A retired judge assigned to determine if 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother should be recused from hearing three Twin Peaks cases said attorneys for the bikers gave him a lot to think about during a daylong hearing Wednesday.
Judge James Morgan of Bosque County, who continually urged attorneys for bikers Thomas Paul Landers, George Bergman and Rolando Reyes to keep the hearing moving, said he had intended to rule on the motion at the conclusion of the hearing. Instead, he invited attorneys to submit written briefs and arguments to him by Aug. 25, which he will consider before making his ruling.
Aug. 25 is the day Strother has summoned 600 potential jurors to come to court to fill out questionnaires to aid in jury selection in the case of the first biker to stand trial, Jacob Christopher Carrizal, president of the Dallas Bandido chapter.
Carrizal’s trial is set to start Sept. 11.
Earlier Wednesday, it appeared Morgan was ready to overrule the bikers’ motion, telling an attorney at one point, “I think you are hitting this horse until he is past dead.”
Strother, a former prosecutor who has been district judge for 18 years, was on the stand about three hours Wednesday morning. He insisted he has remained impartial and neutral in all dealings involving the bikers charged in his court.
Strother and 54th State District Court Judge Matt Johnson split evenly between their courts the 155 bikers indicted in the May 2015 shootout at Twin Peaks that left nine dead and dozens injured.
While the hearing bogged down at times and strayed into areas unrelated to the recusal issue, attorneys for the trio of bikers based their complaints against the judge on two main issues. They alleged the judge has shown favoritism to the district attorney’s office by selecting Carrizal as the first biker to stand trial, supplanting other bikers who waged aggressive speedy trial battles and all but begged to go to trial as quickly as possible.
They charged that District Attorney Abel Reyna made it clear that he wanted Carrizal to stand trial first and the judge catered to Reyna’s wishes at the expense of others who lost earlier trial settings in favor of Carrizal.
Strother said he has wide latitude and discretion over his court docket and he, not the DA’s office, decided Carrizal would be tried first in his court.
“Somebody had to go first, and both sides seemed to be OK with it and we set it,” Strother said.
The bikers also charge that Strother favored the DA’s office by calling a special docket on Feb. 16 so the DA’s office could serve DNA warrants on a number of the bikers.
“Judges should not be in the business of helping the prosecution,” said Dallas attorney Clint Broden, who represents Bergman. “He called that docket for the sole reason of helping the prosecution execute those warrants.”
Strother conceded the warrant issue possibly could have been handled better. He said he was out of the office and relied on his staff to coordinate the collection of mouth swabs with the district attorney’s office and attorneys for the bikers. But the warrants were lawful orders and would have been served one way or another, he said.
He denied he spoke exclusively with prosecutors about the warrants while excluding defense attorneys, known in legal parlance as ex-parte communications.
“I think I had the authority to order them to appear anywhere in the county,” Strother said.
Charles Baird, who represents Landers, a founding member of the Escondido motorcycle group, told Judge Morgan that there is no way that Strother can be considered “detached and neutral” when he set a docket solely “to help the state execute the search warrants.”
Prosecutor Michael Jarrett asked Morgan several times throughout the day to deny the motion to recuse Strother, arguing that he has a long record as a fair and unbiased jurist and that the defendants had not presented compelling evidence to remove the judge.
“If three is a crowd, then we have three defendants out of 75 indicted in that court who are making these complaints,” Jarrett said. “So the 72 others who have chosen not to come in this court and make these allegations are a riot.”
Susan Criss, who represents Reyes, a member of the Los Caballeros from Killeen, argued that Strother showed his bias by helping prosecutors in their efforts to extract DNA from the bikers, saying he did so because he considers them “the home team.”
“We deserve under the constitution of this state to expect a fair trial,” Criss said.