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Choosing sides

The case of Texas vs. Joel Pruitt was depressingly typical among those in Judge Marshall Gandy's court. In the latest of a string of violent episodes, Jeanie Pruitt had accused her husband of knocking her across a room with one punch.

But the outcome would be anything but typical. In the end, Gandy would take extraordinary steps to break the cycle of abuse that had trapped Jeanie Pruitt for the seven years of her marriage. It would be an unusual move by the judge who has overseen Dallas County's innovative domestic-violence court for more than two years. It also would be the sort of decision that some say explains why Gandy has drawn his first re-election opponent.

Joel Pruitt and his wife, Jeanie, shared a textbook history of domestic violence: black eyes, broken bones, and broken promises. Joel already had served three years' probation for pulling a gun on his older sister. He had spent time in jail for two misdemeanor assaults against his wife, and another two cases were pending. Once, in a fit of rage, Jeanie says, he pushed her from a speeding car.

The Pruitts and their four children lived in a six-bedroom home appraised at $630,000, full of expensive antiques and opulent cut glass. Courtesy of the family-owned business started by Joel's grandfather, Ken Pruitt Buick in Garland, Jeanie Pruitt stepped out in $900 Armani suits, sported a 7-carat diamond wedding ring, and braced herself against the wind in mink coats.

"Sometimes people draw their own conclusions of what a battered woman is," she says. "They may think she's poor, or she's on welfare, or she's a drug addict or lives in the slums--a stereotypical view. It can happen in all walks of life. Even millionaires abuse their families."

The violent history of Jeanie and Joel Pruitt's marriage is captured in her collection of 35 police reports and a set of 50 broken telephones that Pruitt had pulled from the wall trying to stop her from calling the police. Pruitt often would take his money after their fights and disappear, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves.

"Then Joel would come back, give me a couple of grand, and watch a movie with the kids, and I'd think, 'Well, OK. It's easier this way. At least we can eat.' And I would sign the affidavit to drop the charges. I was very much in that battered women's syndrome."

Eventually, Jeanie Pruitt's concern for her children prompted her to join a counseling session at the Genesis Women's Outreach. By March 8, 1996, she summoned the courage to consult a divorce attorney and that evening, did something that was unusual for her--left the children with their live-in nanny and went out with friends, without her husband and without his permission.

Joel Pruitt was waiting when she arrived home.
"He yelled at me," she says. "I came in, and I said very adamantly, 'I left you a note where I was. Don't bother me.'

"Joel had this habit of coming up to me and spitting on me whenever he felt like degrading me," she says. "That night he came up and spit right in my face. I just put my hands on his chest. I would take a slap or a spit before hitting him back."

She pushed him away, and the yelling and name-calling escalated. Pruitt silenced the noise with his fist, giving his wife a concussion and a cracked tailbone.

"He took his hand way, way back, wadded his fist up, and the next thing I knew, I'm shaking my head over by the other door in the room," she says. "Joel had literally punched my lights out. I flew across the room."

Gandy, who presides over the first Texas court devoted solely to domestic violence cases, sentenced Pruitt to a one-year jail term after a jury convicted him on a misdemeanor assault charge in February 1997. But because of overcrowding, inmates were receiving three days' credit against their sentence for every day they served. In four months, Pruitt would be free to return home.

It was then that Gandy decided to intervene. Midway through Pruitt's sentence, Jeanie Pruitt received a call from Gandy and prosecutor Christine Swain.

"'I'm going to pull Mr. Pruitt out,'" Jeanie Pruitt says Gandy told her. "'I'm going to place him on a two-year electronic monitoring probation, house-arrest curfew, no contact clause. I'm going to make it mandatory that he attends 24 weeks of family-violence counseling. I'm going to make him do 300 hours of community service picking up trash.'"

Gandy's decision to effectively resentence a wife-beater is the sort of move that has made him a favorite of victims' advocates during the more than two years he has presided over the county's domestic-violence docket. But it's also the sort of decision guaranteed to win him few friends among the county's defense lawyers, some of whom say Gandy has lost his judicial objectivity in his zeal to protect the victims of domestic abuse.

 

And that, as much as anything, may explain why the Republican primary pitting Gandy against challenger David Finn has become the race to watch in this month's elections. (No Democrat is running for Gandy's seat, so the winner in the GOP primary won't face an opponent in November.)

"That case was an absolute disgrace," says Kevin Clancy, Pruitt's defense lawyer. "Judge Gandy got emotionally involved in the sentencing part of it...I think sitting on the court has warped his judicial fairness."

