The Reluctant Prosecutor

Is Randy Reynolds the worst district attorney in Texas? Or is he just giving the people of Reeves, Ward, and Loving counties the kind of justice they want?
Randy Reynolds, photographed on August 21, 2008.
Photograph by Van Ditthavong

There are some men in this world,” Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us.” And there are some who were not. Among this latter group is Randy Reynolds, who for the past dozen years has held the unpleasant job of district attorney for the hardscrabble 143rd Judicial District, which covers the rural West Texas counties of Ward, Reeves, and Loving. During Reynolds’s tenure, peace officers in the 143rd have brought hundreds of cases of drug trafficking, theft, assault, robbery, and sundry other felonies to the district attorney’s office for prosecution, and Reynolds, exercising his discretion as the people’s representative, has declined to prosecute the vast majority of them. He has done this, depending on whom you ask, because he is stupid, or lazy, or trying to save the county money, or simply afraid to get in front of a jury against a defense attorney he thinks might beat him. Some cases seem to disappear altogether, prompting Reeves County sheriff Arnulfo Gomez to direct his deputies to ask for a receipt when they drop off case files, like customers at a dry cleaners. The uglier the case, it seems, the less likely Reynolds is to put somebody in prison. In the past six years, 58 cases of indecency with a child or sexual assault of a child have been referred to his office. Reynolds has obtained a conviction in only one of them: the case of the former sheriff of Loving County, Richard Putnam, who pleaded guilty to molesting a teenager. Reynolds offered him probation.

From the perspective of a criminal, the 143rd is undeniably a good place to commit a felony, though the residents here are no more or less law-abiding than those in any other place in the state. Until the recent surge in the price of oil, most people were looking for a way to get out of this corner of the Permian Basin. The two main towns, Pecos and Monahans, are surrounded by an endless, sunbaked plain of creosote and mesquite, bisected by the salty trickle of the Pecos River, and dotted with hapless cattle and abandoned pump jacks. Those who’ve chosen to stick it out, about 20,000 souls, have all the usual vices, plus perhaps a few endemic to West Texas, like hauling huge loads of dope east along Interstate 20 in rickety tractor trailers or hiding fat footballs of duct-taped cash in the door panels of their westbound F-150s. “We do lots of cases, especially with dope smuggling,” Sheriff Gomez said, “but they don’t get prosecuted.” The sheriff’s office is barely a mile from Reynolds’s office in Pecos, but Gomez said the district attorney rarely darkens his door.

In the summer of 2005, Reynolds crossed the wrong cop. A Texas Ranger named Brian Burzynski brought in a particularly bad case—two high-ranking officials at a Texas Youth Commission prison facility in the Ward County town of Pyote were accused of molesting a number of boys and young men in their custody over an extended period. Burzynski had put together a solid investigation, which included a partial confession and DNA samples, but Reynolds sat on the case for more than a year, until the story broke statewide in the papers, at which point the formerly anonymous prosecutor got his fifteen minutes of fame in the worst possible way. After Burzynski gave an emotional plea on behalf of the victims at a hearing at the Capitol in March 2007, legislators began lining up to bash Reynolds. The Associated Press piled on, reporting that, according to court records, he had declined to prosecute more than 80 percent of the cases brought to his office over a two-year period. (The average Texas prosecutor had declined to prosecute 18 percent during the same period, the AP reported.)

Politically speaking, the timing could hardly have been worse for Reynolds, who had to file for reelection in the Democratic party primary the following spring. His opponent, Kevin Acker, the misdemeanor prosecutor in Ward County, hammered Reynolds on the Pyote case and a litany of other alleged failings. The result was one of the least reported but most impressive comeback stories of the election season: Reynolds won in a landslide. With no opposition in the general election, he will begin a new four-year term this January. Which brings us back to the conundrum Governor Rick Perry identified in the wake of the Pyote scandal: “Why in the hell is this local prosecutor still in office?” Now that the voters of the 143rd have spoken, a better question might be, What exactly do people in this part of West Texas look for when they pick a prosecutor? Or, even better, When we ask a prosecutor to “see that justice is done,” as the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure requires each of our district attorneys to do, what do we really mean?

Reynolds does not have an office in any of the three courthouses in his district. Until this year, the 143rd district attorney was a position held part-time, as in many rural parts of Texas, by a lawyer with a private practice on the side. In the wake of the Pyote scandal, the Legislature made the 143rd a full-time position and forced Reynolds to give up his law practice. When I visited him this summer, however, he was still running the DA’s office as he always had, from his law office in Pecos, a modest brick building with a depressing coat of brown paint on a lot piled with gravel and construction debris. Reynolds was born and raised in Pecos, the seat of Reeves County, which is to Monahans, the seat of neighboring Ward County, as Odessa is to Midland: slightly seedier, with fewer high school graduates and a much larger Hispanic population. In far-flung Pecos, most of the action—family-owned Mexican restaurants, a rodeo grounds, and convenience stores packed to the rafters with cases of Bud Light—is strung along a wide stretch of U.S. highway.

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