No joke

The denizens of the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building are no strangers to controversy, gossip, or for that matter, rumbles with the Dallas County Commissioners. Even so, tensions at the courthouse may have reached new heights.

First came ParkingGate, in which Dallas County Commissioner Jim Jackson or his lackeys leaked parking records to several news outlets to show which judges might be slacking off work.

Then there was the shoe-polish putsch, in which sheriff's department employees and sympathizers, angered over pay issues, decorated a good percentage of cars in the garage with anti-commissioners messages. One silver Saturn, parked prominently in front of the first-floor walkway, seemed to best sum the mood. "Dallas County Commissioners Are Unfair," shouted a photocopied sign in the back window. Slightly below and to the right of the first sign was a second, this one a blowup of Commissioner Ken Mayfield's smiling mug. "Especially this one," the Saturn's owner had scrawled.

Indeed, news that Commissioner Mayfield may face criminal charges for allegedly pawing a court reporter and an assistant district attorney had the courthouse grapevine vibrating at a frequency unmatched since the days when everyone was trying to figure out whether Dallas lawyer and felon Robert Rose had turned canary. (For those with short memories, the rumor mill had Rose wearing a wire in an attempt to trap corrupt judges for the feds. He didn't, and went to club-fed in 1995 on income tax charges.)

On November 4, The Dallas Morning News reported that the two women had lodged harassment complaints against Mayfield, who, as this paper reported two weeks ago, has caused a bit of a stir at the Crowley building by continuing to practice law before judges over whom he wields the power of the purse. ["Who ya gonna call?," October 27.] Worse than the harassment allegations, in the minds of many, was Mayfield's response. When confronted by the Morning News, "Mr. Mayfield initially said: 'I have to plead guilty. I am guilty, and I will take my punishment.' He then burst out laughing and repeatedly said, 'It is a joke.'"

"We went down to Lupe's for lunch on Friday and that was the topic," said Judge Pat McDowell, who sits as the administrative judge over the criminal district courts. "We were all trying to figure out who [the complainants] were."

They weren't too hard to identify, and the details of their complaints raise additional questions about whether Commissioner Mayfield should be practicing law, given his budgetary authority over the criminal courts and the district attorney's office.

The first alleged victim is the regular court reporter for Judge Gary Stephens Jr., who sits semi-permanently as a visiting district judge hearing child sex abuse cases. Last August, Stephens heard the case of Twuan Ksor, a 40-year-old Grand Prairie man charged with "unlawfully, knowingly and intentionally engag[ing] in sexual contact" with a 14-year-old child "by contact between the hand of the defendant and the breast of complainant with the intent to arouse and gratify the sexual desire of the defendant."

Following a one-day non-jury trial, Stephens found Ksor, who was represented by Mayfield, innocent of the charges. In the course of trying Ksor, however, sources in the Dallas County District Attorney's Office say that Mayfield offered to show how his client could have innocently touched his victim.

While no one else was present in the courtroom, Mayfield allegedly demonstrated his theory by fondling the breast and the buttocks of the court reporter, who didn't find the display innocent in the least. But the worst part of the story was yet to come. According to several sources with knowledge of the allegations, the court reporter complained to Stephens about the incident around the time it occurred. Stephens, in turn, made no move to report it.

"Judge Stephens told me she talked to him about it," says a defense attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He said he didn't know what to do."

Reached late Tuesday afternoon, the judge confirmed that he is a potential witness for one of the two women, but otherwise declined comment. "I would like to talk with you about it, but I think I'm going to be a witness, so I'd better not," said the judge.

But other sources familiar with the case came to the defense of Stephens, who is well regarded by both prosecutors and defense lawyers. "Generally, I think a lot of people in that position leave it up to the woman involved, because of the potential ramifications to her," said one prosecutor who has handled his share of sex cases over the years.

Then again, Stephens' apparent reluctance to notify the district attorney's office is somewhat troublesome, especially in light of the fact that he hears virtually all child sex abuse cases brought in Dallas County. Pursuant to a special arrangement between former Dallas County Criminal Courts Judge Tom Price and the Dallas County commissioners, child sex abuse cases filed in the county are sent to 265th District Judge Keith Dean, who in turn refers the cases to Stephens.

Although Mayfield had nothing to do with Stephens' appointment, the county does pay a percentage of his salary. The county also foots 100 percent of the costs of his court personnel--chiefly, his court reporter and bailiffs--and miscellaneous court expenses.

According to First Assistant District Attorney Norm Kinne, that direct power over the court reporter in question was part of the reason the complainant did not come forward until the last week in October.

She did so at approximately the same time that a 38-year-old assistant district attorney assigned to the juvenile sex crimes division came forward to her supervisor with an identical complaint.

According to several sources in the district attorney's office, about three weeks after Mayfield demonstrated his client's "innocence" for the court reporter, he did it again for the prosecutor. This time, the demonstration took place in the public hallway of the Crowley criminal courts building, in front of a witness.

The prosecutor, a single mother with a teenage daughter, attended night law school while working full-time as a retail buyer. She was at first stunned by--and later scared of--Mayfield's political clout, not only before judges but also over the district attorney's office itself, sources say.

"She's of that generation that would be terrified about losing her job," explains a defense attorney who has tried several child-indecency cases against the prosecutor-victim.

Of course, as a prosecutor in child-abuse cases, part of her job is to convince witnesses to testify in difficult and dangerous situations. "I think even though she's an ADA, she was confused about what to do," says Kinne. "I think she discussed it with her family and friends at length and finally decided to come forward."

Because one of the complainants was with the district attorney's office, the case has been referred to Rockwall County District Attorney Ray Sumrow. According to Kinne and others in the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, the case is expected to be presented to a Rockwall County grand jury within the next week.

"From what I hear, the prevailing thought is to present it as a public lewdness complaint," says one Dallas County prosecutor. (Public lewdness is a Class A misdemeanor.)

For his part, Mayfield is considerably more circumspect than he was a week ago and is in the process of hiring counsel. "I don't have any comment at this time," says Mayfield about the underlying incidents, although he adds that he will have comment "at the appropriate time.

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Christine Biederman