Twelve months after Pruitt's trial, the politically astute are whispering over cocktails that Gandy is running for his third re-election, opposed for the first time, because he's allowed his sympathy for victims to cloud his judgment. "Defense attorneys don't like judges that hold their clients accountable," says Diane McGauley, former executive director of The Family Place, a shelter for battered women. "If enough defense attorneys get mad because they can't get their clients off, they contribute to campaigns to get them off the bench. Not all of them by any means, but they want a reputation out there that they get their clients off so they can get more clients. It's a numbers game."

On Election Day, March 10, most voters won't recognize one judge's name from another. But the race for County Criminal Court No. 10 has become one of the primary's most conspicuous--thanks, in large part, to Gandy's opponent Finn, a former assistant U.S. attorney. Politically ambitious, with a quick wit and a combative campaign style, Finn has proven himself a tough opponent. "I believe that the incumbent in County Criminal Court 10," he says, "has over the last five years demonstrated a lack of judicial temperament, a lack of a meaningful work ethic, and very, very questionable attendance on the bench."

Siding with Judge Gandy are advocates of battered victims, who cite his driving passion for the victimized as the primary reason that he should be re-elected. The jury is still out on Finn, who advocates suspect is a water-carrier for criminal-defense attorneys unhappy with Gandy's rough handling of rich North Dallas wife-beaters. (Finn denies the accusation.) They're suspicious as well of Finn's plans for the court should he win. "The court has been one of the biggest assets for battered women that our county has seen in a long time," says Paige Flink, The Family Place's executive director. "A lot of the remedies that have been suggested by David Finn--that he would continue the domestic violence court, but then spread cases around--won't do any good. That's going back to the beginning."

There is a tired old "joke" floating around the metroplex:
"What do you say to a woman with two black eyes?"
"You don't tell her anything; you already told her once."

That grim bit of humor hints at some of the darker attitudes that once marked society's attitude toward domestic abuse. There was a time, in fact, when a woman counted her blessings if her husband didn't beat her. Legally permissible and socially acceptable in the eyes of the law, domestic abuse was a civil matter best left between a man and "his woman." As a result of a 1988 class action lawsuit, the Dallas Police Department began treating domestic-violence assaults as criminal offenses. "If a woman got beat up in a bar and had black eyes and a smashed nose," says Ches Williams, sergeant in charge of the Dallas Police Department's family-violence division, "her offender was sent to jail. If the exact same offense happened in the home, police were not treating it as a crime."

But as awareness of the problem of spousal abuse grew in the '90s, attitudes began to change. In 1995, the Texas Legislature made several changes that toughened domestic-violence laws, including giving judges broader powers to issue protective orders. The new laws led Dallas County prosecutor Vicki Isaacks to approach Gandy, at that time presiding judge over the county's criminal misdemeanor courts, about creating a specialized domestic-violence court. "Those cases were not getting the attention that they needed," she says. "They were spread around to all the courts, and they were put in the back of the file cabinet and pretty much left there untouched for months and years."

On the condition that Isaacks could also convince Gandy's fellow judges of the need for a specialized docket, Gandy volunteered for the job. With help from the county clerk's office, about 1,700 cases were transferred from his docket and evenly distributed among the remaining misdemeanor courts. In return, the judge received a little more than 3,200 domestic-violence cases. Up and running on October 1, 1995, the state's first court set aside for domestic violence quickly became a model for other Texas jurisdictions such as Tarrant County, which began operating its own specialized court last September. Representatives from New York City and a Washington, D.C., presidential commission also have studied the coordinated response of the court, prosecutors, city police, and battered women's shelters.

 

"These cases are complex and time-consuming and messy," says prosecutor Cindy Dyer, supervisor of the district attorney's family-violence division. "No one wanted to try them when they could just as easily go on a quick DWI or a quick possession of marijuana. The volume was larger than anyone anticipated, but Judge Gandy has really handled them with a great deal of finesse."

Finn disagrees with Dyer's assessment of Gandy's performance and has made the court's ever-swelling backlog of pending cases the cornerstone issue of his campaign--proof, he insists, of the judge's freeloading work habits. "I'm not saying that Judge Gandy is a bad guy," says Finn. "The question is, 'Is he a good judge?' and I think the resounding answer to that question is no.

"The court now has a backlog almost double the average of all the other misdemeanor courts. When you see something like that, it jumps out at you, and you wonder why that is. I think the biggest reason is that for a number of years, Judge Gandy simply did not work hard and was, in effect, a part-time judge."

