office. If elected, I will then determine how to best meet our personnel needs, so that our work can be completed efficiently.

Q: How effectively does/would this office interact with local law enforcement under your leadership?

A District Attorney cannot be effective unless they have a great working relationship with law enforcement. In my current position, I give my personal number to every law enforcement officer, and make myself available to them day or night should they need help. I keep an open-door policy, and make sure to meet with our officers on patrol, in investigations, and administration, on a regular basis. I will implement these same policies should I be elected as District Attorney of Palo Pinto County.

Q: What are your top priorities if elected?

If elected, there are immediate steps that I would take to create positive change at the District Attorney's Office. The foundation of effective prosecution of felony cases starts with the District Attorney's relationship with local law enforcement. As District Attorney, I would work directly with each law enforcement agency to build strong cases from the ground up. This requires effective communication, and cooperation, with our partners in law enforcement.

Secondly, the District Attorney's Office needs to be run efficiently. During my time as a prosecutor, I have developed a system that allows criminal cases to flow from inception to trial in a timely manner, and I will implement this system in our county.

Lastly, if I am elected, the District Attorney's Office will be one of respect. I, and my staff, will conduct themselves as professionals both inside and out of the courtroom. Victims of crime, law enforcement, opposing counsel, and our community partners will know that they will be treated fairly and courteously in their interactions with the Office of the District Attorney.

Q: Any final thoughts on why residents should vote for you?

Palo Pinto County is our home, our heritage, and our hope. The future of our county requires tough and conscientious prosecution of felony offenses. With my experience and background, if elected, I will be able to begin that meaningful work on my first day in office. For the reasons given above, the Palo Pinto County District Attorney's Office requires immediate positive change.

Kriste Burnett

Age: 57

Occupation: Palo Pinto County District Attorney

Education/Background/Relevant Experience: Texas Tech University, BA in English 1989; Texas Tech School of Law, JD 1992; 1992-96 Assistant District Attorney 83rd & 112th Judicial Districts of Texas; 1997-2000- County Attorney, Pecos County; 2001-2009 Assistant District Attorney Johnson & Somervell Counties; 2009-2010 Assistant District Attorney Palo Pinto County, 2011-16 Law Office of Kriste Burnett; 2017-present District Attorney Palo Pinto County; Palo Pinto County Adult Sexual Assault Response Team; Palo Pinto County Children's Alliance Center Board of Directors; Texas District & County Attorneys Association Regional Director, Secretary/Treasurer, President-Elect; North Central Texas Council of Governments Criminal Justice Policy Development Committee; Texas Children's Justice Act Task Force; Sheriff's Association of Texas Cold Case Team

Website: burnettpalopintocoda.com

Q: Describe the job duties included in this office.

District Attorneys are responsible for prosecuting all felony offenses that occur within their jurisdiction as well as certain misdemeanors involving public officials. Felony charges in Texas are those charges that could result in a person going to prison if convicted, such as possession or delivery of controlled substances, burglary, robbery, aggravated assault, child abuse and certain domestic violence cases. Our office receives and reviews cases from law enforcement that involve felony charges. We work with law enforcement to make sure that the investigation is complete, make charging decisions and present cases to grand jury. Pursuant to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, "It is the primary duty of all prosecuting attorneys not to convict, but to see that justice is done. They shall not suppress facts or secrete witnesses capable of establishing the innocence of the accused." This means that not every case that is presented to our office will end up being indicted. All prosecutors have the burden of proving every case beyond a reasonable doubt. Some cases must be rejected because that level of proof does not exist in the case. Sometimes justice requires that a person be prosecuted for a different or lesser offense than the one originally charged. All of these decisions must be made based upon the law and the prosecutor's training, experience, and knowledge of how juries approach cases in his or her jurisdiction. Once a case is indicted by the grand jury, district attorneys are responsible for prosecuting those cases in district court. The majority of cases are disposed of by plea bargaining. This is because there are far more cases indicted than could be tried to a jury in our county since we only have one district court of general jurisdiction. Our district judge hears a wide variety of civil and family law cases in addition to our felony case load. This limits the number of days in every month that felony cases can actually be heard in court. My office is responsible for all jury and bench trials for felony cases and we have an impeccable record at trial and those verdicts have all been upheld on appeal.

Q: Does this office need a larger staff, fewer on staff or is it about right?

