A retired judge ruled Wednesday that 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother should be removed from presiding over the cases of three Twin Peaks bikers, saying he thinks the average man on the street might say, “Judge, you’re just not being fair.”
Judge James Morgan of Bosque County recused Strother from hearing the cases of bikers Thomas Paul Landers, George Bergman and Rolando Reyes. Morgan conducted a hearing on the recusal motions Aug. 16, telling the parties before adjourning the hearing that they had given him a lot to think about.
Dallas attorney Clint Broden, who represents Bergman, a member of the Desgraciados motorcycle group, said he and Bergman are pleased with Morgan’s decision.
“The standard for granting a recusal motion is whether a ‘reasonable man on the street’ might think a judge was biased in favor of one party,” Broden said. “So, here the question was not whether Judge Strother was actually biased or believed himself to be biased.
“At the beginning of the recusal hearing in this matter, it appeared Judge Morgan was skeptical about the motion. Nevertheless, I think as Judge Morgan heard the evidence and considered it in its totality, he realized the impression that Judge Strother’s actions would cause on the ‘reasonable man on the street.’ ”
Strother, a judge for 18 years, declined comment on the orders.
Prosecutor Michael Jarrett, who argued against the motion to recuse Strother, did not return a phone call Wednesday.
It is still too early to tell what effect the rulings might have on other Twin Peaks cases set in Strother’s court. No one else, so far, has filed a recusal motion seeking Strother’s removal. But if other motions are filed, it could further delay the cases against the bikers, several of whom have exerted aggressively their rights to speedy trials.
Strother and 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson divided the 155 indicted Twin Peaks cases evenly between their courtrooms and plan to alternate trying a biker case each month after the trial of Christopher Jacob Carrizal, set now to begin Sept. 12 in Strother’s court.
The recusal motion won’t affect Strother in Carrizal’s case. However Casie Gotro, who represents Carrizal, said she will file a recusal motion against Strother but had not done so as of Wednesday afternoon.
“The public has a right to expect a fair and impartial judiciary,” Gotro said. “Judge Morgan has spoken loudly and clearly, and if Judge Strother has an ounce of integrity, he will recuse himself from Jake’s case and every other Twin Peaks case. There is no legitimate reason for him to fight recusal.”
A panel of 600 potential jurors has been called to report Friday to fill out questionnaires that will assist the attorneys in jury selection in Carrizal’s case. Carrizal is president of the Dallas chapter of the Bandidos.
Attorneys for the trio of bikers who requested Strother’s recusal based their complaints 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 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.
The bikers also charge that Strother favored the DA’s office by calling a special docket Feb. 16 so the DA’s office could serve DNA warrants on a number of the bikers.
Austin attorney Millie Thompson, who represents Landers, said he also is pleased with the ruling.
“It is unfortunate that there was ever a need to file this motion to recuse,” Thompson said. “Nevertheless, we now have hope for a fair trial. A fair trial is not too much to ask for.”
In his order, Morgan noted that he initially was skeptical about the validity of the bikers’ claims. But he said the issue surrounding the DNA docket was “bothersome.”
“It just didn’t smell good, and the evidence at our hearing really didn’t allay that feeling,” Morgan wrote. “If it had only been that, I might have felt OK writing it off as just a means to move these cases along. Goodness knows they need to be moved.”
Morgan said he considered the totality of the evidence in making his ruling, saying that any one of the issues alone did not rise to the level of recusal.
“As I’ve indicated, I can make a case in my own mind that none of these should lead to a recusal, at least individually,” Morgan wrote. “I certainly don’t believe it has been demonstrated that Judge Strother did anything singularly improper just to help the state. I’ve known the judge for many years and have the highest regard for him.
“I don’t believe he would do anything that he felt would cause his removal from these cases. He wants to do his job, and he was trying to do just that. I’m sure he felt, as I would have, great frustration at the lack of progress on these cases, and that no doubt has prompted some of what has happened here.”
A regional administrative judge now will assign another judge to hear the cases of Bergman; Landers, a member of the Escondido group; and Reyes, a member of the Los Caballeros from Killeen.