BELTON — After 90 minutes of deliberation, a Bell County jury decided Wednesday that Justice of the Peace Claudia Brown should be removed from her elected position.
The Killeen Democrat — who has a mild neurological condition, a doctor testified — will immediately be removed from office once visiting state District Judge Stephen Ables signs the paperwork, probably within in a day or two. Until then, her pay is suspended and she will perform no official duties, her defense attorney David Fernandez confirmed.
Brown — the first black woman elected to a JP office in Bell County —will use that time to box up items in her office, Fernandez said.
“Everyone thinks the world of you,” Ables said in his final words to Brown. “You’re a credit to this community. Everybody really thinks a lot of you, but the statement of the jury says we need to abide by their verdict.”
Brown, 79, made no public comment after the trial.
The 12-member jury, which included at least two Hispanic women, four black women, and a black man, rendered its verdict at 5:20 p.m.
Jurors were required to go over a list of 17 issues listed in the final charge and vote to see if the issues were true or false. When the results of the votes were read, the jury had unanimously decided that 16 of the 17 issues were true, and only one was deemed not true.
Fernandez requested a poll of the jury, and each juror answered with “true.”
Brown can appeal the ruling, but Fernandez didn’t say if she wanted to appeal or let the decision stand.
The jury questions were to determine if Brown engaged through her office in official misconduct, was grossly incompetent or grossly negligent or had physical or mental defects she didn’t have when she was elected to her position in November 2016.
Many of the issues were about Brown’s alleged performance in the two years since she was sworn in after defeating Republican incumbent Garland Potvin.
Some issues centered on the $4 billion bond she set for Killeen murder suspect Antonio Willis — an incident that attracted international media attention after a report by the Temple Daily Telegram two years ago. Other issues focused on the very low bonds and no bond conditions set for reportedly violent offenders.
One question referred to the official reprimand from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct displayed with pride in Brown’s office and others on her public endorsement and $500 campaign contribution to Democrat John Driver in his successful race for County Commissioner.
Brown also told a woman she believed her husband was murdered and didn’t die in a single-vehicle motorcycle accident — something that was never told to her by any law enforcement officers.
Witnesses for the prosecution
The prosecution case, led by County Attorney Jim Nichols and Assistant County Attorney Dallas Sims, included the testimonies of court, county and law enforcement officials.
However, Fernandez called no witnesses for the defense because “the state didn’t meet the burden of proof,” he told the Telegram.
Instead, Fernandez questioned each of the prosecution’s witnesses and talked several times about Killeen attorney Brett Pritchard, who submitted the original court petition that asked for Brown’s removal. Fernandez accused Pritchard — who wasn’t called to testify — and a group of “good old boys” of being racists who didn’t want a black Democratic woman in office. However, no direct evidence was presented in court that tied racism to Brown’s issues.
Police officers from Harker Heights and Killeen talked about Brown’s refusal to attend death inquests and her decision to magistrate her own arrested son instead of asking another justice of the peace to handle it.
Killeen attorney Dan Corbin, who said he personally likes Brown, said, “The lights were on but no one was home” when Brown was the judge for one of his civil cases. Corbin said Brown couldn’t recall evidence presented in the morning by that afternoon and was continually confused about which attorney represented which client.
Another Killeen attorney, Lane Heginbotham, under cross-examination by Fernandez, said Brown couldn’t keep up with the case he had in her court and was confused.
After the lunch break, Fernandez asked Ables for a directed verdict, but Ables denied it. A brief break was taken so any changes to the charge could be addressed by both sides.
Second-chair to Fernandez, attorney Ebony Todd asked for several changes, but Ables left the charge as it was.
County Attorney Jim Nichols had subpoenaed Herald Managing Editor Rose Fitzpatrick on Tuesday afternoon to appear in court the next morning with copies of some stories published by the Herald.
Fitzpatrick did not testify Wednesday. Nichols, in agreement with the judge and defense, released Fitzpatrick from the subpoena demands.
Nichols reminded jurors they only had to decide there was a preponderance of evidence in order to find Brown needed to be removed from office. He went one-by-one through each of the 17 issues before telling the jurors, “There are consequences to elections. Your conscience cannot allow this to go on.”
“You’ve taken a bullet from the community. You’ve been called names,” Fernandez told in his closing argument.
Fernandez said Brown made mistakes but everyone makes mistakes, including other justices of the peace who continuously set unconstitutionally high bonds. “She made a mistake when she made it a point — and that wasn’t right. But now, everyone knows about it,” he said.
Fernandez also stressed again that racism was part of this case, brought into it by people passing out Ku Klux Klan flyers in a black neighborhood and by the “good old boy network.”
“This case is bigger than her (Brown). It’s part of what we call justice,” Fernandez said. “Somebody had an agenda with this judge. That’s one reason so much money was spent on this case.”
Todd spoke about several things she wanted jurors to consider: the Judicial Commission’s responsibility to determine if something was wrong, unconstitutional bonds, the targeting of Brown through the death certificate issue, the network Fernandez addressed, Brown’s lack of experience in law enforcement, Pritchard’s non-presence, the requirements for a justice of the peace and how Brown always thinks of others first.
“Five weeks after she took the oath, they put pressure on her,” Todd said. “Remember she’s nice 24-7, made numerous sacrifices and over 23,000 people voted for her.”
In the final closing argument, Sims talked about how the defense tried to make Pritchard and racism issues in this decision. She said they called him racist but don’t know anything about him, know him or know anything about his family.
The reason the case went forward against Brown was because an independent district court judge determined the case had merit based on Pritchard’s removal petition, Sims said. Then it was up to Nichols to decide whether to pursue the case or not and, based on the amended petition with their own allegations added, “we brought it forward,” Sims said.
“Elections have consequences but so do your actions. Legislating from the bench — you can’t do that,” she said. Sims said the statute to be able to remove elected officials was written to protect the public and public officials.
“Is everyone part of the ‘good old boy system,’ or is it a distrust of Brown?” Sims added.
‘A painful day’
“It’s a difficult case to try. It’s hard on everybody,” Nichols said at the conclusion of the trial Wednesday.
Fernandez described Brown as a “tremendous person.”
“She should not have to go through this,” Fernandez said. “The (judicial) commission is handling it. A lot of time and effort were wasted trying this case.”
Chris Rosenberg, chairman of the Bell County Democratic Party, issued a statement Wednesday evening.
“We respect the findings of the jury today in Judge Brown’s trial, but this is a painful day in Bell County,” Rosenberg said. “In the course of the trial, we heard many times from numerous people that Judge Brown was respectful and courteous in her professional capacity, and we agree with Judge Ables that Judge Brown is a credit to our community. We look forward to working with the county commission to name her replacement.”