Our office team has served Palo Pinto County well since I took office in 2017. Our team consists of an assistant district attorney, Kason Mobley; an investigator, Tom Seaton; our office manager, Adina Morris, who also serves as our lead victim's assistance coordinator; and Chree Henderson, our legal assistant and assistant victim's assistance coordinator. Each member of our team works hard to make sure that every case that comes into our office has everything in it that we need to prosecute the charge to the best of our ability and meet our burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt. Because our case load will only continue to increase as the population of Palo Pinto County grows and because we have an ever-increasing amount of digital evidence in our cases, we could use at least one more employee to help organize, maintain, and review the hours of video footage we receive in our cases. New appellate court rules require us to make sure that all the digital evidence we introduce into evidence in the courtroom is in a specific format and edited appropriately, so it would be very helpful to have an employee with those specific skills. We are hoping to use the money appropriated by the legislature in Senate Bill 22 last year to add this additional staff position so that there will not be additional cost to the county.

Q: How effectively does/would this office interact with local law enforcement under your leadership?

Our office interacts very effectively with law enforcement. We communicate with law enforcement on a constant basis regarding the cases they are working on or have filed in our office. I have always had an open-door policy with law enforcement since beginning my career in 1992. I give my cell phone number, as well as those of my investigator and assistant district attorney, to every office and encourage them to call us at any time, day or night, if they need help or have a question about how they should proceed on a case. We have all answered those calls, even in the middle of the night, because we want to make sure that the officers on duty have the answers they need to proceed or take action in accordance with the law. While the law is very specific on the issue that prosecutors and their staff are not to investigate crime, we are always happy to offer the legal guidance necessary to help all our law enforcement agencies make the best possible cases. Also, the experience and connections I have made over more than 30 years of doing this work give me resources that I can share with our law enforcement officers to help them in their investigations. I have worked with various expert witnesses across the state who I can refer to law enforcement to help in investigations as well as having connections in many federal law enforcement agencies that have been very useful. I also have always prioritized education for law enforcement by bringing in free training and paying for officers to go to specialized trainings to improve their skills.

Q: What are your top priorities if elected?

If I am re-elected, my top priority is to continue to represent the interests of all citizens of Palo Pinto County to the best of my ability. One of the most important parts of my job, in my opinion, is to uphold the community standards of Palo Pinto County in our prosecution of felony cases. When I first was elected in 2016, citizens repeatedly told me that they were tired of the revolving door of felony offenders in this county. Citizens were offended by the fact that people they knew had been convicted more than once of felony charges were reoffending and yet still getting probated sentences. I was given a mandate by the voters to stop that revolving door, and I have kept my promise to the voters by using the laws in our penal code regarding repeat and habitual offenders to make sure that those persons are held accountable for their actions. The other mandate I received from voters was to deal with the proliferation of drug dealers in our community. Drug addiction is a terrible affliction on our society, but those who profit off of the addiction of others by selling drugs in our communities deserve harsher punishment. I have kept my promise to voters to not offer probated sentences to drug dealers. These community standards have been reinforced by the sentences handed down by juries during my tenure. Palo Pinto County jurors set our community standards by the verdicts they hand down in felony trials. Our jurors have repeatedly told us by their verdicts that they want habitual defendants and drug dealers off our streets by handing down maximum punishments in those cases. Another top priority for us is crime committed against children. I have always been a strong voice for the most vulnerable citizens of our county. Our children truly are our future and deserve our protection. Jurors have shown they agree with this priority by giving harsh punishment to those they have found guilty of child abuse. Because my job is to represent the citizens who elect me and uphold the community standards those citizens set, I will continue to be Palo Pinto tough on crime.

Q: Any final thoughts on why residents should vote for you?

Palo Pinto County residents should vote for me because I am a proven, respected and dedicated servant leader. I put the needs and desires of the citizens of this great county above my own. I have shown that I am a promise keeper and a tough on crime warrior for Palo Pinto County. My demonstrated trial skills have helped to take some very bad felons off the streets of our county for long periods of time. My service to my profession through the various leadership positions in the associations, task forces, and teams I have served on helps to sharpen my skills and gives me even more resources to serve Palo Pinto County to the best of my ability. I am a woman of faith and rely on my relationship with God to lead me in my job every day. I ask for your vote and your prayers to assist me in my service to all of you.