J.R. Vicha has wanted to be connected in some way to law enforcement since he was a toddler watching his father, Waco police Sgt. Bobby Vicha, put his uniform on every day.
For the past eight years, he has been prosecuting murderers, drug dealers and robbers, garnering 15 life sentences in the more than 100 misdemeanor and felony jury trials in which he was prosecutor.
But now, Vicha says, it’s time for a new chapter in his career.
The 35-year-old, who is serving as McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna’s chief felony prosecutor in 19th State District Court, gave Reyna his two-week notice this week and intends to see what trials are like sitting in the defense attorney’s chair. Vicha will leave the DA’s office April 25 to set up a private law practice, joining the office of Waco attorneys John Mabry and John Lewis.
“I’ve enjoyed serving the citizens of this county for the last eight years as a prosecutor, but it was just time for a change to help me become more well-rounded,” said Vicha, an Axtell native.
Vicha becomes the second experienced felony prosecutor to leave Reyna’s office in the past two months. Michelle Voirin, who helped establish Reyna’s Crimes Against Children unit, moved back to Collin County to be closer to family and to take a better-paying and less-stressful job in the Plano City Attorney’s Office.
Reyna said he is pleased for Vicha and said his office profited because Vicha and Voirin both passed along their expertise to younger prosecutors who benefited from that experience and now will step into their shoes.
“It’s a criminal justice system, (and) what he is doing is still part of the system. I did it. I just went the other way,” said Reyna, who was a criminal defense attorney before he became district attorney. “Even if he is on the other side, he has a vested interest in making sure his client is fully and adequately represented. I think he will make a good defense attorney.”
Billie Wayne Coble, despondent about his impending divorce from J.R. Vicha’s aunt, murdered Vicha’s father and grandparents, Robert and Zelda Vicha, at their Axtell homes in 1989.
Coble tied up Vicha, who was 11 at the time, and his cousins and told the girls to say goodbye to their mother, Karen Vicha Coble. He then kidnapped his estranged wife and fled police before they were injured in a wreck after a high-speed chase with police in Bosque County.
Coble was given the death penalty, and Vicha has sketchy memories of attending part of his trial. Coble has had several stays of execution and his appeal is pending before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
After prosecuting for eight years, Vicha said it will be an adjustment representing people like Coble charged with crimes.
“I have always tried to do the right thing for the right reason and I believe I can still do that from the other side,” Vicha said. “Even though I am going to be a defense lawyer, I believe I can still do the right thing for the right reason.”
Sgt. Dennis Baier, a 30-year veteran of the Waco Police Department who worked with Vicha’s father before presenting cases to Vicha for prosecution, said he is sorry that Vicha is leaving the DA’s office.
“He is a man of integrity and I have all the confidence in the world that he will make whatever work environment he goes to a better place,” Baier said. “He is an idealistic person and is always striving to do right. I don’t want to say that is a rare bird in this business, but you don’t always find somebody like J.R. who can balance both ethical and legal issues and hold his head up.”
Judge Matt Johnson of Waco’s 54th State District Court said he thinks Vicha will do well in private practice because of all the characteristics that made him an effective felony prosecutor.
“With J.R. Vicha’s resignation as a felony prosecutor, McLennan County has lost the services of an intelligent and talented public servant who always tempered his decisions with fairness and common sense,” Johnson said.
Judge Ralph Strother of Waco’s 19th State District Court prosecuted Coble when Strother worked in the district attorney’s office. He worked with Vicha, a former juvenile probation officer, when Strother presided over juvenile cases, and again when Vicha was in law school and was an intern in Strother’s court.
“While I hate to lose him as the chief felony prosecutor in my court, I know that he will bring to the defense bar the same sense of dedication and professionalism he has always exhibited,” the judge said. “I look forward to a continued professional relationship and wish him well.”