EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Native El Pasoan Yvonne Rosales hopes to never see your name on her desk.
Rosales’ main focus as the new El Paso County District Attorney is education and ensuring that the community knows how to avoid getting caught up in the criminal justice system. She took office during a pandemic after defeating former District Attorney Jaime Esparza’s protégé last summer in the Democratic primary and overcoming her conservative opponent in November.
Rosales shoulders calls from the region to ensure there is a fresh look at criminal justice and police reform. Her approach is already being analyzed and questioned.
“I had someone review the initial applications and pick the best of the best,” she said of the process of reviewing some of her recent hires.
KTSM 9 News conducted an in-person interview with Rosales on the second floor of the El Paso County Courthouse on Tuesday, surrounded by volumes of case law, stacked at least seven shelves high. More recent books and binders on less-full shelves were on hate crimes.
Rosales said her first 100 days have been challenging and she did not envision becoming district attorney in the middle of a pandemic or starting with a small staff. She’s been working with a skeleton crew and is already adding personal touches to the Byzantine hallways of the office, mostly framed motivational quotes.
Rosales did not say whether she has filled all positions in the office. She has received criticism for some hires, having appointed trial team chiefs with experience on both sides of the criminal justice system.
In KTSM’s hour-long discussion with Rosales, she answered questions about her approach in prosecuting the biggest case in El Paso history, mental health, second chances, marijuana and domestic violence cases.
How do I deal with a backlog of cannabis cases left behind when my predecessor decided to continue to pursue despite statewide changes to hemp laws?
How do I keep El Paso safe?
What do I want my legacy to be?
For Rosales, a combination of community outreach and education, desire to protect the Borderland and belief in second chances are guiding the first D.A.’s office in El Paso led by a woman.
“We are really trying to work well with the community and other organizations that are dealing with mental health issues,” she said.
Rosales and her in-office staff have been mindful to make the team available to victims and their families, like those still suffering from the Aug. 3, 2019, Cielo Vista Walmart shooting.
Rosales inherited the County’s prosecution of alleged shooter Patrick Crusius. “We will be seeking the death penalty,” she said.
Rosales and her team are also working to keep Crusius’s trial local.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep that case here in El Paso and make sure that the members of this community are the people who get to decide what happens in that case,” she said.
Crusius is accused shooting and killing 23 people and wounding another 23 on that August morning.
Rosales is looking ahead to how her administration will handle violent crimes triggered by stressors pursuant to the COVID-19 pandemic. “So if there’s a case of domestic violence, we’ll ask, ‘Is there a pattern?’”
She says that she and her team will assess whether a person has a history of violence and if factors such as job loss contributed to the onset of violence.
“We want to take that into consideration and we want to make sure that they get the help they need,” she said. “Making sure that they’re taking classes to help manage stressful situations — that’s what we want to be here for.”
Rosales’ administration began amid continued calls for criminal justice and police reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the deaths of many others like Breonna Taylor, Adam Toledo and more.
Some of the challenges for Rosales are establishing public trust and creating a capable team. Border Report in January reported that Rosales let go of 30 prosecutors already in the D.A.’s Office under Jaime Esparza.
Rosales said the Human Resources Department and a review panel helped her assemble her team. “We feel that we’ve selected the most highly qualified attorneys,” she said. “And the ones with the most passion.”
One of Rosales’ hires is Rene Flores, trial team chief for the 409th and 41st District Courts.
KTSM learned over the course of reporting this story that Flores served on the Seattle Police Department, where he was subject to an investigation by the FBI Public Integrity Task Force in 2001 and fired from the force in 2003 after allegedly drunkenly vandalizing a police rookie’s car.
Flores and another officer were charged with second-degree malicious mischief, a Class C felony. Police reports show that in 2004, Flores was charged with harassment after witnesses reportedly saw him assault a woman outside a bar.
Flores’ LinkedIn profile shows that he returned to El Paso in 2004, obtained a law degree in 2009 and served as a public defender in El Paso from 2014 to 2020.
Despite the charges brought against Flores in the 2000s, he is still eligible to serve in the District Attorney’s office.
The Texas Association of Counties stipulates that a DA cannot “have been finally convicted of a felony from which they have not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities,” and The Seattle Times reported Flores’ Class C felony was pleaded down to gross misdemeanor charges.
KTSM asked Rosales about the controversial hire.
“The County H.R. does a criminal background check, and so, if anybody is here in our office, then there are no problems with criminal background checks,” she said.
“We looked at the number of years of experience they have and the quality and type of work that they were doing beforehand,” she added. “Basically, you want people who have been in the courtroom and are experienced trial lawyers.”
With jury trials still stalled because of COVID-19, Rosales said she and her team are hoping that community outreach will lead to crime prevention.
“One of my primary goals is to bring down recidivism rates by addressing defendants who have substance abuse issues, alcohol issues. I feel that if we address bipolar and schizophrenic defendants, who don’t have the proper medication to be stabilized, we can help them get into those types of programs, then we can eventually prevent them from coming back into the criminal justice system,” she said.
A 2018 Regional Needs Assessment of El Paso reported:
“The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Survey on Drug Use and Health, found more than 43.6 million or (18.1 percent) of Americans age 18 or older experience some more of mental illness. Last year, SAMHSA reported 20.2 million (8.4 percent) adults had some type of substance use disorder and, of these same individuals, 7.9 million had both a mental disorder and a substance use disorder combined.”
Rosales is hoping to provide resources to support substance abuse and mental health as a prophylactic for the Borderland.
“I really hope that the biggest impact that I can show the community is that I cared,” she said.