Bully on the Bench

When big-city lawyers appear in the courtroom of Judge Gene Knize, they better be prepared to duck and cover

The 120 dutiful souls who'd answered their jury summons on January 9 had been sitting in the historic Waxahachie courthouse listening to lawyers drone on for hours. Then suddenly things got weird.

The prosecutor had finished asking questions of potential jurors when David Finn stood up. The 43-year-old Dallas defense lawyer was representing truck driver Leon Williams in the court of state District Judge Gene Knize. The judge, an Ellis County fixture, likes to choose four or five juries in one day. Saves time and money.

Knize's courtroom—ochre walls, rich wood paneling, tall windows, a long curving balcony and a soaring ceiling—is the embodiment of what comes to mind when great old films about American justice are mentioned. But the judge doesn't quite fit the picture. Knize has long made it a policy to wear a suit instead of a black robe while occupying the bench. He doesn't need one.

Judge Gene Knize rules his courtroom like a fiefdom.
courtesy of The Ellis County Press
Judge Gene Knize rules his courtroom like a fiefdom.
Defense attorney David Finn refused to let Judge Knize bully him and posted the transcript of jury selection on his blog.
Mark Graham
Defense attorney David Finn refused to let Judge Knize bully him and posted the transcript of jury selection on his blog.

As his hawk-like face scans the courtroom, there's no doubt who's in charge.

At the defense table sat Williams, a black Air Force veteran accused of negligent homicide in a multi-vehicle crash in which two Ellis County residents had been killed. Though tests showed no drugs or alcohol in Williams' system at the time of the wreck, he was indicted for criminally negligent homicide nine months later. The state was alleging that he'd been "inattentive" or asleep when the accident occurred. Williams had rejected a plea bargain offered by prosecutors.

"As the judge said a little while ago, my name is David Finn and I'm 43," the defense attorney said. "I live in Dallas, got four kids and a wife."

Knize interrupted. "No biographies."

"But it's my time, judge," Finn said. He thought better and moved on.

As Finn asked questions, Jeffrey Spence, a diesel mechanic on the jury panel, could see a sneer develop on Knize's face. Spence would later testify that the judge looked at Finn as if the defense attorney were "a neighbor's dog" running loose in his yard, according to an account of the proceedings in the Waxahachie Daily Light.

To jury panelist Deborah Kuykendall, the tension seemed to be coming from the judge, not Finn. Knize hadn't interrupted the prosecutor, but he kept stopping Finn to argue with him. It was like Knize "was establishing his dominance."

Leon Williams was aghast. The judge was going after the man who stood between him and prison.

The exchanges ratcheted up as Knize argued with Finn. A former judge himself, Finn refused to back down.

"All right," Finn said as his 30 minutes ended. "Judge, I turn it back to you. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. You've been wonderful, and it will be an interesting trial."

The jurors heard clapping. Knize had risen, walked around the witness chair and was looking at Finn with contempt. "Am I supposed to bow and genuflect now?" he said.

"No," Finn replied. "That's what I do." He knelt in front of the judge and crossed himself.

Now Knize was furious. "Move it," he yelled. "Get over there. I would suggest you cut it out." The judge walked up to Finn. Knize, so angry he was shaking, said in a low tone, "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."

Only someone listening to a ball game on their iPod could have failed to notice that the judge regarded Finn like something nasty on the bottom of his shoe.

The lawyers left the room and returned 10 minutes later. Finn and the prosecutor read off their "strikes"—the people they didn't want on the jury. As the 12 people who made the cut took their seats, Finn was pleased to see that several jurors were truck drivers or wives of truck drivers; one was married to a man who'd spent his career in the Air Force, like Williams. Two knew his co-counsel, Waxahachie lawyer Mark Griffith.

Though the dozen citizens were white and his client was black, Finn considered it a "home run," the perfect jury to hear all the facts in Texas v. Williams. Despite the judge's strange behavior, Finn, Williams and Griffith were pleased.

Knize told the jurors to show up on January 29 and to anticipate a three-day trial. But in the week after jury selection, Finn heard something astonishing. Knize planned to dismiss the panel. No reason. No hearing. Nothing. Not even a courtesy call.

Finn's research showed that never in the history of Texas jurisprudence had a judge done such a thing. On January 12, Finn received a one-page letter from Knize saying that the jury which had been "seated but not sworn" was discharged, meaning Finn's "home run" jury would not be hearing the case.

No defense attorney could let this go unchallenged. It was like the umpire in a baseball game calling strikes before they crossed the plate, a referee tripping a receiver after he intercepted a pass. Justice requires a judge who is unbiased and even-handed.

Someone quite unlike Judge Wesley Gene Knize.

The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct describes the decorum and duties of judges, whether they sit on the Texas Supreme Court or occupy a Justice of the Peace office in Loving County, population 52. A judge should be dignified, patient, courteous to all parties, knowledgeable of the law. He should maintain order in the court. He shall be unbiased. He shall recuse himself if there's a conflict of interest.
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