For the second time in two weeks, a visiting judge has removed 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother from presiding over a case involving a biker arrested in the 2015 Twin Peaks shootout.
Christopher Jacob Carrizal, the 36-year-old president of the Bandidos Dallas chapter, is still slated to go to trial Tuesday. However, Judge Matt Johnson, not Strother, will be there in an attempt to impanel 150 potential jurors who have been summoned for Carrizal’s trial. The final jury panel would then be selected from that group.
Carrizal’s attorney, Casie Gotro, of Houston, said she will file a motion to recuse Johnson on Tuesday morning, which would put a halt — at least temporarily — to Johnson’s involvement in the case.
Regional administrative Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield has contacted a judge to hear the recusal motion if Gotro makes good on her pledge to try to remove Johnson, who said he will not step aside voluntarily. That hearing could be held as early as Tuesday morning, court officials said.
Stubblefield appointed Retired Judge Dan Mills, a longtime former federal prosecutor, to hear the recusal motion against Strother. After a six-hour hearing Monday, Mills, like retired Judge James Morgan last month, applied the “reasonable man-on-the-street” test to the question and removed Strother from Carrizal’s case.
The test, as the judges explained it, is whether the average person viewing the situation would wonder if the judge was being fair.
Gotro, who continued her sparring match with prosecutor Michael Jarrett during the hearing, said she would seek to remove Johnson because the facts are the same for both judges. Gotro said last week that she only met Johnson briefly for the first time Aug. 25 when the Carrizal jury panel reported for the first time.
Johnson was prepared to take over for Strother then after Gotro filed her last-second recusal motion. However, Gotro said she also will file a recusal motion against Johnson, so the jury panel was sent home and told to report again Tuesday.
In removing Strother, Mills said testimony concerning the way a so-called “DNA docket” was handled, in which Strother required those bikers charged in his court to report for a hearing so prosecutors could serve DNA warrants on them, “just struck a negative chord in my gut.”
Jarrett argued that “this is not a DNA case, this has never been a DNA case. We won’t be introducing any DNA evidence and they are using this to attack the credibility of a longstanding judge.”
Gotro, who said she has never previously filed a recusal motion against a judge in her career, claimed that by calling the DNA hearing, Strother assisted the state in collecting evidence and asserted the judge “bent over backward” to favor the state at every turn.
“I feel like I have been going up against two prosecutors, the state and the judge,” Gotro said.
Morgan also cited the “DNA docket” in deciding to remove Strother last month in cases involving three other bikers charged in the deadly May 17, 2015, Twin Peaks shootout.
Strother and Johnson split the cases of the 155 bikers indicted in the Twin Peaks melee between their courtrooms. It remains unclear what will become of the other 70 or so cases in Strother’s court if others also file motions to recuse him.
Gotro, who testified for about an hour, cited other times she said she felt Strother favored the state. Jarrett countered that being overruled on a few pretrial motions does not equate to grounds for removing a judge.
Gotro said she questioned Strother’s fairness on the first day she took over for Carrizal’s first attorney in March. She said Strother accused her and the other attorney of perpetrating a “sham” on the court by substituting counsel at the last minute in an effort to delay the trial.
“We have effectively been without a judge,” she said. “We haven’t been getting anything close to fair treatment.”
The acrimony between Gotro and Jarrett grew as the hearing went on. Gotro continues to claim that the state is not providing her with all the evidence she is entitled to, a charge Jarrett repeatedly has denied.
He said the state has given all defense attorneys in the Twin Peaks cases evidence from the cases as it has become available.
Jarrett argued that any appearance on Strother’s part of bias was brought on by Gotro’s disrespectful and confrontational attitude. He accused her of “flipping off” Strother during an August conference in the judge’s chambers, but Gotro said she actually was “flipping” Jarrett off.
“What would you do if you were the judge and you had a lawyer in court acting like you have been acting?” Jarrett asked.
“If I had a prosecutor in my court doing what you have been doing, I might understand it,” Gotro said. “I am here to defend my client.”