Sexual assault survivors, advocates support José Garza in runoff race for Travis County D.A.

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A former candidate for Travis County District Attorney, Erin Martinson, is throwing her support behind her opponent, as the race enters a runoff.

In the Democratic primary election, José Garza and Incumbent District Attorney Margaret Moore split the vote. Martinson was eliminated.

Backed by several advocates and survivors of sexual assault, some of whom encouraged her to run in the first place, Martinson officially endorsed Jose Garza for the spot at a press conference on Wednesday.

“I’ve gotten to know Jose over the last 8 months that I’ve been in this campaign. We’ve worked really well together,” Martinson told KXAN. “I’ve watched him listen to survivors and not take up space in the room, trying to inject his knowledge, but just listening really.”

Garza said, “In the most progressive county in the state, our district attorney has lost the trust of survivors of sexual assault. But because of the courage of survivors and advocates, and because of the incredible race that Erin Martinson ran … we know it doesn’t have to be this way.”

He spoke of building a criminal justice system “where women are believed and survivors are treated with dignity and respect.”

Current D.A. Margaret Moore told KXAN on Wednesday, “The idea that this office, under my leadership, has mishandled or not handled sexual assault cases is so easily refuted if you look at the actual record.”

She talked about a “long-standing dissatisfaction about sexual assault cases” before she was elected to the office in 2017.

“We have 114% more guilty pleas and convictions. We have nearly tripled the number of jury trials, and we have put more resources into adult sexual assault than ever before,” she said, referencing the Adult Sexual Assault Unit created in her time as D.A.

Two women who spoke at the event were involved in a class-action lawsuit filed against Moore and other county and city leaders, alleging their sexual assault cases were mishandled. That lawsuit was dismissed, but the women said there are still changes that need to be made at the District Attorney’s office.

“You just have this overwhelming sense of anger and frustration,” assault survivor Julie Ann Nitsch said. You have District Attorneys that are far more concerned with their prosecution rate than they are with justice within their community.”

Nitsch was one of the first plaintiffs in the lawsuit and also works with Survivor Justice Project.

She told KXAN she was sexually assaulted by a stranger who broke into her home about 10 years ago.

“I found out that 6 months after my assault there was DNA, and they didn’t call me. They didn’t tell me there was DNA, — they just closed my case,” Nitsch said about her frustrations with the D.A.’s office.

Moore maintained the prosecutors in her office were talking to survivors and working with their families “every day.”

Moore also read a note written to her office by a victim whose trial went to court last year.

“What you and everyone else involved did, gave me back my life. You helped give me a voice when no one else would listen,” the note read.

Marina’s story

Around two weeks before heading back to the University of Texas, at 19 years old, Marina Garrett was leaving Sixth Street when she was assaulted.

“I got a rape kit and reported to the police within 24 hours,” Garrett said.

She told KXAN that police found her attacker, but he claimed the encounter was “consensual.”

“Everything that he told police went against my rape kit, the injuries on my body,” she said.

More than two years later, she got the call that the D.A. would not be pursuing her case because there was no DNA evidence found.

“I made her [an Assistant District Attorney in Moore’s office] look me in the eye, hear my story, and hear the atrocities of the trauma I went through — of not getting out of bed, of dropping out of college, of having knots my mother had to cut out of my hair, of not eating for days.”

Garrett believes there was enough evidence for her case to have gone to trial, citing a voicemail she left on a friend’s phone during the attack, recording her saying “stop” and “no.”

“Healing is important as well. Not just the justice piece, because I understand we can’t all go through the system, all of our cases can’t make it through the system,” Garrett said, “but you can do it in a trauma-informed way — that survivors are so re-traumatized, that survivors feel like they can talk to the District attorney, that survivors feel like they aren’t going to be blamed.

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