Former Central Texas JP who once set $4 billion bond for murder suspect dies at 81

Published: Dec. 16, 2020 at 2:18 PM CST
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KILLEEN, Texas (KWTX) – Funeral services were pending Wednesday at Chisolm’s Family Funeral Home in Killeen for former Bell County Pct. 4, Place 1 Justice of the Peace Claudia Brown, who made national headlines and stirred local controversy when she set a $4 billion bond for a murder suspect.

Brown, 81, died on Tuesday.

The former educator and social worker, who was born in Baltimore, Md., moved to Killeen to be closer to her son, his wife, and her grandson, and in May 2007 was unopposed in her bid for the Place 4 seat on the Killeen City Council.

She resigned a year later because she needed knee-replacement surgery.

She ran twice more for the council, but was unsuccessful in both bids, as she was in 2012 when she ran as a Democrat against incumbent Republican State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock.

But in 2016, again running as a Democrat, she upset longtime Republican Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace Garland Potvin, winning by a 2,000-vote margin with 52% of the vote and becoming the first Black woman to serve as a justice of the peace in the county.

In February 2017, not long after taking office, Brown set a $4 billion bond for a murder suspect who had turned himself in at the Killeen Police Department.

A state district judge later reduced the bond by $3,999,850,000 to $150,000.

She said her intent was to underscore the need for bond reform.

“I set it as high as I could to illustrate the fact that it’s ridiculous how we are railroading people without them even having their constitutional rights to a fair trial to determine if they are guilty or innocent,” Brown said at the time.

Then in June 2017, she arraigned her own son on a misdemeanor DWI charge after he was stopped by police on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

She set his bond at $2,000 and signed an arrest affidavit in which she found sufficient probable cause to issue an arrest warrant for him.

In December 2017 the State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a reprimand, saying Brown “failed to comply with the law and maintain competence in the law…and through words and conduct indicated she was swayed by partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism” when she set the $4 billion bond.

And, the commission said, when she arraigned her son, she “lent the prestige of her judicial office to advance his private interests, allowed her relationship with her son to influence her conduct and failed to disqualify herself.”

Meanwhile, a Killeen attorney filed a petition in February 2017 to have Brown removed from the bench.

Two years later, on Feb. 13, 2019, an eight-woman, four-man jury found Brown unfit to hold office in what the Bell County Attorney’s Office said was the first trial of a removal petition in the county in 33 years.

Brown later called the process “unjust” and said she was the target of a smear campaign intended to force her out of office.

“You know the lawyers are going to come after you and it didn’t really sink in until I began to experience a lot of scrutiny. I am a new kid on the block. I may not be do things the way they are accustomed of having them done through the decades,” she said.

“That was a hostile work environment. I would have stayed had they not continued badgering me and wanting me not to be there,” Brown said in an interview with KWTX in March 2019.

She filed an appeal with the Third Court of Appeals in Austin and the case was transferred to the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso as a result of an effort by the Texas Supreme Court to equalize dockets.

“Would you do that if you thought you were not guilty of what they were charging you of? Would you not appeal? That’s exactly why I appealed. I’m not incompetent; I’m one of the most competent people they’ve had in the position,” Brown said.

“Rosa Parks, would she have gotten out of that bus seat or would she have just sat there? She said she was just too tired of all the Jim Crow laws. She was not getting out that seat. So, Judge Brown may have lost her seat as a judge, but my message is very, very clear: it’s not fair what we’re doing to people,” she said.

The Eighth Court affirmed the trial’s court decision to remove Brown in an opinion issued in October.

(Rosemond Crown contributed to this story)

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