Veteran judge removed from Twin Peaks trial

State District Judge Ralph Strother. (File)
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) A visiting judge Monday removed State District Judge Ralph Strother from the trial of the first of the Twin Peaks bikers scheduled to go to court.

Former District Judge Daniel H. Mills, of Burnet County, issued the ruling late Monday afternoon.

He said State District Judge Matt Johnson could take over the trial.

Administrative Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield later told McLennan County District Clerk Jon Gimble that jury selection can begin Tuesday morning.

A panel of about 160 is expected to report Tuesday.

But Casie Gotro of Houston, who represents Christopher Jacob Carrizal, indicated she would seek Johnson's recusal as well.

Strother had already been barred from presiding over three of the Twin Peaks cases set in his court and on Sept. 1, Gotro filed paperwork that sought to have him removed from her case, as well.

Strother in response filed a notice with the district clerk that said he had no intention of stepping aside, in spite of the fact that Gotro asked him twice to recuse himself.

Stubblefield assigned Mills last Tuesday.

In her original hand-written recusal motion, Gotro claimed Strother was using “the authority of the bench to aid and assist the state in prosecuting the defendant” and to prevent Gotro “from accessing evidence, addressing the court, making legal arguments, (and) preserving the record.”

That was an issue Gotro visited Monday during a more than five-and-a-half hour hearing on Strother’s recusal.

Mills already had studied the issue and told Gotro and prosecutor Michael Jarrett he was aware of issues that took place in previous status hearing on the case.

Gotro began her case by introducing into evidence the letter retired District Judge James Morgan wrote last week when he issued his order that Strother be recused from three other Twin Peaks trials.

She said that alone should be reason to bar Strother from hearing the Carrizal case.

Gotro, during her testimony, repeated the same issues she’d argued with Strother about in previous hearings; failure to receive full discovery from the district attorney’s office, her inability to properly prepare a defense for her client because she doesn’t have the tools necessary to do so and a judge on the case who refused to order the state to comply with her requests.

She also claimed that Strother “stated without reading any motion to recuse…would not be granted” and “refused without reading any one of the 18 subpoenas to enforce or order compliance.”

“I can’t do my job with him on the bench,” Gotro told Mills.

Gotro testified on the motion for about an hour, during which Jarrett made several objections, but Mills for the most part told Jarrett to save his questions for cross-examination.

Because Gotro testified on her motion, the state was entitled to cross-examine her on her testimony from the stand.

Jarrett began with several questions about discovery and whether Gotro could be ready for trial and again she claimed she had not been given all the information to which she is entitled.

“To say that she has not been included in discovery is blatantly false,” Jarrett said, “she has everything we have to give her.”

“We have effectively been without a judge,” Gotro said, to which Mills responded: “Don’t argue with him (Jarrett), just testify.”

“He’s (Strother) not given a fair hearing so far,” Gotro said.

“All the dockets have been arranged in a way that the state has an advantage,” Gotro said.

“I understand safety is an issue but this was improper and prejudicial,” Gotro said.

Testimony in court Monday was that District Judges Johnson and Strother met with District Attorney Abel Reyna and the three discussed each defendant relative to what motorcycle group they might belong to or support and agreed on a trial calendar based on that information.

But defense attorneys say that meeting, itself, prejudiced both judges on every case.

One issue in court Monday was testimony from court coordinator Ellen Watson, the person responsible for setting Strother’s docket, but she is on vacation and was not available to testify.

In summing up her testimony Gotro said “I think Morgan’s ruling, alone, should be sufficient enough to remove Judge Strother from this case and from all Twin Peaks cases.”

Gotro said it has been obvious that Strother and Reyna worked together to make sure Carrizal’s case went to trial first.

“I think it was bias for him to say that and push this case to trial,” Gotro said, “but he does whatever the state wants.”

“Judge that’s just not true,” Jarrett said as he stood, “We have an obligation to ensure that this man (Carrizal) receives a fair trial but Ms. Gotro would like to avoid that.”

“He’s (Strother) been nothing but biased against this defendant and his lawyer from the very beginning,” Gotro said.

“You (two) need to get on another horse and ride it into the ground because you’ve worn the legs off this one,” Mills said.

During the cross-examination Gotro was visibly confrontational and at one point glared at Jarret and said: “Yes, Mr. Jarrett, I’m frustrated and I’m angry.

“I think it’s appropriate for a lawyer to represent her client and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Gotro shouted.

Austin attorney Millie Thompson took the stand to testify in support of Gotro’s motion, explaining she witnessed Strother try to force Gotro to go to trial in the first pre-trial hearing she attended, even though she’d only been on the case a few weeks.

Gotro replaced Carrizal’s first attorney after he requested a substitution.

“He (Strother) tried to force her to go to trial in the March 24 hearing,” Thompson testified.

“He reacted (with hostility) and accused her of lying,” Thompson said.

“He was trying to force her to trial without full discovery.”

Former District Judge Susan Chris, now in private practice, testified for Gotro as well and said Strother showed bias when he appointed a Waco police detective to serve as foreman of a grand jury that was impaneled at a time that it could have heard some of the Twin Peaks cases.

Both Chris and Thompson spoke about what lawyers now call the DNA Docket, a series of hearings held early in the summer where each defendant was required to appear.

The purpose of the hearings was to bring the defendants together in one place so samples of their DNA could be collected for testing.

She said she is preparing a complaint she will file with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct that brings Strother’s dealings with the grand jury to light, which she considers highly improper.

After much public outcry Strother removed the detective from the grand jury and appointed someone else.

Carrizal was among the 177 bikers arrested after the May 17, 2015 shootout that left 9 bikers dead and more than 20 others injured.

Of that number 155 have been indicted and have court dates pending.