Tomorrow, Aug. 4, Douglas County votes for District Attorney. Charles Branson, who has run unopposed since 2004, is facing challengers Cooper Overstreet, a local defense attorney, and Suzanne Valdez, a University of Kansas law professor. All three candidates are Democrats.
Overstreet is championing a radical agenda together with the “Justice Ticket,” a left-wing coalition with two candidates for District Commissioner. Together, the Justice Ticket best represents the interests of the entire county, including here at KU.
Valdez switched parties this year before filing her campaign. She literally wrote the textbook on Prosecutorial Ethics, teaches a class with the same name, and oversees KU’s prosecutor field placement program. She also served as a special prosecutor in Wyandotte County from 2005-08 and from 2017 to the present.
Valdez said she had to act when Branson brought charges of false accusations against three women who reported sexual assault and domestic violence last year — including one of her students. She’s called him “asleep at the wheel,” a comment she repeated to me.
I asked Branson why Valdez might characterize him in those terms. He pointed to his "15-year track of progressive change" and said Valdez's comments were off-base.
“To be clear – she has no experience in our local criminal justice system, she has no basis to make a comment on how people are doing," Branson said. "She’s not tried any cases or participated in local organizations. If you look at the programs for the last three years alone, we’ve started a lot of progressive programs.”
He referenced his women’s substance abuse program.
“It’s a victim-and-prosecutor-led program," Branson said. "We have a female inpatient treatment in our facilities paid for by a Bureau of Justice Assistance grant to get them into a recovery program … It’s a voluntary diversion program where they work on their own individualized treatment plan.”
Overstreet said the program, while well-regarded by Branson, actually serves to "placate folks rather than solve root problems.”
“It’s been in place for two or three years, but only graduated five people," Overstreet said. "It sounds good, but the people who don’t graduate – there’s a big carrot, but also a big stick. If you don’t complete a diversion, especially a felony diversion, you automatically have a felony conviction on your record.”
Opinion columnist Hattie Friesen discusses the potential for further mental health and domestic abuse challenges in the case of another COVID-19 lockdown.
"What happened to those other women?" Overstreet continued.
I asked Valdez to compare herself to Overstreet, and she spoke similarly.
“There’s no comparison. Cooper’s not qualified – he’s only been out of law school six years and hasn’t ever prosecuted a case,” Valdez said. “The police aren’t going to go away. ... We’re going to have violent crime and we must prosecute them.”
Overstreet’s progressive platform has three detailed pillars: reduced incarceration, an egalitarian justice system and transparency to the office.
Incarceration can be fought on many fronts. Overstreet says he will not prosecute for crimes of poverty, such as an inability to pay fines. He also plans to end cash bail, allowing nonviolent criminals to leave prison before trial. He wants to have a full-time public defenders’ office, as well as fight harsh sentences and end capital punishment, since they don’t work.
His campaign is the only one to call for these reforms. Overstreet pledges to spend freed resources on alternatives to incarceration, like mental health care and diversion programs.
“I plan to create a conviction integrity unit, [like in] Wyandotte county," Overstreet said. "They’ll look back through our convictions from our office and make sure that we didn't miss anything, that they weren’t obtained based on falsified evidence, facts, or witnesses that lied or were coerced."
"If Branson stays in power, we’re going to continue to see this scourge of mass incarceration and systemic racism that exists in the criminal justice system,” Overstreet continued.
When the Kansan asked, neither Branson nor Valdez would commit to such a unit. Branson said it would be “extraneous.”
Overstreet emphasized accountability. He referenced Branson’s Chief Assistant District Attorney’s resignation last year, following accusations of misconduct that led to multiple false convictions and life sentences, hiding evidence and manipulating testimony and witnesses.
“Open-file policies are an in-between step to prevent that,” Overstreet said. “Branson had that prosecutor working for him ever since he became DA in 2005.”
Open-file policies allow defendants to see all evidence gathered since their arrest, not just presented in court.
“Prosecutors have the arm of the state, bringing people in and saying, ‘if you don't help me, we’re gonna charge you,’” Overstreet said.
Branson’s record has other blemishes. In 2015, Rontarus Washington Jr. was charged with the murder of Justina Mosso. His bond was set to $750,000, and he remained unconvicted in the Douglas County jail until this July 1, when he was finally released in response to the hugely popular “Occupy Mass” protest. Notably, Branson once called protests for the aforementioned prosecutor’s resignation a “stunt” orchestrated to sway Washington’s jury.
Overstreet, who attended the protest, said, “Anytime I see something like what happened to Rontarus, I think of the systemic issue of it, the person that’s in charge of our criminal system here in Douglas County – Charles Branson. It’s his system, and the system is broken under his watch.”
He also vigorously rejected criticisms of his experience.
“I have experience on the complete other side of the system; I see the lives ruined,” Overstreet said. “Neither one of my opponents has been on my side of things. They’ve been on their side. I’ll put my experience day-to-day against either one of my opponents any day. I’m not teaching people to prosecute; I’m defending clients and trying to humanize them.”
“I’ve never worked as a prosecutor before; Branson was also a defense attorney when he ran,” Overstreet continued. “I’ve tried more criminal cases than Valdez. The entire conversation in this country throughout the past few months has been about systemic change, systemic racism. But during an election it’s about experience? Experience in that system?”
He’s right. We shouldn’t elect the person most competent at doing evil, but rather most willing to fight it. That person? Cooper Overstreet.
Leo Niehorster-Cook is a senior from Leawood studying philosophy and cognitive science.