LINDSAY STAFFORD MADER C. BARRETT THOMAS GREW UP ONE OF FIVE SONS WHOSE PARENTS WERE BOTH PSYCHOLOGISTS. Despite his mom and dad’s habit of trying out new psychological evaluations on the boys—“I wish I could tell you how bad it was,” he joked—Thomas wasn’t drawn to studying the inner workings of the mind. Instead, he was fascinated with the thrilling tales of the police officers waiting in the lobby of his parents’ office, where his dad did forensic work. “They’d tell me their stories of what they did all day,” Thomas recounted. “I was like, ‘That’s awesome! I want to chase bad guys!’ ” Later at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Thomas took 12 hours in criminal justice to fill his electives. After undergrad, he sold insurance because he had too many speeding tickets to become a police officer. But it was not his calling and Thomas soon got a gig as a jailer at the Bosque County Jail and then as a prison guard with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Meanwhile, he earned his master’s degree in criminal justice from Tarleton State University with the goal of moving to the streets and up the ranks of administration. But Thomas’s planned career path changed once he became a police officer for the city of McGregor. While arresting a man for an unpaid traffic ticket, Thomas said he encountered some unexpected resistance that ended up with the two men on the ground, where, Thomas alleges, the man tried to grab his gun. “This was a nice guy who always went willingly,” Thomas said. “I just caught him on a bad day.” Eventually a sergeant arrived to end the struggle, which Thomas recognizes would be ordinary for career veterans. But for him, the moment proved significant. “It was sometime around then that I started realizing that I was better suited for the other side of the bar.” He left the McGregor Police Department about five months after and soon found himself at Texas Tech University School of Law. “I really wanted to be a part of something that had the ability to change people’s lives and not just address where they were on one day,” he said. “The legal profession has that.” Thomas has been an attorney for almost six years and in June begins his tenure as the 2015-2016 president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association. Never able to fully shake his passion for police work, he will use his time in the role to present initiatives that seek to strengthen ties between community and law enforcement—a relevant effort amidst the national conversation on use of force. He plans to produce brochures to educate the public on proper police procedure; create a training program for prosecutors and defense attorneys on how to avoid convictions of innocent people; and hold town hall meetings with police, minority leaders, and lawyers to openly discuss issues of perceived racism and unfairness. “Just because it happens on the street,” Thomas said, “doesn’t mean that lawyers aren’t going to partially be the ultimate decision-makers.” City attorneys, he explained, advise local agencies on the effects of their policies, while civil attorneys make policy through the cases they handle. Meanwhile, prosecutors keep an eye on officers’ actions and determine what is legally acceptable in their jurisdictions, and criminal defense attorneys are “the last bar” against potentially improper prosecution strategies. Volunteering with TYLA, Thomas said, has been the perfect way for him to blend his loves for practicing the law and making a difference. “TYLA is about service to others— whether it be the members of the bar or members of the community as a whole,” he said. “When people ask me ‘why should I get involved?’ I often say, ‘Well, why did you get involved with the law in the first place?’ Most of them say, ‘I wanted to help people.’ And I say, “How often do you get to do that at work?’ Sometimes, maybe. But if you get involved with TYLA, you will get to do that 100 percent of the time.” While he didn’t inherit their career passions, Thomas got his focus on helping others from his mother and father, who taught their children that everybody should be accepted and loved. “The first and most important priority in life is bringing people closer to Christ through example, not necessarily through word, but by being a servant,” Thomas said during an interview at the Texas Law Center, wearing a silver ring engraved with a cross on his right hand and a wedding band on his left. His parents, who both held doctorates, also encouraged their kids to try their best no matter what they did. When Thomas was in the eighth grade, his father died of cancer, and his mother moved the family from Irving to Waco, where she continued to stress the importance of academic success. “Education to them was always something they just assumed was going to be pursued,” he said. “My mom was constantly saying, ‘This is where you’re going to make your living.’ So they pushed me very hard.” On the first day of law school in a contracts class, Thomas met Charla Hundley, a Lubbock native who he describes as “the love of my life.” They soon married and Charla became stepmom to Thomas’s twin boys, whom he had from a previous marriage. Thomas worked as a reserve deputy while taking classes and, after becoming a misdemeanor prosecutor in Abilene, continued to work as a parttime police officer in the small Panhandle towns of Snyder and Anson. Then he was offered chief of police of Anson, population about 2,400. He accepted the position. Two weeks into his time as chief, Thomas was faced with handling the investigation of a six-month-old’s murder— a challenging experience that would impact the rest of his career. According to Thomas, evidence overwhelmingly suggested that the woman who was convicted had been abused by the father of the child. “She had begun to take her aggression out toward the child because she couldn’t get back at the father,” he said. “That doesn’t mitigate her moral responsibility for what she did, but it is an explanation for what drove somebody to do such a horrible thing.” Texas Ranger Mike Parker assisted Thomas with the case. “Barrett was an exceptional police officer who was not only well versed in the law due to his experience as a trial lawyer but also excelled at applying the law to criminal cases,” Parker said. “I learned a lot from Barrett while working with him on investigations. It is easy to get locked in on certain things during an investigation and to focus on the strengths of your case, but if you also look at it from a defense attorney’s perspective, you can identify possible weaknesses.” Being police chief in Anson, however, only made Thomas more confident in his decision to change careers. He wanted to implement several new policies that weren’t well received, and the long hours and high stress weren’t compensated adequately for his growing family. “I quickly remembered all the reasons why I had left police work and gone into legal practice,” Thomas said. “I love police officers. I love that work. But they don’t get paid enough for what they do.” Thomas soon was hired on as an assistant district attorney for Nolan, Mitchell, and Fisher counties. He lived in Sweetwater and served as a reserve deputy in nearby Roscoe, working football games and parades. For four years, he prosecuted primarily child sex crime cases. He was good at his job and rarely lost a case. District Attorney Ann Reed said she hired Thomas because his law enforcement and prosecution background would be beneficial to the office. “Barrett is very conscientious about pursuing justice and that makes him a good prosecutor,” Reed said. “When he reviews cases and presents them to a grand jury or jury, he has that background that allows him to explain why things are done the way they are, and he can truly put himself in the officer’s place when reviewing offense reports.” The first child sexual abuse case that Thomas lost was another significant career lesson. Although he believed the child’s story and thought they had a strong chance, the jurors reasoned there wasn’t enough evidence to convict beyond a reasonable doubt. “I was extremely distraught,” he said. When Reed encouraged Thomas to move forward, she gave him a copy of Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 passage heralding that “the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” This, Thomas said, helped him accept the acquittal. “You don’t have time to sit around and think about this loss, you have to get ready for the next trial,” he said. “Lawyers have to learn to lose because it’s a part of your career.” Thomas enjoyed his time as a prosecutor and was even considering a run for DA once Reed retired. But Charla expressed her desire to move their brood, which by now included two young daughters, closer to family and to a bigger city, and Thomas had interest in setting up his own practice. So just this month, he relocated to Waco and opened a two-person firm with 2013-2014 TYLA President Kristy Blanchard, who will serve as a family law expert at the firm’s Plano office while Thomas focuses on estate planning and criminal defense—another switch to “the other side.” While admitting that he is apprehensive about setting up a new practice like so many other young lawyers, Thomas said he has no emotional hang-ups about going from prosecuting defendants to arguing for their rights. “Everybody is entitled to a fair and adequate defense,” he said. “God calls me to love all people. And I am this guy or girl’s only help. They have the right to have somebody stand up and tell their story.” Reed attested to Thomas’s readiness to take on this new role. “Barrett has a good knowledge of criminal law,” she said. “More importantly, I believe, is his desire to see that justice is done, whatever form that takes. He has a heart for seeing that if someone is being prosecuted, that they are prosecuted fairly. That is a benefit to the criminal justice system, no matter which side he is representing.” Charla is excited to be living in a booming area with close proximity to her family, Starbucks, and Target and is commuting to her job as a city attorney in Temple. Thomas is likewise glad to be back in Waco, where he came of age spending weekends on back roads, hunting rattlesnakes with friends. He will also be in a more convenient location from which to travel to appearances and speeches as president of TYLA. In the family’s rare moments of free time, Thomas enjoys taking his sons to college football games and visiting stadiums around the country. They are constantly attending the kids’ school events and watching a lot of movies—his favorites being Braveheart and Gladiator. “I want to see myself that way,” Thomas said of the characters in the films. “I’m not going to go to an arena and die—it’s not going to be asked of me. I just hope that I make Braveheart-type decisions and that, in the end, I’m always fighting for somebody who has less than I do.”
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