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Did Political Donations Change the Outcome of a $1 Million Case?

Did Political Donations Change the Outcome of a $1 Million Case?EXPAND
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Political donations are behind an appellate court ruling that overturned a jury's verdict requiring an apartment company to pay $1 million to two women raped by a man who entered their Garland home through a window with a broken latch, the women's attorney claims in a motion filed this week.

Plaintiffs’ lawyer John McCraw writes that the timing and the amount of the donations, and the fact they went to two justices on the three-judge panel that overturned the case, are too unlikely to be mere coincidence. He's asking Justices Craig Stoddart and Molly Francis on the Texas Fifth Court of Appeals to recuse themselves from the case, which is still under appeal.

The case was already freighted with politics because the two women were in a relationship when the violent assaults happened in 2014. One of the victims told the Morning News after the verdict was overturned that she suspected conservative bias against lesbians played a role in the appeals court decision.

In his motion calling for Stoddart and Francis to remove themselves from the case, McCraw went further, claiming that two political action committees made coordinated contributions to the two justices before the case was assigned to the panel that heard the appeal. The plaintiffs are seeking a hearing before the entire 13-member appeals court, minus Stoddart and Francis.

"It is a well-known axiom in politics that rarely does anything happen by accident," the motion states. "The string of 'coincidences' in this case is simply too great to overlook and throws great doubt on the impartiality of two of the three justices assigned to this case."

The two women moved into Stoneleigh Place Apartments on Buckingham Road in Garland in February 2014.
The women reported a broken window latch when they moved in. They weren’t home when the complex’s maintenance workers claimed they fixed the problem. On June 22, 2014, they were raped.

Jared Alan Wade later pleaded guilty to the rapes and said he was able to enter the apartment through an unlocked window — the same window the women reported to their landlord. Wade is serving a 50-year prison sentence.

A jury found that the apartment company was partially responsible for the attack and awarded the women over $1 million from Stoneleigh Place's owner, AVPM Corp. The appellate judges reversed the decision this summer, deciding that the crime was not foreseeable and the apartment complex was not negligent for not ensuring the window would latch.

Then a routine Texas Ethics Commission report came out detailing financial contributions to the justices who reviewed the case.

On Dec. 29, 2017, Stoddart received a political contribution of $2,000 from the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC — known for their Republican endorsements — and $1,000 from the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas PAC. Two days later, Francis received the same amounts. Both were assigned to review the case about three weeks later. Case assignments on the appeals court are supposedly random, but McCraw doesn't believe that was true in this instance.

“I believe somebody went in and said, ‘I want this case,’” McCraw said. “These are the types of contributions meant to send a message.”

The three judges who reviewed the case were unanimous in overturning the jury's verdict, including Justice Ada Brown, who did not receive similar political contributions.

According to case law, only an extreme contribution could mean recusal for the judges at this point, according to appellate lawyer Chad Baruch, who is not involved in the lawsuit against AVPM. He said a side effect of voting for judges is the political contributions around election time that make the waters murky.

“It’s just an unfortunate byproduct of the way we pick judges in Texas,” Baruch said.

McCraw, whose father was a judge on the Fifth Court of Appeals, took a personal tone in his motion seeking the recusals.

“Ever since I was a little boy, I was taught that the court is supposed to take specific facts to find a fair result, but the court went off the rails,” he said. “If we’re going to have a democracy, that’s the kind of thing that makes a difference when people vote for a judge.”

Francis and Stoddart are both up for re-election in November. Neither have responded to a request for comment.

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