It’s considerably likely that a fair trial for Atatiana Jefferson will be impossible in Tarrant County. That’s because Thursday’s hearing on whether to recuse the judge currently assigned to the case will be fraught with constitutional issues that may lead to the reversal of any final verdict.
Last week, attorneys for former police officer Aaron Dean filed a Motion to Recuse, in which they argued why Judge David Hagerman should be removed, and it was met by shock and anger on the part of a public that remains mistrustful of pretty much everyone involved in the trial. Successful prosecutions of police who kill unarmed civilians like Jefferson are exceedingly rare. Even as police kill an average of 1,000 men, women, and youths a year, based on data from the nonprofit Mapping Police Violence going back 11 years, only 10 to 20 police are successfully prosecuted per year.
Why? Because police unions here and across the country spare no expense when hiring attorneys to defend murderous members of the Thin Blue Line.
Dean’s attorneys argued that Hagerman was hostile to their defense team and had rushed the proceedings, among other accusations. Hagerman, paradoxically, has delayed the trial multiple times while publicly saying there should be no more delays. The trial is now on indefinite pause while Visiting Retired Judge Lee Gabriel, who was recently assigned by Administrative Judge David Evans, weighs the merits of the Motion to Recuse, and it’s anyone’s guess which judge would want to preside over a trial that may lead to civil unrest no matter the final verdict.
The lynchpins of Tarrant County’s judiciary have ever so slowly loosened to the point where the whole system has buckled.
Now, locals have the opportunity to demand that Dean’s trial be removed from Tarrant County and away from corrupt judges who, by their actions, have proven to be untrustworthy. Judges like Hagerman, based on our extensive research, are too busy extorting taxpayers and padding the pockets of fellow judges who have retired and refuse to take the Oath of Office before new assignments as required by law. Taking the oath would automatically stop retirement payments for his retired judge friends who double-dip on public funds by filling in for Hagerman on cases that can pay $500 a day while earning retirement.
Although our reporting did not set out to investigate judges tied to Dean’s trial, their names continually surfaced as we examined botched paperwork filed by a local visiting retired judge, Daryl Coffey, who was never qualified to preside as a type of judicial officer known as a senior judge but still did. Coffey has ruled — without legal authority — on around 200 cases since 2015, the time of his retirement.
Hagerman apparently cares so much about the merits of Dean’s trial that he scheduled a four-day visit to San Antonio last week to attend the Rusty Duncan Conference, based on our review of judicial records through a request called Rule 12. Held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the June event boasts parties, golf outings, luncheons, and, yes, a few educational classes.
Hagerman requested Coffey to fill in for him more than a dozen times since 2015, even though Coffey was a longtime misdemeanor judge and Hagerman’s court oversees felonies. Does a career of ruling on DWIs qualify someone for cases involving homicides? Probably not. But it does in Tarrant County. We do not know if Hagerman knew that Coffey was not statutorily or constitutionally qualified to preside over any cases, cases that all should be null and void, because Hagerman ignored our request for comment.
Judge Evans falsely assigned Coffey to more than 200 cases as a senior judge. That unraveling scandal could cause blowback for Dean’s trial if Evans is disciplined or criminally charged for falsifying 200-plus government documents as a possible favor to Coffey.
The local judiciary may be preparing to assign a constitutionally unqualified visiting retired judge to preside over Dean’s eventual trial as a means of insulating active judges from a controversial case. Our statewide examination of visiting retired judges has found that they are frequently assigned to controversial cases whose verdicts can lead to public uproar. One confidential source who closely follows the unlawful rulings of visiting retired judges alleges that they rule as the “state wants them to.”
Another confidential source who asked to remain anonymous to protect their privacy told us the State Commission on Judicial Conduct possesses a sworn complaint related to Evans’ history of assigning the unqualified judge, Coffey. Evans’ four-year term ends today, and amid the mess surrounding Dean’s trial and Evans’ history of falsely assigning Coffey as a senior judge, we do not foresee Gov. Greg Abbott renewing the appointment of Evans, the administrative judge.
Judge George Gallagher, the administrator for Tarrant County’s 11 felony judges, made the decision to delay Dean’s trial while Visiting Retired Judge Gabriel reviews the Motion to Recuse. Gallagher has a history of leaning on constitutionally unqualified retired judges to preside over important criminal cases. Our Rule 12 requests revealed that he recently requested Visiting Retired Judge Robert Brotherton to oversee the murder trial of James Floyd, a Black man who faced aggravated assault charges tied to a 2017 burglary. Gallagher filed seven Request for Assignment forms requesting Brotherton, who failed to file his Oath of Office throughout the criminal proceedings that recently led to a guilty verdict for Floyd. Gallagher, who earns upwards of $160,000 a year, requested the constitutionally unqualified judge because the case was “legally complicated,” a possible cop-out to let a personal friend make money (up to $500 per day, remember) by doing Gallagher’s work.
Many of Tarrant County’s criminal judges are every bit as crooked and corrupt as the defendants they preside over. The collective effort of visiting retired judges to dodge taking their Oath of Office connotes an effort to skirt state law en masse as a means of avoiding accountability. The system that allows judges to request visiting retired judges who are personal friends reeks of good-ol’-boy favoritism and is a betrayal of any semblance of judicial ethics.
With the Motion to Recuse scheduled for Thursday, state law requires Gabriel to file an anti-bribery oath by Wednesday at the latest and to file her Oath of Office by Thursday morning before she reviews the motion. If Gabriel fails to take either step, her rulings on the matter will be null and void. We will let you know which path she chooses.
This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. Submissions will be edited for factuality, clarity, and concision.