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From defendant to top prosecutor, this tattooed Texas DA represents a new wave in criminal justice reform

A portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata adorns the wall of Nueces County chief prosecutor Mark Gonzalez’s office as he works at his desk last month in Corpus Christi, Tex. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — Mark Gonzalez was speeding across the South Texas plains last year when a police officer pulled him over, he said. He had a routine for such stops.

Gonzalez cut the engine and stretched his tattoo-covered arms out the window to show he wasn’t a threat. He knew that when the officer ran his information through a law enforcement database, he would pop up as a member of a motorcycle club that police consider a gang, though members call it a social club.

“I’m the newly elected district attorney of Nueces County, and I’m going to come back as a gang member,” Gonzalez recalls telling the officer.

The officer let him go.

The improbable ascent of the self-styled “Mexican biker lawyer” to a top law enforcement job two years ago speaks to the profound change sweeping dozens of local prosecutors offices across the country. From deep on the Gulf Coast to Denver, Chicago and Philadelphia, voters in recent years have been turning to a new wave of district attorneys pushing a boldly liberal agenda.

They are freezing the use of the death penalty, decriminalizing marijuana possession, diverting low-level offenders to classes and treatment instead of jail, seeking less severe sentences, and vowing to aggressively prosecute police-involved shootings.

In a field that is 95 percent white and overwhelmingly male, many are minorities, women or gays and hail from unlikely backgrounds, such as civil rights work or the public defender’s office.

The push intensified in the midterm elections, with liberal groups including a political action committee funded by George Soros, the American Civil Liberties Union and a political action committee created by Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King contributing millions of dollars or resources to expand this still relatively small pool of progressive prosecutors. They had notable successes in Boston, Dallas and San Antonio, as well as in the race for Delaware attorney general, an office that handles criminal cases.

Collectively, the prosecutors represent one of the biggest hopes for criminal-justice reformers in an era when President Trump had largely pushed for a harsher approach — until he recently endorsed a bipartisan bill loosening mandatory minimum sentences.

The nation’s 2,400 district attorneys wield significant power in the criminal-justice system, with wide discretion over charging and sentencing and influence over which defendants are granted bond.

This new breed of prosecutors is upending a traditional tough-on-crime focus by emphasizing a holistic approach over conviction rates and long sentences.

Over the summer, Wesley Bell, a black City Council member in Ferguson, Mo., and former public defender, unseated Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor who didn’t bring charges against the police officer who shot Michael Brown in 2014. Bell’s victory was powered by anger over the way McCulloch handled the case.

Civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner won a landslide victory in Philadelphia’s district-attorney race in November 2017, promising one of the nation’s most ambitious agendas. Krasner fired 31 prosecutors during his first week on the job, saying they were insufficiently committed to his overhaul. He slashed prosecutions of sex workers and ordered his staff to seek plea deals that generated the least amount of prison time, not the most.

In Chicago, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx took the unprecedented step of releasing six years of data on felony convictions in May so that residents could evaluate how her office was performing. In Maryland, Aisha N. Braveboy won the Prince George’s County state’s attorney’s race this month on a progressive platform.

Few of their stories are as surprising as the 39-year-old Gonzalez’s: Could a man who had never prosecuted a case in his life transform justice in a state synonymous with an uncompromising approach to law and order?

Defendant, prosecutor

Gonzalez wore brown cowboy boots and drove a large pickup truck when he arrived at the Nueces County Courthouse on a Monday in mid-October, but otherwise it’s hard to imagine someone further from the image of a Texas lawman.

There’s the biker affiliation. A “Not Guilty” tattoo splashed across his chest that celebrates his victories as a defense attorney. And an office decorated with a large and dramatic portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

Beyond style, what has made Gonzalez a polarizing figure in Nueces County and brought him national attention is the substance of the changes he has been trying to implement.

Gonzalez said he has sought to charge defendants less punitively and seek shorter sentences. He is diverting people charged with a handful of misdemeanors, such as marijuana possession, from the courts, instead asking that a fine be imposed. The money goes to funding positions in the district attorney’s office and charity. Those who can’t afford to pay can perform community service.

He said he has opened case files to defense attorneys, giving them every shred of evidence that might help their clients. And he has signed a letter rebuking former attorney general Jeff Sessions for instructing federal prosecutors to seek stiffer sentences.

In January, he plans to roll out a cite-and-release program that will keep those charged with low-level offenses out of jail. He said the program will save the county $24,000 a month and also keep the poor, addicted and mentally ill from languishing behind bars.

When asked to explain his approach, Gonzalez jumped from a chair in his office and began rummaging through boxes that remain packed nearly two years after his election. He was looking for a photo that is every bit as important to his career as the law degree that hangs nearby — his mug shot.

He has blown up and framed the grainy photo. An 18-year-old Gonzalez stares out, his lips pursed as if trying to suppress a smile. It was taken shortly after he was booked for driving while intoxicated in nearby Kleberg County, following a party in 1999.

“Everyone needs to always remember what they’ve been through, how you were treated and how it affects you,” Gonzales said. “How many DAs have a mug shot?”

