Dissed robes

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In his opinion, Mansfield writes that Jones is guaranteed the right to an impartial jury, but that the exclusion of a potentially defense-friendly juror does not mean he did not receive one. "A defendant has no right that any particular individual serve on the jury. The defendant's only substantial right is that the jurors who do serve be qualified."

Since Jones did not show that the jury he received was biased, he cannot argue he had an unfair jury, Mansfield reasons. Anderson points out in his motion, however, that Jones didn't realize during his 1995 trial that he would have to prove jury bias to win on appeal. That burden of proof became law only in the Jones opinion itself.

"[Jones'] trial counsel was obviously hopelessly inept because he played by the rules of the game as they existed at the time of the trial or clairvoyance-challenged because he could not predict that four years later the Court of Criminal Appeals would adopt entirely new rules," Anderson sarcastically writes. "...To retroactively apply new rules when trial counsel had no choice but to play by the rules established at the time of the game violates our fundamental notions of fair play."

When criminal defense attorneys talk about the breakdown of the Court of Criminal Appeals, they begin with the name Stephen Mansfield. The judge, elected in 1994 and seeking re-election next year, is his own worst enemy and thus an easy target. Not nearly as dumb as people like to make him out to be, Mansfield nevertheless is stranger than he likes to believe he is.

"I think generally I have led a very quiet, sedate life," he says from his office on the second floor of a State Capitol complex building. "I've always gone to work on time, always prided myself on doing an honest day's work for an honest day's pay."

With salt-and-pepper hair that looks as though it's cut in an Austin Powers shag (really, it's just a bad haircut), Mansfield, 47, says he's writing a Tom Clancy-esque novel that combines the intrigue of particle-beam research and the suspense of massive hurricanes.

On the first day of this autumn's cold snap, Mansfield went to work wearing an oversize beige sweater with colorful geometric designs and no shirt beneath it. The wide-neck collar was stretched and slung to where it exposed one of his shoulders. He finished his look with faded jeans and running shoes.

His office decor gives little hint as to who he is, except for a barbell not far from the door. Mansfield, a self-proclaimed jock, enjoys lifting weights in his office while taking a break from the rigors of being a judge.

He says his favorite addictive drink is Pepsi and that he doesn't smoke. He's a competitive distance runner and rugby player. And he's a good cook.

Instead of hobnobbing at haughty private clubs during lunch, Mansfield can be found cooking a fresh fillet of salmon in the kitchen of the court offices, which earns him a few raised eyebrows from startled underlings. He owns a home in southwest Houston and rents half of a duplex in northwest Austin. This being his first job with a decent salary ($134,000 annually in pay and benefits), Mansfield says, he isn't used to being extravagant. His work output is impressive, among the tops in the volume of court opinions produced. He claims to use his law clerks less than most judges do in writing opinions. As if he has to prove himself -- and he does, constantly -- he offers evidence that his opinions are his own work by pointing to a ream of notebook paper stacked high on a bookshelf. Mansfield writes his first drafts of opinions in longhand on the papers. "I'm a terrible typist," he says.

So why is Mansfield still considered a buffoon? It's a combination of the deceitful way he got here, his knack of getting himself in trouble, and his reputation as an odd duck. He characterizes his past foibles as "a few minor screwups." The State Bar of Texas, the Commission for Judicial Conduct, and the University of Texas police, among others, conclude that the screwup is Mansfield himself.

Mansfield was an in-house lawyer for a Houston insurance company and had an antigovernment political bent when he decided in 1993 to run for the Court of Criminal Appeals. He says he was inspired to enter the race because of the court's decision to overturn the 1990 conviction of Houstonian Lionell Rodriguez for the murder of Tracy Gee during a carjacking. In a controversial 5-4 ruling, the court faithfully tracked rules to ensure juries are chosen at random. But to Mansfield, and to many other Texans, it appeared that the Rodriguez conviction was reversed on a technicality and that the court was leaning too far in favor of defendants' rights.

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Stuart Eskenazi