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San Jacinto News Times - Local News

Copyright 2013 - Polk County Publishing Company

 

Judges investigated for texting

 

COLDSPRING – Although a final investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct has not been released, a district judge has admitted her involvement in helping to get a text message delivered from a fellow district judge to a prosecutor during a 2012 Polk County trial. Kaycee Jones, 411th Judicial District Judge, was a prosecutor with the Polk County District Attorney's Office in August 2012 when she received the text message from 258th Judicial District Judge Elizabeth Coker. At the time, Coker was on the bench hearing the case of a Polk County man on trial for injury to a child, a charge for which he was found not guilty.Jones was in the courtroom as an observer. Her duties in the district attorney's office were limited to civil matters and misdemeanors while seeking the office she now holds. According to an article from the Polk County Enterprise, the defendant on trial answered questions from his attorney as Coker and Jones exchanged text messages. In one message, Coker texted Jones, "If he threw dog off bed because dog peed on bed, what would he do if baby pooped on him?" Then later, "He just testified baby pooped on him." It is the policy of the Commission on Judicial Conduct and the State Bar Association not to comment on ongoing investigations into disciplinary actions. Since the complainant has shared selected portions of the complaint, Houston media outlets have led newscasts and run articles with the August 2012 incident, based on leaks from the complainant. Polk County District Attorney Lee Hon provided a memo to the Polk County Enterprise in January explaining the communication between Coker and Jones had been indirectly communicated to the prosecutor trying the case. "Following an internal inquiry within the office, it was determined that the communication did not influence any line of questioning or strategy employed during the trial; nor did it influence the ultimate outcome of the trial," Hon said in his memo. "In fact, the defendant was acquitted. Appropriate administrative steps were taken to address the matter and prevent any similar communications in the future. On Jan. 18, the Houston Chronicle printed a front page story in which Polk County Investigator David Wells, claimed he "secured" the note as evidence and began his own investigation. In April, Jones wrote a letter to the State Bar Association in response to a complaint filed against her. She stated that she handed the note to Wells to give to the prosecutor handling the case. If so, Wells would have been in a unique position to intervene and secure the evidence. Several witnesses have since said the note was passed thorugh the hands of several employees at the District Attorney's Office, but the contents of the note were never used in a question to the defendant. It appears no action was taken. The note and related evidence were not turned over to anyone with independent investigative authority until after the November 2012 elections in which Jones was elected the 411th District Judge. After Jones was sworn in, Wells was working as a detective in another county when Houston media outlets got the story. Records that are now part of 258th District Court files in an unrelated case show that Wells had recorded phone calls made with two San Jacinto County attorneys, Laura Progmore and Richard Burroughs (longtime political opponents of Coker) sometime in December. There are also questions as to how media outlets obtained information about the defendant. His attorney obtained an order to redact his identifying information in court records in September, a standard practice when defendants are found not guilty. The man's name continues to be used in this battle over legal ethics. The texting controversy has been referenced in other cases. Defense attorney Cecil Berg used the issue twice in the trial of the State vs. Eric Eugene Cooper. He tried first to remove Coker as judge, but that effort was unsuccessful. After the jury found Cooper guilty and sentenced him to 99 years on each of the five counts, Berg filed a 100-page motion for a new trial, citing the texts as his only issue. Berg later withdrew the motion after prosecutors and the attorney appointed to represent Cooper during the appeal questioned the validity of the motion. Wells' recorded telephone conversations about the texting conversation with Laura Prigmore and Richard Burroughs, and Wells' memo were produced in response to a subpoena issued in connection with Berg's motion to disqualify. It is unknown what was discussed in those conversations, according to the Enterprise story. In the memo, Wells claims he and Hon were sharing a yellow legal pad with notes about the trial and "maybe some questions to be taken to Assistant District Attorney Beverly Armstrong. This is the normal course of business in the office during trial." "ADA (Assistant District Attorney) Jones asked me to give her the notepad, which I did," Wells wrote. Wells then said Jones wrote a note to be given to Armstrong. "I read the note and noticed ADA Kaycee Jones had noted at the top of the page, 'Judge says'. I handed the note to DA Lee Hon who shrugged and motioned for me to deliver the message to ADA Beverly Armstrong." Wells said he performed as directed and noticed Armstrong did not ask the question posed by the judge via Jones. First Assistant District Attorney Joe Martin said Wells came to him the next morning and he was surprised about the incident. He says he discussed the incident with Wells and Hon, as Hon described in his later memo. Martin said the quote attributed to him in Wells' memo as reported in media outlets wasn't uttered by him, even though it's not in conflict with his opinion about the incident. Martin adds this is the only incident of this type he is aware of, but neither the Commission on Judicial Conduct nor the State Bar Association has investigated to determine whether similar incidents have occurred. "You would think they would be asking that question or reviewing records," Martin told the Polk County Enterprise recently. Martin has received only one communication from the bar association – a notice that Laura Prigmore filed a grievance against him for not promptly notifying the Bar Association about the texting incident when Wells came to him. The grievance was immediately dismissed. Executive Director with the Commission on Judicial Conduct Seana Willing told the Enterprise last Tuesday that any hearing date or status of a complaint with the commission would be confidential. Coker has served as 258th Judicial District Judge for about 12 years. Jones was elected to the 411th Judicial District Court in 2012, beating the long-time incumbent Judge Robert Hill Trapp of Coldspring. Both courts serve San Jacinto, Polk and Trinity counties.

 

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