Bully on the Bench

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

According to lawyers who have appeared in his court, Knize is often sarcastic, impatient, rude, arbitrary and short-tempered. Though smart and knowledgeable of the law, Knize in the past has imposed rules in his court that plainly deny defendants' rights to a fair trial.

In his 35 years of legal experience, Knize has never served as a defense attorney. His attitude is that of a prosecutor—the job he held during the first half of his career. An Ellis County native and lifelong member of St. John Catholic Church in Ennis, 65-year-old Knize attended St. Mary's University in San Antonio for both his bachelor's degree and law degree, which he received in 1967. He served two years in the military and signed on as an assistant district attorney in Waxahachie soon after he left the Army. After two years as a prosecutor, Knize became Ellis County district attorney and held that office from October 1, 1969, until January 16, 1986.

His office tried cases in front of 40th District Court Judge Joe Grubbs, now the district attorney. Though he began his career as a Democrat, Knize jumped to the Republican Party in 1993. He said it was because the GOP represented his conservative values, though it also happened that Ellis County Democrats were becoming an endangered species.

Defendant Leon Williams, shown here with his family, wanted the jury Judge Knize dismissed to hear his case.
Defendant Leon Williams, shown here with his family, wanted the jury Judge Knize dismissed to hear his case.

Knize often gives the appearance of favoring prosecutors. "He's more of a prosecutor than the prosecutors are," says one Dallas defense attorney who refuses to try any cases in Ellis County as a result of an unpleasant encounter with the judge.

Don't like his rulings? "Take it to Waco," Knize has been known to say. That's where the Court of Criminal Appeals handles cases coming out of his court. That court has twice subjected Knize to conditional "writs of mandamus," which are used by the appellate justices only in drastic cases. In these instances, the justices told Knize to quit violating defendants' rights.

One of two state district judges in Ellis County, Knize hears all criminal and civil trials of any consequence and is well-known for ruling his domain like a fiefdom. Lawyers who practice in the county must learn to get along with Knize if they want to succeed. Lawyers who don't like Knize—and there are many—argue that he is a petty tyrant. Those who consider him a friend would simply say he's a tyrant.

Rodney Ramsey, a former police officer who got a law degree, calls Knize "old-school." Ramsey, who has appeared in Knize's court as a witness but not as a lawyer, says, "His attitude, personality and persona are not likable or warm. I think he's harsh as far as the law goes. Strict and stern but fair. The prosecutors love him; the defense attorneys—some feel he's too hard, but not all."

Attorneys who've practiced in his court are quick to offer Knize horror stories—mostly off the record.

In the '90s, a Dallas lawyer representing a poor client with a pregnant wife agreed to a plea bargain, which required the defendant to make payments to the court on the 15th of every month. But when the lawyer asked Knize if they could change the date to coincide with his client's payday, Knize slammed down the file and stormed off the bench.

In January 1999, when Paul Ray Davis pleaded guilty to a drug charge, Knize gave him eight years of probation. But Knize threw a fit when he discovered that Davis had taken the plea bargain and then appealed the judge's earlier decision denying his motion to suppress evidence.

Knize responded by filing his own motion for a hearing. The judge found in his own favor and signed an order directing Davis, his attorney and the prosecutor to appear for a hearing on whether a new trial would be granted. At the end of that hearing, Knize granted his own motion, setting aside the judgment and ordering a new trial.

To say this is bizarre is an understatement. Judges don't file motions; they rule on others' motions. At least that's what the appellate court told Knize.

Another priceless Knize incident occurred when a Hispanic defendant was late to a court hearing and the lawyer explained that the man didn't understand the court's directions. Knize's reported response: "I'm throwing you in jail until you learn to speak English."

Lawyers and clients claim Knize often appears inattentive and has fallen asleep—allegedly four times in one trial. One lawyer told a newspaper that he saw AOL reflected in the judge's glasses and believes the judge was surfing the Internet on the bench. Knize is known to prop his feet on the back wall, his back to the proceedings. (In a recent capital murder case, Knize turned his back to the jury while lawyers made their closing arguments.)

Attorneys who ask for a postponement of a trial risk Knize moving the trial even earlier. Lawyers who challenge his rulings get threatened with arrest for contempt of court. One attorney says he carries a motion in his briefcase at all times to file immediately if Knize follows through.

Though a Republican, Knize has a reputation for being lenient with sex offenders. He even delayed the sentencing of a local lawyer on child abuse charges until after the last election; the man got probation.

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