Waxahachie Daily Light-Legal Battle

Legal battle goes on
By JONATHAN BLUNDELL Daily Light staff writer
Posted: Friday, February 23, 2007 11:23 AM CST

The legal battle over a June 24, 2005, accident on Interstate 35 continued Thursday in Waxahachie.Senior Judge Bill Coker, of the 191st District Court in Dallas, preceded over a hearing Thursday to determine the outcome of a motion filed to have 40th District Court Judge Gene Knize removed from cause No. 30,467-CR, the State of Texas vs. James Leon Williams.The motion was filed by Williams’ defense attorneys, Mark Griffith and David Finn, after Knize dismissed a second jury that had been chosen to hear the case in mid-January.

Finn said he felt the jury was the perfect jury to hear the trial and no reasoning was given by Knize as to why the jury was dismissed.Williams is being charged with two counts of criminally negligent homicide, for the deaths of James Nation, 24, of Waxahachie and Debra Carder, 45, of Midlothian, in the June 24, 2005, accident.According to police reports, Williams was the driver of a 2000 Volvo truck-tractor semi-trailer that rear-ended Nation’s 1996 Pontiac, pushing it into Carder’s 1996 Taurus, while traveling northbound on Interstate 35.

The reports stated that the truck-tractor then drove on top of the Pontiac before colliding with the Taurus, sending it into a spin before the truck-tractor rear-ended a bread van that also collided with the Taurus.The Pontiac separated from the truck-tractor and came to rest in the outside median where it burst into flames, according to the reports, which add that the bread van subsequently rolled onto its right side onto a 2001 Toyota, which was then struck on its right side by the truck-tractor, which also struck a 2000 Dodge Neon on its right side before coming to a stop.According to a report from the Texas Department of Public Safety, dated Sept. 23, 2005, a blood test of Williams after the accident detected no signs of amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cocaine and its metabolites, and opiates.The victim’s families filed a civil lawsuit in July 2005, and a $1.5 million insurance settlement was awarded in the case.

The criminal charges were brought forth eight months after the accident, in March 2006.Williams is currently released on bond and living in the San Antonio area.“Most of my statement today is within my request for recuse,â€? Griffith said in opening statements. “You will hear from witnesses that the defense was treated differently and you’ll hear from Mr. Finn who will reveal he received a direct threat by Judge Knize.â€?

Griffith said that Williams no longer feels like he can get a fair trial with Knize preceding over the case.“We asked that the jury not be discharged,â€? Griffith said. “And after you hear all the evidence, you will hear that Judge Knize discharged a jury that was perfect and Judge Knize cannot be fair and impartial on this case.â€?

Chief felony prosecutor Don Maxfield told Coker that the threat Griffith and Finn allege Knize made was not so significant that the case could not move forward and that the motion itself fails as a matter of law. “An unsworn jury was discharged on Jan. 11,â€? Maxfield said. “Counsel then filed a request for a hearing after the discharge had occurred.â€?

The defense presented six witnesses, including four members of the jury pool from Jan. 9. Shannon Kyle Smith, who was a member of the jury pool but not selected to serve on the jury, said he felt there was a difference between the treatment of the defense and the state during the jury selection process.

“There was an obvious personality conflict right off the bat,â€? Smith said in his testimony. During cross-examination, Smith said he didn’t think Finn had “a personal intent to aggravate the judge.â€?

Juror Jeff Spence said that after being chosen to serve on the jury, he was informed by letter that he longer needed to serve.“The letter said juror discharged,â€? Spence said in his testimony. “As of to this day I don’t know why.â€?

Spence said that while sitting on the second row of the juror pool that day he was able to hear some of the exchanges between Knize and Finn.“It was like the neighbor’s dog in the yard,â€? Spence said. “Knize was responding to Mr. Finn as the new kid on the block. I really don’t think he could be impartial.â€? When questioned by the prosecution, Spence said he had not been in Knize’s courtroom before the day in question and did not see Knize do anything to the defendant or threaten him. Spence also said there was some contention from a disagreement over the law.“Judge Knize got really ticked and I did not think that was very professional,â€? Spence said.

Deborah Kuykendall, another individual chosen for the jury said she noticed disparity between Griffith and Knize from the beginning.“He didn’t seem to interrupt the prosecution,â€? Kuykendall said. “When Mr. Finn presented his side he was interrupted and the judge tried to re-explain it. There was tension.â€?Kuykendall said she did not feel like Williams would receive a fair trial under Knize.“I think the problem was between Mr. Finn and the judge,â€? Kuykendall said. “There was no tension from Mr. Finn at first. It seemed like the judge was establishing his dominance and Mr. Finn was trying to break the ice and reestablish a rapport.â€?

Later, during cross-examination, Kuykendall said she would expect the judge to correct an attorney’s definition of the law if it was incorrect.“It appeared to me that (Finn) was not far enough into his explanation to be interrupted,â€? Kuykendall said.She also mentioned that she had thought there might have been an issue with Finn because he was from Dallas and he was the only attorney who seemed to have any conflict during the day of jury selection.

Maxfield asked if Kuykendall felt the attorney from the previous jury selection that took place before the Williams case was treated fairly and she responded that he was.Maxfield then pointed out that the attorney in that case was from Dallas as well.

