Barry Johnson sold caskets for a funeral home and was a personal injury attorney for more than two decades before he moved back to his hometown and ousted a two-term incumbent district attorney.
Johnson, 63, is a year into his new job as McLennan County district attorney and said it is challenging, rewarding and the best job he ever had.
While he admits to traversing a “pretty steep learning curve” because of his inexperience in criminal law, he said he has surrounded himself with a talented staff, including two veteran top assistants, and jokes that he only rarely has asked himself in the past year why he wanted the job in the first place.
“I guess I have been surprised by the number of emergency-type situations, the number of different scenarios that can arise during the day with different cases that are going on and the amount of time it takes to go through those cases, and the number of people who want to come in,” Johnson said.
“I campaigned that my door is going to be open, and it still is open. But at times, if it was open to everybody, I would never go home and wouldn’t have time to do anything. I did not anticipate the number of folks who come in the door with problems, serious problems, that need to be solved, where you have to make decisions, including whether to dismiss a case or move forward. The number of daily decisions is something that I did not anticipate, but it makes it an exciting job,” he said.
Johnson defeated Abel Reyna in the Republican primary by 20 percentage points, his defeat buoyed in large part by the public perception that Reyna botched the handling of the 2015 Twin Peaks shooting in which nine bikers were killed and 20 more were injured.
Of 155 Twin Peaks defendants Reyna indicted on identical first-degree felony charges, no one was convicted, and the only trial stemming from the shootout ended in a hung jury and mistrial, with most jurors favoring acquittal.
Reyna’s tough law enforcement attitude and tight control over his office robbed his prosecutors of discretion and autonomy and required them to offer lengthy plea bargains, even for young, first-time offenders. The high offers slowed the disposition of cases in the county’s two felony criminal courts, clogged their dockets and led to crowding issues at the county jail.
Johnson’s approach is different. While many think the plea bargains his office is handing out may be too generous and stand in stark contrast to Reyna’s, the court dockets clearly are flowing more freely, cases are being disposed of and, as Johnson puts it, “we have put a lot of oxygen back in the courthouse.”
“In my opinion, the previous way was a mistake,” Johnson said. “There are always going to be people running for the DA job and some are so misled that in order to get elected, they say we are not going to plea bargain at all. We are going to try them all. Impossible. You can’t do that.
“But if you run and say the DA is light on crime, guess what? Everything is going to go the maximum, and then you are doing the same thing as saying we are not going to plea bargain and it clogs up the system and it’s unfair to the defendant, to the people in this county and it’s in direct contravention to how the criminal justice system should work. That is not to say we are weak on crime. We are not.”
Judge Matt Johnson, who presides over one of the county’s two felony courts, has noticed Johnson has loosened up the office structure and said it does not seem quite as regimented a system as the previous administration.
He said he thinks Johnson also has given his prosecutors more discretion in how the cases assigned to them are handled, including plea bargain offers.
“It appears in many of the plea bargain cases that they are not making extremely high offers with the first offer,” the judge said. “They are making more reasonable offers on the first offer, which helps to move the cases, because if you make an extremely high offer as your first offer, defendants will obviously wait and look for a better deal further down the line. I think this DA’s office has taken the position that we are going to make a fair offer upfront, and if you don’t take it, we are going to try your case.”
Judge Ralph Strother has noticed the same thing in his court. As a result, the judges said, felony cases are being resolved more quickly, their dockets are moving more efficiently and there are fewer cases on their trial dockets.
“I do believe the plea bargain offers from the state are different,” Strother said. “I am not criticizing those decisions nor am I endorsing the ones offered by the prior administration. But I will say they are different.
“In terms of moving the docket, I think it is moving a little faster. That is not a criticism nor an endorsement of anybody. It is just a reality because the defense bar probably considers the offers more reasonable, and that is resulting in more pleas being accepted by the defense and by the courts.”
At least six Waco defense attorneys declined comment when asked about Johnson’s first year in office. David Bass, who primarily handles misdemeanor cases, said he has noticed differences in how some of those cases are being handled.
