KU law professor, prosecutor Valdez: Douglas County district attorney’s office lacks leadership, clear policies

photo by: Journal-World file photo; contributed photo

Pictured at right is Suzanne Valdez, clinical professor of law at KU. At left is the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center.

Suzanne Valdez thinks leadership and clarity are missing from the Douglas County district attorney’s office, and that has inspired her to run.

Valdez, 51, also said she thought some functional problems contribute to unfairness, or at least to a perception of unfairness.

Valdez filed last week to run for district attorney as a Democrat in the Aug. 4 primary election. She is currently employed as a clinical professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, and she’s president of the University Senate. She also works as a special prosecutor for the Wyandotte County DA’s office, handling cases that involve a conflict of interest — for instance, if a victim were related to someone in the DA’s office — in order to be fair and impartial.

Valdez teaches Prosecutorial Ethics, and she said the class focuses on tenets of a special rule that applies specifically to prosecutors: “that you move cases through quickly; that you turn over discovery in a timely fashion; that you don’t charge without probable cause,” she said.

“It’s to protect defendants, because we have all the power, we have all the resources,” she said. “… That’s what’s important, and I just think this leadership has lost sight of that.”

She wants to create uniform policies on how cases are handled and treated, where currently she said there is “a chaotic system where people don’t know what expectations are, what needs to be done to properly prosecute and put people through the criminal justice system in a fair and equitable way.”

She said she would put in place a transparent policy on discovery to ensure law enforcement gets the evidence to prosecutors in a timely manner, and “once I get it, I turn it over (to the defense attorney). I don’t hide the ball,” she said. That would help to avoid an “evidence dump” that can cause hearings and trials to get continued at the last minute, she said.

Valdez said she thought that mental illness and a “fairly pervasive” drug problem are two big issues facing Douglas County and that the DA’s office should show more leadership on those two fronts. She also wants to take a closer look at who’s in the jail, and she thinks low-level offenders have caused overpopulation.

Part of that, Valdez said, is that because of “Draconian” diversion agreements. She said the agreements — which are generally available to first-time offenders charged with low-level crimes and allow those individuals to avoid prosecution if they successfully complete programming — need to be more functional and supportive so that defendants can complete them and move on. She said she recently heard from a defense lawyer who has just been advising clients to take a plea because the expectations of some diversion agreements are “so onerous” that they can’t be completed.

“So you end up being revoked, and then the book’s thrown at you,” she said. “We just need to have more functional and realistic diversion programs.”

When the incumbent district attorney filed, and in fall 2019 dismissed, charges of false reporting against women who had reported rape or domestic violence, Valdez said she felt that she had to do something and that there needed to be new leadership in the office. One of the women was a student of hers, and Valdez spoke out publicly about the cases. She told the Kansas City Star last year that “women aren’t safe here” in Lawrence and that neither police nor the DA’s office was protecting them.

On Monday, Valdez said her student had been very poorly treated, and she stood by her statements regarding those cases. But she had been “very upset about it, very vocal because of my otherwise very positive experience with law enforcement.” She said better training was needed and that those situations never should have happened.

“I have always been supportive of law enforcement because they ensure our safety every day,” Valdez said. “They are out there on the front line, keeping our community safe from violent offenders.”

Valdez got her undergraduate degree in business administration and management from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. She graduated from KU’s law school in 1996 and joined its faculty in 1999. She has four daughters and a son, ranging in age from 15 to 26. She is married to Stephen McAllister, U.S. attorney for the District of Kansas.

Incumbent District Attorney Charles Branson, a Democrat, has not had a challenger since he was first elected in 2004. As of Tuesday, he had not yet announced whether he will run again.

A second candidate, Cooper Overstreet, also filed to run as a Democrat on April 15. For more information about voting and what other offices are on the ballot, visit douglascountyelections.com.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact public safety reporter Mackenzie Clark:

More 2020 election coverage: Douglas County district attorney race

The Journal-World will cover each candidate who files to run for Douglas County district attorney and their views on key issues as the Aug. 4 primary election draws nearer.

May 1, 2020: Incumbent Douglas County district attorney: Experience, leadership are needed to create change

April 28, 2020: District Attorney Charles Branson files for reelection in 2020

April 20, 2020: Lawrence defense attorney Overstreet: Fairness, transparency missing from Douglas County criminal justice system

April 16, 2020: Two Democrats file to run for Douglas County district attorney


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