After the members of the jury pool were questioned, Finn took the stand himself.“I don’t think he can be fair in this case,â€? Finn said. Finn then recalled a point near the end of the jury selection when Knize stood, clapped and asked Finn if he was “supposed to bow and genuflect now?â€?“He was trying to bully me and I stood up to him,â€? Finn said. “And that’s what made him upset.â€?

During questioning by Griffith, Finn said the judge threatened him before the jury selection was announced by saying, “I suggest you better make darn sure you’re never one minute late for my court – ever – if you know what’s good for you.â€?“He was furious,â€? Finn said. “He was shaking and I felt like he was going to punch me.â€?

Later during cross-examination Maxfield questioned Finn about the threat, saying that the motion filed by Finn and Griffith said, “something along the lines of …â€? before the quoted threat.“Was that a direct quote?â€? Maxfield asked after Finn had phrased the threat differently during questioning. “Isn’t it true you don’t know what the exact quote was.â€?“I know what the judge said,â€? Finn said. “And he threatened me.â€?

Maxfield then questioned Finn about the timing of his request for Knize’s recusal.“The threat occurred immediately after I sat down,â€? Finn said.“You didn’t object to the threat?â€? Maxfield asked. Finn responded with a no.“We selected our jury and the jury was seated in the jury box,â€? Finn said.“At that time did you object to the judge’s threat?â€? Finn responded no.

Finn said that he was first informed that the jury had been dismissed when he received a letter in the mail, on Friday, Jan. 12.“At the time the judge discharged the jury you had not filed a recusal against the judge,â€? Maxfield said. “Prior to receiving the letter you had no intention to file a recuse. Your client wanted to go to trial on Jan. 11 with that jury. Prior to Jan. 11, 2007, Judge Knize had not done anything to you and you were ready to go to trial.â€?Maxfield pointed out that in an affidavit by Williams on Jan. 11, the threat was not mentioned.“The threat was not in the affidavit by your client,â€? Maxfield said. “So this threat was not an issue on Jan. 11.â€?“The threat was always an issue,â€? Finn replied. “But the quality of the jury overrode that.â€?

Maxfield then turned the focus of his questioning towards the first jury selection for the trial in November 2006.“A prior jury was picked,â€? Maxfield said. “And that jury was scheduled to go to trial and at that time both sides appeared to be ready to go to trial. You had not filed a motion to recuse and there was no impartiality or unfairness that you were concerned about?â€?Finn agreed with Maxfield.“And then when it was time for the case, two jurors were ill,â€? Maxfield said. “And the judge made arrangements to take those two jurors off the case.â€?“Judge Knize wanted to put two people on the jury that we had not questioned,â€? Finn said. “He became quite upset when we questioned it.â€?“Mr Finn, you objected to the judge’s procedure and the judge sustained it,â€? Maxfield said. “Although Judge Knize was prepared to go forward he sustained your objection. This impartial, biased judge who could have gone forward with the trial, sustained your objection.â€?

Finn responded that legally Knize could not move forward. Maxfield then questioned Finn twice if he had any evidence that Knize discharged the jury based on personal bias against Finn or Williams. Both times Finn said he did not know why Knize dismissed the jury. After being questioned the third time, Finn said, “There is no evidence at all.â€?

Maxfield then asked if Finn had any other evidence that the judge has bias in the case besides the threat or the discharge of the jury.“Do you have any evidence of ill-will by the judge?â€? Maxfield asked. Finn responded no.

During further questioning by Griffith, Finn said he felt it would be impossible to get a fair trial under Knize. Finally the defense called Williams to the stand. Finn asked Williams about the alleged threat.“(Knize) came over to the table before we made our strikes (for the jury) and I heard him say, ‘You better not be late in my courtroom.’ His voice sounded agitated.â€?

Williams said he wanted the case to be tried by the jury picked on Jan. 9.“Do you think there’s any way Judge Knize can give you a fair trail?â€? Finn asked. Williams responded, “Not with you as my lawyer.â€? Finn then asked if Williams wanted him to remain as his lawyer and Williams responded with a yes.

In cross-examination Maxfield asked Williams if Knize had ever said anything to him that was unwarranted or offensive. Williams said, “No.â€?“Has he indicated to you in any way that you have ever committed a crime?â€? Maxfield asked. “Has he indicated to you that he has any personal animosity to you?â€?Williams responded, “No,â€? to both questions.“So you’re concerned about his relationship with Mr. Finn?â€? Maxfield asked.“Yes,â€? Williams responded.

Both the defense and state then closed their case and waived their rights to closing statements.After both sides rested, Coker said he was still trying to sort through the evidence and was not sure what his decision would be.

“I have a firm conviction that when a person files a motion they’re serious,â€? Coker said. “I also have a firm conviction that not every motion is worthy of being sustained. I’m going to give it consideration and I will give you an answer before I leave Waxahachie tomorrow. I still don’t have my mind made up and I will take notice of the transcript.

The attorneys will not likely find out my decision until at least tomorrow. How they choose to share that decision is up to them.�

After the hearing Finn said the defense was guardedly optimistic.“When four jurors get up there and say you’re not going to get a fair trial – something’s not right,â€? Finn said. “But we were pleased to see the judge was very attentive, patient and explained his protocol.

Can you imagine the state’s response if they thought they had a great jury and the judge pulled the rug out from under them?â€?Finn said he expected a decision by 5 p.m. today.E-mail Jonathan at j.blundell@thedailylight.com
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