Legal Process in Action: District Court 297 on November 10-11, 2015

Legal Process in Action: District Court 297 on November 10-11, 2015

By Rachel Totten Keith

On November 10 and 11, 2015, I observed the successful prosecution of defendant Mr. Terry Douglas, accused of aggravated attempted sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping, and robbery charges. Tarrant County prosecutors Kimberly D’Avignon and Sarah Bruner presented evidence against him in multiple cases, with multiple victims testifying to his abhorrent criminal activities. Counselor and public defender Lex Johnston represented Douglas.

I had no prior knowledge of the case that I was about to observe when I arrived at the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center. Why a courthouse that houses county and district federal criminal courts is named after an actor best known for his starring role as a mad scientist alien transvestite, I do not know. But, I was happy to be there to witness an actual civilian dirt bag (hopefully) go to jail. I knew not the name of the defendant or the subject matter, only that it was a serious felony with multiple victims and the story had been covered in the local news.

I arrived and I sat behind the counselors in the middle seating section, first row. I had my laptop out and was prepared to take notes, while sipping my free coffee from the lawyers’ lounge (yes, they get free coffee, although they have to make it themselves.) I was promptly greeted by a bailiff who asked if I was an attorney and because I wasn’t, I was asked to move to the side section, second row or beyond. I thought that was odd, but I do not know any better and I assume this is protocol. The following day, the bailiff greets me again, and this time, has more instructions for me. Namely that because I do work for the attorneys, I am not allowed to have my laptop open and in use. Any notes that I take must be handwritten. Also, he tells me that I am not allowed to drink my coffee in the court room. WOW! So many rules! That I was apparently ignorant to! I should have read the local rules for criminal proceedings that is post on the courthouse website. Or been less honest about my role in the trial, since I was supposed be there “in support” of one of the counselors. In my case, “support” meant drink coffee and watch. Did you know that it is an actual rule of the court, not merely a good idea or suggestion, but a rule that “[n]o person shall make gestures, facial expressions, or sounds indicating approval or disapproval of any ruling, testimony, person, or conduct” (Local Rules 5.12)? Someone should have told that to the guy that sat behind me that sighed audibly every time an objection from the defense was overruled—so unprofessional! I did witness the judge reprimand someone for their cellphone going off one time. The judge said, “that is about to be mine,” like a teacher. I ell-oh-elled silently. That is common sense.

The trial began with the 12 jurors filing in, the courtroom standing as they entered; twelve because this was a serious criminal offense. Judge David C. Hagerman presided. He gave the jury instructions about talking about the case outside of the courtroom and to avoid all media, including regular television-watching during the course of the trial because of the attention the case had generated from the local news media. That piqued my interest-I knew that since more news media was expected to be outside the courthouse the following morning, that this must be a significant sort of felony—possibly even murder. Instructions were given to reporters that were apparently in the court room audience: do not release pictures and do not release the victim’s name. Well, I soon discovered the nature of the crime as the prosecutor read the indictments. There were two charges against the defendant: aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated kidnapping with a deadly weapon, I think it was. The charges sounded exactly alike, so I am not really sure exactly what the second one was. Now I knew what the fuss was all about, but I was grateful that the victim had obviously survived and was alive since there was not a murder charge.

The judge informed the court that the jury had been selected the day prior and had been briefed on the specifics of the laws applicable to the case. I wondered if they make them take a test to make sure they paid attention—I never found out.

The prosecution team was comprised of two females from the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutor #1 gets up and speaks to the jury. She gives her opening remarks indicating the facts of the case and she asked that the defendant be found guilty on both counts due to evidence. Fair enough. The defense declined to give an opening statement. Being a retired military criminal investigator, I know quite a bit about what is required as far as evidence for a prosecutor. And the prosecution already seemed to have a pretty tight, evidence-driven case. The defense was going to have a heck of a time refuting witnesses, including victim statements and identification of suspect, plus DNA evidence from blood and rape kit linking the defendant to the case.

The victim, called by pseudonym “Sandra Rose,” had gone to a local (illegal) gambling/gaming room. When she left, a stranger approached her and entered her car without permission and told her to drive. At some point, he took control of her car by force and drove her to an empty lot where he attempted to sexually assault her. She fought back with a knife she had found in her purse. She was able to escape and ran mostly naked to a neighboring home and banged on the door screaming for help, covered in blood, and still carrying the knife she had used to defend herself. The suspect took her car with all of her belongings still inside it, and fled the scene. The car was found weeks later abandoned behind an empty house with blood throughout the interior.

There were several witnesses that were a part of the investigation, such as the investigating officers, the detectives, and DNA evidence examiner. Each “professional” had to provide testimony to their level of expertise, training, and certifications and licenses held. I felt this got really redundant, but a necessary part of the case. The DNA expert had to spend significant time relating to the jurors how DNA evidence works. During this time, the judge and court staff appeared really bored, which I would expect. They probably hear the same things all the time.

The trial really got interesting when the defendant decided against his attorney’s’ advice, to take the stand. This opened up his testimony to all past offenses and other accusations and crimes he was currently charged. He had a significant history and spent 14 years in prison for armed robbery. He was also accused of 8 other sexual assault cases using the ‘mode of operation.’ He even at one point accused everyone in the court room to be actors and liars and all the victims were conspiring against him. It was kind of sad because he knew he was going away for a long time and was grasping at straws obviously.

He was convicted on both counts and received two life sentences plus eighty years, served concurrently by the jury. In the state of Texas, the defendant can request the judge or jury sentence him/her. I was not able to observe the final day or the sentencing, but apparently it was more intense accusations of his own attorney and lies and victim blaming.

Works Cited

“Local Rules for Criminal Proceedings.” 2007. Access.tarrantcounty. Supreme Court of Texas, 30 Oct. 2007. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.