Gandy, whose case disposition rate last fiscal year was third among the misdemeanor courts, insists that his court's special structure is the root of its large backlog. "When I was a general jurisdiction court," he says, "my dispositions, my trials, my pending caseloads were the same as all the other courts." But, he says, "you can't compare a domestic-violence court to a general jurisdiction court. They're not comparable. They're not the same thing.

"I don't have any control over the pending cases. I don't have any control over the fact that there's a greater percentage of active cases on a family-violence docket than there is on a general jurisdiction docket," Gandy says. "It's something that, admittedly, we didn't take into account, we didn't realize was going to happen. But it exists.

"Tarrant County has also found that it exists and it's something that we have to deal with in this kind of specialized docket."

Finn says that if he wins and discovers that, despite working 10- to 12-hour days, he can't manage the backlogged docket either, he'll look to his colleagues for help. "If that sort of work ethic and tenacity is not enough to bring this double backlog into some kind of par with the other cases in various misdemeanor courts," he says, "I would then approach the other misdemeanor judges...and see if there is some way to improve the system. Perhaps they would be willing to take a small percentage of the cases for a short time to relieve the backlog that Judge Gandy created."

County Commissioner Jim Jackson, a Gandy supporter, says the backlog "may indicate a need to have more than one court hearing domestic-violence cases. It doesn't mean the judge is not busy. You have to look at the kind of cases, the number of cases handled by the court, not how big the backlog is."

Gandy's work habits may be the central target of Finn's campaign, but his temperament on the bench also has come under attack both from Finn and from lawyers who practice before Gandy.

Take, for instance, the case of defendant Bruce Carter and Gandy's gun.
Usually, only one plainclothes bailiff is assigned to each of the county's criminal misdemeanor courts. There are two uniformed officers in Gandy's court. "We discovered early on," he says, "that we need uniformed presence in this courtroom to make sure that there weren't any problems with violence." The potential for violence is apparently so great, Gandy also feels compelled to keep a handgun at the bench. In December, the judge recused himself from hearing Carter's cases after Carter accused Gandy of brandishing the gun in open court.

Dennis Fuller, who stepped in as Carter's attorney after the March 28 incident, says he wasn't surprised by the allegations. "I would have had a more difficult time believing my client," he says, "if I had not had experiences within a matter of months prior to his coming and hiring me, indicating that Gandy is different than he was during his first term."

Carter was in Gandy's court answering a charge that he had violated a protective order. He began asking the judge about his right to have an attorney present. Carter, who Gandy says had a history of forfeiting bonds and failing to appear in court, wanted Gandy to appoint an attorney for him. When Gandy refused, an argument ensued, and Gandy ordered the bailiffs to take Carter into custody.

 

"I opened a drawer where I do keep a firearm," Gandy says, "and I placed the other hand on an emergency button to call for additional security." Gandy says Carter saw the gun in the drawer because he's tall. Carter says he would not have seen it if Gandy hadn't picked it up. One of Gandy's bailiffs later disputed Carter's claims.

Whatever happened is debatable, but Finn, who says the incident is an example of Gandy's "judicial temper tantrums," makes a point of bringing the gun issue up during most of their campaign debates. "The individual passed a polygraph test, which leads me to believe the episode unfolded as he indicated, rather than as Judge Gandy has responded. One question that jumps out at me is, if Judge Gandy did not do anything inappropriate, why then did he recuse himself without a hearing? I submit that it's because he had concern about various witnesses being put under oath to recount what they observed."

Fuller often appears in Gandy's court and says the incident is typical of what he and other attorneys have witnessed of the judge's performance lately. "He has developed a reputation over the last several years for being volatile and unpredictable. It was not a problem in his first term," says Fuller. "He was an excellent judge. Something has changed, and I don't know what it is."

Some of Fuller's colleagues apparently have been talking to Finn. "I think what the people who have to endure Judge Gandy's treatment are concerned about is not so much that he's tough on crime," says Finn. "But that he's ill-tempered, abrasive, and downright arrogant. That's what I'm hearing: that Judge Gandy believes there are two sets of rules in life--one that applies to him, and one that applies to the rest of the world."

(Despite some lawyers' problems with Gandy, the judge's campaign finance report indicates that he has received several contributions from criminal-defense attorneys.)

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, another high-profile Gandy supporter, says the public should be "very mindful of how difficult that process must be, listening to these cases day after day. Judicial temperament is directly affected by the emotional volatility of that courtroom. Domestic violence is a very, very difficult issue. So being in that process day-in and day-out, I am sure, is a very difficult thing to deal with."