“The biggest difference I have seen is that there seems to be a real effort on the part of the district attorney’s office to really burrow down and see what is really going on in the person’s case and life,” Bass said. “I have had good success in having them look at mental health problems and other things that cause some of these lower-level criminal offenses to be charged. If I can bring them proof of those things, they have a tendency to divert these people out of the criminal system and let them handle their problems with some mental health treatment or something else, which has been very gratifying.”
While DA Johnson is effusive in his praise of the Waco Police Department, the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office and other police agencies in the county, some law enforcement heads complain that they are seeing an alarming number of cases being dismissed or refused by Johnson’s office.
Riesel Police Chief Danny Krumnow, who is recovering from serious injuries he suffered in an Oct. 11 traffic incident on Highway 6 in which Falls County Deputy Matt Jones was killed, said his agency has had cases kicked back to it that he thought were fit for prosecution.
“I am definitely disappointed in the DA’s office,” Krumnow said. “It seems like we went from one extreme to the other. The prior DA, Reyna, he wanted to hang everybody from the courthouse square, and Barry Johnson is the exact opposite.”
Most of the county chiefs of police meet once a week to discuss law enforcement issues and concerns. Johnson and his top assistants, Nelson Barnes and Tom Needham, met with the group regularly after Johnson took office last January to get to know them and develop a working relationship.
But Johnson knows now that honeymoon period with the agencies is definitely over.
“I absolutely think we have a good relationship,” Johnson said. “I think we kind of had that five or six months where we had a honeymoon period where were were trying to get to know each other, and after that they would let us know if they were disappointed in us. And on our side, we let them know as well. But I would say the honeymoon is definitely over.
“I think any debate or any differences we have are healthy and they allow our criminal justice system to work the way it is set up to operate correctly, with checks and balances,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he understands law enforcement concerns and wants to keep the line of communication open. He said if they have problems with his office, there is no reason they cannot sit down and clear the air.
“Law enforcement is a difficult job and we understand that,” Johnson said. “We are home in bed at 3 in the morning when they are out jumping fences and looking down gun barrels. Then all of a sudden you have somebody with a law degree saying, ‘What were you thinking at 3 in the morning?’
“I can understand that would cause a law enforcement officer to be perturbed, to say the least. We want to work together. We have to work together. But I think a good healthy debate from time to time is what has to happen. That is the way the system is designed, and we are committed to having a good relationship with the law enforcement community.”
Johnson estimates his office has turned back less than 5% of cases presented to them by area law enforcement agencies. He had no current figures for the office dismissal rate.
McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara clearly has issues with Johnson’s office and declined comment for this story.
Waco Police Chief Ryan Holt said any issues his department has had were and will continue to be taken up in private with Johnson and his staff.
“I don’t want to go into specifics,” Holt said. “I am of the opinion that we owe it to our constituents to work closely with the DA’s office to seek justice for the victims, and we will continue to do everything we can do to be engaged with the DA’s office, the court system and the surrounding agencies to help make Waco a safer place.”
Woodway Public Safety Director Bret Crook said his agency has seen a “significant increase” in the number of cases being dismissed, refused or returned for additional investigation by Johnson’s office. But what was more concerning, Crook said, was that many were returned with little or no explanation. Many only said the cases was being dismissed “in the interest of justice,” he said.
“I do know that since we met at the end of last year, I have seen a change in the communication level,” Crook said. “I have seen better communication. We were getting back cases with no explanation about why they were being dismissed. If we have done something wrong, we want to make sure we don’t do it that way the next time.”
Crook said he has asked Johnson and his staff to meet with the chiefs’ group in a more formal setting to discuss concerns, questions and ways to further improve communication between the agencies.
“I know we all have the same goal and we need to communicate to get to that goal,” Crook said.
Johnson said in the coming year, he is looking forward to helping get the county’s two new specialty courts — a veterans and a mental health court — up and running, along with a new state-authorized gang investigation unit.
He said he also wants to continue to implement suggestions from the Texas Office of Court Administration and decrease the time between a defendant’s arrest and the final case disposition, with the goal in felony cases being from a year to 18 months and six to eight months for misdemeanors.