Bully on the Bench

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

People supporting Altman dragged out a 14-year-old letter Knize had written to Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann in support of his priest, Rudy Kos, then serving at St. John in Ennis.

Knize identified himself as a judge, gave a lengthy biography and told the bishop to ignore those criticizing Kos for matters involving church and school business. He contended that Kos was doing a great job with the school and other parish ministries. "Please do not make a decision based on claims of the ever-present malcontents," he wrote.

Though there was no indication that Knize knew about Kos' proclivity for sex with altar boys, the priest's subsequent indictment and conviction made the judge's motives look questionable, especially after several victims at St. John alleged the church leadership ignored efforts to investigate allegations of Kos' sexual misconduct. The letter later ended up as evidence in a lawsuit against Kos and the diocese.

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.

In a deposition, Knize said he wrote the letter in defense of Kos because the bishop was receiving complaints from the church school's administration that the priest was "interfering with the principals." Kos was concerned that the conflict might result in his transfer, so Knize, who had served on four school boards and three parish councils, volunteered to write a letter of support. Though he did no further research to find out what the real problems were, Knize wrote the letter singing Kos' praises.

In a Daily Light editorial, the editor blasted whomever leaked the letter. "The obvious attempt to assassinate the character of incumbent Judge Gene Knize is nothing more than an act of shameless cowards hell-bent on winning at all costs," the editorial said. "It is no different than an act of terror—the only difference being that most terror organizations, such as the Klan and al Qaeda, openly claim responsibility for their acts."

Some of Knize's rulings appear to support the contention of detractors that Knize is soft on sex offenders. In the case of Dr. Aniruddha Ashok Chitale, an Ennis physician who was charged with sexual misconduct involving four patients, including ejaculating on them while they were under anesthesia, Knize agreed to a plea bargain of six months in jail and 10 years' probation.

Local attorney James Leonard pleaded guilty and received a 10-year probated sentence for three counts of sexually assaulting two children less than 14 years old. He served only six months in jail. (Knize delayed the sentencing until after the election.) The Daily Light reported that one protester appeared at a campaign event carrying a sign that said, "Does Knize Love Baby Rapers?"

The campaign became blistering at a public forum. Altman pledged to be "tough on crime, to apply civil law in a fair and predictable manner and...[to] protect your constitutional rights."Knize got angry at a question from a member of the audience about "jury nullification," which allows citizens to acquit defendants if they believe the prosecution has committed misconduct. Altman argued that juries usually reach the right verdict. Knize lost his temper and started yelling.

Farmers Branch city councilman and fellow Republican Tim O'Hare wrote a letter to the Daily Light before the election, calling for Knize's ouster. O'Hare had represented residents of Midlothian in a civil case in Ellis County.

"Our experience in Judge Knize's court was the most egregious example of favoritism and disregard for the plain rule of law that I have ever experienced," O'Hare wrote.

"Judge Knize forced our clients to try their case with approximately 14 days notice when the state rule plainly required a 45-day notice. During the trial, Judge Knize disregarded the law and made improper rulings even though there was absolutely no evidence supporting his rulings. This is not simply my opinion. The Court of Appeals in Waco agreed. The appellate court found that Judge Knize disregarded the facts, the law and the evidence and reversed his judgment entirely...I truly wonder whether Judge Knize's decision in our case was based on the fact that the law firm we were up against supports him politically and employs a couple of his biggest campaign contributors."

Altman lost the primary but ended up with 35 percent of the vote, not bad for an unknown. With no Democratic opponent, Knize kept his bench.

David Finn's battle with Knize was just beginning when the judge dismissed the jury impaneled for the Leon Williams case. But this time Knize picked a fight with the wrong out-of-towner. Finn's father, Frank Finn, once head of the Dallas County Republican Party, is fond of saying that David "goes through life like his hair is on fire." He's been a federal and state prosecutor, a judge and now practices criminal defense and civil litigation.

But during jury selection in Knize's court, Finn says, "I felt like the 'two youths' in My Cousin Vinny."

This was actually the second jury to be picked for the trial of Leon Williams, who was out of jail on bond. The first had been chosen last fall. When several jurors got sick before the trial began, Knize's solution was to bring in several replacements without the required questioning by the attorneys. When Finn protested that he knew nothing about those jurors, Knize got angry. He dismissed that jury and told Finn to come back in January to pick another.

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