Gandy responds to Finn's charges by pointing out that judges are people too. "Are there situations where I sometimes get angry?" Gandy asks. "Yeah, there are some situations where I do get angry. I am the one who has to make the decision, and in criminal court, that's going to make somebody happy and somebody unhappy. That's just kind of the way it is. At some point, I have to say, 'Enough. This is my decision. You may disagree with it, but this is what we're going to do.'"

The usually sedate federal courtroom was in an awful uproar. Mark Linnear Hays, sentenced to two consecutive life terms for robbing a Dallas drugstore and pistol-whipping the store manager, was screaming. He accused U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater of running a kangaroo court. Court-appointed defense attorney Tom Mills was in cahoots with the prosecution, he said. And the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Finn, shrieked Hays, was an idiot and a devil.

With three prior California convictions already on his dance card, in October 1996 Hays had become the first person sentenced in the Northern District of Texas under a 1994 federal law providing life terms for three-time felons. "The high-water mark when I was with the U.S. Attorney's office," says Finn, "was the privilege of being able to try that case with [U.S. Attorney] Paul Coggins."

Not bad stuff for two years into a job where assistant prosecutors can spend years toiling behind the scenes without so much as a backward glance from the boss. In Tarrant County, where Finn was a county prosecutor before joining Coggins' office, former colleagues weren't surprised to hear his name connected to a high-profile case. He'd built a reputation over there for knowing what he wants and gunning for it. Some also say that the fact that he's the oldest son of attorney Frank Finn, a longtime partner at the prestigious law firm of Thompson & Knight, doesn't hurt his career prospects either, political or otherwise. "From day one," comments a former colleague, "David never made any bones about wanting to get into the political arena."

 

After deciding to run for Criminal Court No. 10--a move Finn says he made after Marshall Gandy's name kept popping up as the judge to beat--Gandy says Finn told colleagues that domestic violence was "'Gandy's thing. I don't have to do that.'" And at least one person, Minnie Arnold, a volunteer board member at The Family Place, says Finn told her as much at a Republican Christmas party. "He was saying we don't need this strictly domestic-violence court," she says.

Finn vehemently denies Arnold's accusation and says Gandy can't win unless he stokes voters' apprehensions about his intentions. "Judge Gandy has posited on the debate circuit that this is a referendum on domestic violence, and that is completely inaccurate. This is a referendum on work ethic and judicial reform.

"I don't have any plans to disband, dismember, or dismantle the court. I want to improve the court and really do it right. I think that the specialized court is a good idea, but it doesn't mean that it's frozen in time and you can't improve what already exists."

Concerned about the ultimate fate of the court, victims' advocates are worried over the outcome of next Tuesday's election. "Who wins is important," says The Family Place's Flink, "because if the who turns out to be someone who sees things from the defense lawyers' point of view, then the who could be trouble. [The winner] has to understand the issue of domestic violence and be sympathetic and empathetic to these women. He has to be victim-oriented. You can't be defendant-oriented, you just can't be. Because these women have been victimized, and they need a criminal justice system that's going to be there to protect them."

Victim advocates are anxious as well about how long it would take a new judge to learn the ropes; Finn's solution sounds too much like what was going on before the court's reorganization. "Just the learning curve for a new judge would take at least three or four years," says McGauley. "Just to know and understand the issue. Not to cite case law, but to know it and understand, because what you see in domestic violence is not what's really happening."

Ever since Judge Gandy's intervention on her behalf, Jeanie Pruitt's life has done a 180 degree turn for the better and for the worse. The couple is in the process of getting divorced, and Gandy has prohibited Joel from making contact with her.

"Judge Gandy and all of his staff," she says, "are so aware of how hard it is to break the cycle. Believe me, it's not like they hit you once and you're out the door. It's so much more complicated than that." On the other hand, she says her husband's refusal to pay child support has forced her to "hock every piece of jewelry I have to buy milk and diapers."

But she believes that, had it not been for Gandy's personal interest in her case, she would still be at her husband's mercy. "I have to give Judge Gandy all the credit in the world," says Pruitt, "for taking the time to spend that much mental energy on that particular person. He's done more to Joel Pruitt than anybody has."

Finn would like his shot at winning that sort of praise, and wants victims' advocates to believe he is on their side, as well.

"I've told them, 'If you like Judge Gandy, then whether he's elected or I'm elected, it's a win-win, because I'm going to work hard for you.'


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