A senior judge granted a motion Wednesday to remove 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson from presiding over the case of a biker indicted in the May 2015 Twin Peaks shootout in Waco.
Senior Judge Jeff Walker, a former state district judge from Tarrant County, approved a request from William Chance Aikin to recuse Johnson, saying there is a possibility that McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna, Johnson’s former law partner, could be called as a witness in Aikin’s case.
Aikin, 27, a member of the Cossacks motorcycle group, is a diesel mechanic from Talco in East Texas. His attorney, Robert Callahan, argued at the hearing that the law required Walker to recuse Johnson because he said Reyna will be a “material witness” in Aikin’s case.
Regional Administrative Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield now will appoint another judge to hear Aikin’s case.
Johnson agreed to recuse himself in October in another Twin Peaks case involving former Scimitars group member Matthew Clendennen after a motion by Clendennen’s attorney, Clint Broden.
According to Broden’s motion, the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure state “a judge must recuse in any proceeding in which … the judge or a lawyer with whom the judge previously practiced law has been a material witness concerning the proceeding.”
Reyna testified at a hearing 18 months ago in which Broden was seeking to disqualify Reyna from prosecuting Clendennen’s case. Reyna since has agreed to remove his office from prosecuting Clendennen.
Prosecutors Michael Jarrett and Brody Burks said Wednesday that while there are certain similarities in all the Twin Peaks cases, each case stands on its own. They argued that, while Johnson and Reyna removed themselves in Clendennen’s case because of Reyna’s previous testimony, Reyna has not testified in Aikin’s case. They also argued there is reason to believe that Reyna’s testimony is not relevant or admissible in upcoming proceedings and that subsequent subpoenas for him will be quashed.
Much of the argument presented to Walker on Wednesday centered around testimony from a 2016 pretrial hearing in Clendennen’s case in which Reyna, former Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman and other top-ranking Waco police officials spoke about the decision-making process that preceded the mass arrests of 177 bikers on identical warrants after the deadly shootout.
Broden, Callahan and other Twin Peaks attorneys have alleged Reyna hijacked the investigation, usurping the authority of seasoned police officials and making the call to arrest all bikers with ties to the warring Bandidos and Cossacks, despite testimony at the hearing that said the final decision was made by Stroman after consultation with Reyna and others.
Burks and Jarrett argued it is not unusual for prosecutors to discuss the law and charging information with police before arrests and that the entire discussion after the shootout about how to proceed and whether there was sufficient probable cause to arrest the bikers was made irrelevant by the grand jury’s decision to indict most of them.
In making his ruling, Walker said the recusal law is driven by the necessity that citizens of Texas believe judges are going to be fair and impartial, “not only in fact, but free from innuendo.”
“The people who promulgated this particular rule put former law partners in the same category as a judge’s spouse. The only issue is whether that former law partner is going to potentially be a material witness in a proceeding involving this case,” Walker said. “As I understand it, that is the basis of a prior lawsuit in another case arising out of the same fact issue that I am dealing with here today, the one where the judge voluntarily recused himself. Quite frankly, I think that was the right thing to do. All those same factors apply here today.”
Jarrett and Burks declined comment after the hearing.
Callahan said he is pleased with the ruling.
“Mr. Reyna is a material witness, and therefore, Judge Johnson was in the untenable position of having to preside over this case, which would have been a violation of the law,” Callahan said. “This is good for Judge Johnson as well as for our side of the case. This judge was very learned. He understood the law. He apparently does this on a regular basis, and we very much appreciated him considering all the evidence.”
There is no trial date set for Aikin, but he has a hearing scheduled for Jan. 19 in Johnson’s court on a motion to compel the district attorney to provide previously withheld discovery. Callahan said he is unsure if that hearing will be postponed now.