Here is a story about one of the many judges I have appeared before over the years. It comes from one of the most interesting, unusual and satisfying trials I was ever involved with. Early in my career I assisted my dad, one of the most passionate and persuasive trial lawyers you can imagine, in an intense murder trial. Our client, Henry, was accused of the murder of his wife. He was found Not Guilty by the jury which realized he had acted in self-defense.
The case had been unusual from the time Henry, a working man, was arrested after an altercation in his home that left his wife dead. Her family had hired a well-known local law firm to act as “special prosecutors” and assist the district attorney’s office in preparing the case for trial. That rarely happens. The arraignment of our client the night of his arrest, normally a routine and soon forgotten procedure, later led to a compelling moment in the trial itself.
Trial began the week of Christmas. The judge was prosecution oriented and was not fond of me or of my dad. He did not allow us sufficient time to question the jury panel members or to determine which panel members we wished to strike from the panel. I particularly recall that, within the limited time he allowed us, we agonized over whether or not we should strike one particular panel member who was a retired police chief. Typically, we would not want someone from the law enforcement community sitting in judgment of a client accused of breaking the law, and particularly not in a murder case. At the same time, we sensed that this individual was a reasonable and thoughtful person; more about him later. The judge pushed us throughout the trial and was generally difficult to deal with most of the time. We had to fight throughout the trial to get the evidence admitted that we believed would show the jury what we knew to be true, that Henry was an exemplary individual caught in an unimaginably horrible situation. It didn’t help that Henry was a young black man in a very conservative East Texas county.
We presented numerous witnesses, white working men and women, who worked with and knew both our client and his volatile wife. They helped the jury understand how abusive she could be and how she could wind up dead as a result of the fight in which she attacked her husband with a hammer and butcher knife. The most interesting and unusual testimony though came from the judge who had arraigned our client on the night of his arrest. Judge Hicks was a long-time, no-nonsense justice of the peace whom, prior to that time, I would never have thought of as a likely advocate for someone accused of a crime. Henry had told us something she said to him during the arraignment which led us to issue a subpoena to the police department for his clothing which they had taken from him the night of the incident. In response to the subpoena, the police told the trial judge that the clothing was missing from their evidence locker. At that point, we advised the court that we intended to call Judge Hicks as a witness. The trial judge grudgingly gave us just a few minutes to see if we could locate this unexpected witness and get her to the courtroom to testify before this jury which, being late in the day, he correctly sensed was anxious to conclude this trial and get about the business of celebrating Christmas. I raced to the basement of the courthouse where Judge Hicks’ courtroom was located and quickly explained to her what we needed. She told me that she clearly recalled the arraignment which had occurred well over a year earlier and that she would be happy to testify. From the stand, the jury heard her recount what she had said to young Henry as he had stood before her on what had to have been the worst night of his life. She testified that as she observed his pants, which had been slashed open across the crotch area by his knife-wielding wife, she told him, “Young man, you be sure and hang onto those pants. They will be important evidence for you at your trial.” Perhaps the fact that the police “lost” the pants was a blessing in disguise because it allowed us to place a judge on the stand to provide exculpatory evidence on Henry’s behalf.
I believe that the testimony of the witnesses, including that of Henry himself, affected the judge as well as the jury. I will never forget how, on the evening of December 23rd, as the jury, led by its presiding juror, the retired police chief whom we had decided just a few days before not to strike from the jury panel, returned its Not Guilty verdict, the judge addressed our client and sincerely said, “Young man, this jury has given you the greatest Christmas gift you will ever receive – your freedom. You are free to go!”
I would note in conclusion that, although I believe the judge spoke from the heart, the jury’s verdict was not, in the strict sense of the word, a “gift”. Rather, it was the rightful possession of an innocent man who had suffered an unspeakable life event, lived for over a year with the fear of going to prison and then sat helplessly as an impatient judge rushed an important trial to conclusion. I have kept up with Henry over the years since then and know that he has made good use of a life which could have been destroyed had the jury system not worked as it is designed to. We should all pray that any time an innocent person is placed on trial, as Henry was, that at the end that person will hear those precious words, “you are free to go”.