Gonzalez went on to describe growing up in the tiny town of Agua Dulce, a clutch of trailers and worn homes amid the cotton fields outside Corpus Christi. His father worked a night shift at an oil refinery, so he was on his own and would invite local kids over to drink and party.

When it came time for his court appearance on the DWI charge, his family had little money and knew no lawyers, so Gonzalez said he brought his mother to court. “Mijo,’’ she told him, “plead guilty and they will be nice to you.”

Gonzalez was convicted and sentenced to community service and probation, but he stuck around to watch the trial of a Navy pilot facing the same charge. A savvy lawyer got the case dismissed.

Gonzalez said he was furious and inspired. No man in his family had been to college, but he saw a path.

“I said: ‘You know what? I’m going to see if I can be a lawyer,’ ” Gonzalez said. “If I hadn’t gotten that charge, I think I would be in the oil field. It was like a light.”

An unlikely candidate

It wasn’t easy following through on the epiphany he had in court, Gonzalez said. His mom pushed him to go to college, but he struggled there and then at law school in San Antonio. He failed the bar exam twice before passing on the third attempt.

Over the next decade, he built a legal practice, often representing low-income Latinos in minor cases. He was paid in cash, but also with shrimp, a treadmill and oil changes.

His clientele included members of the Calaveras, a largely Latino club with dozens of chapters in Texas and elsewhere. He represented members often enough on counts related to bar fights and drug possession that the leader of the Calaveras asked him whether he would like to be the club’s attorney and join the club.

Gonzalez signed on. He was given the club’s jacket, which features a logo of a skull atop a motorcycle and a patch over the breast that reads “abogado” — “attorney” in Spanish.

Some local law enforcement list the Calaveras as a gang, but Gonzalez and other members insist that is wrong. The Calaveras have been featured on the local news organizing toy drives and other fundraisers.

By 2015, business was thriving, but Matt Manning, Gonzalez’s then-law partner and now chief deputy in the district attorney’s office, said he found Gonzalez in a mood for change one day: “He said, ‘Bro, the way it’s working, it’s not working.’ ”

Gonzalez thought defendants were routinely overcharged by authorities who wanted leverage to obtain plea deals. The then-district attorney’s office also faced accusations of hiding exculpatory evidence.

Gonzalez launched a long-shot bid to unseat a fellow Democrat in the 2016 primary. To many people’s surprise, Gonzalez won and then squeaked by a Republican in the general election that November.

Gonzalez’s opponents highlighted his tattoos and rugged image, but some supporters say the moves backfired.

“The problem with a lot of politicians is they play bigger than what they are,” said Bryan Gomez, a member of the Calaveras. “Mark didn’t roll his sleeves down over his tattoos — he rolled them up. He wasn’t ashamed of what he was.”

Suddenly, a man who once was arrested was running a 75-person prosecutor’s office with a budget of more than $4 million and promising major changes. He was sworn in while wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey.

Successes and failures

Gonzalez elicits strong opinions in Nueces County, generating effusive praise but also criticism that he is unprofessional and skepticism from some police officers about his approach.

During a recent meeting of a gang task force, Gonzalez said, a local police officer flashed his photo during a presentation detailing leaders of the Calaveras. Gonzalez said he gets along with many officers, but his association with the Calaveras and background as a defense attorney have made some relationships a challenge.

Every major law enforcement official in Nueces County declined to comment for this report.

His tenure has been marked by successes and failures that highlight the challenge of bringing wholesale change to a district attorney’s office and his progressive approach.

Over the past two years, Gonzalez’s office said it has diverted more than 2,600 defendants from jail, raising about $730,000 in fines. Local lawyers have given him high marks for the program and for making the office more transparent.

But one said that the changes in culture have not filtered down to some staffers and that some of his programs have not been implemented effectively.

“Mark’s ideas are there. He’s got a good heart,” said Lisa Greenberg, a local defense lawyer. “There’s a couple of holdovers from the old office that don’t see things the way he does.”

One of his efforts that came under sharp criticism was a pretrial diversion program for those accused of domestic violence. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times found that only two men were enrolled during Gonzalez’s first year in office, while most domestic-violence cases were dismissed.

One defendant who was enrolled in diversion was a minor league baseball player who had his charges dropped after taking a class. Video later emerged of the incident, showed the player savagely punching and slapping his fiancee.

Gonzales and his staff said they agreed to diversion because the defendant was living in Argentina and because there was no hope of getting him extradited to stand trial, but he nevertheless backpedaled on the program.

At a news conference in April, Gonzalez announced that his office “had failed” at tackling domestic-violence cases and was creating a bureau to step up prosecutions.

Gonzalez said that he tries to own his missteps but that he is not changing his approach.

His hardscrabble upbringing and his brush with the justice system make him a lot more like the defendants he faces in court than the line of prosecutors who have come before him in Nueces County. He’s been to jail, dealt with probation and tried to get a job with a conviction on his record.

He said he’s aware of the weight of those burdens and is careful when to apply them.

“Pretty much everyone that comes through here is the same — at least similar — to me,” Gonzalez said.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said George Soros’s Open Society Foundations contributed resources to help some candidates running for district attorney. Those candidates were supported by a political action committee funded by Soros.

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