Kocurek returns to bench after recovering from November shooting

Updated Feb 29, 2016

Inside a courtroom packed with people who brought flowers and gifts, state District Judge Julie Kocurek emerged Monday from her chambers smiling brightly, relieved to be finally coming back to work.

Before she could be seated, the crowd broke into thunderous applause and rose for a standing ovation.

“I feel like I’ve been reborn,” Kocurek said. “I feel like God has given me a second chance. For your prayers, I felt them, and my family felt them.”

It was the first time the veteran judge had returned to the courtroom since a shooter opened fire on her in her Tarrytown driveway four months ago in what police have described as an assassination attempt by a defendant in her court.

In a later interview with reporters, Kocurek, whose arm is in a sling, described her injuries, saying that she reflexively raised her arm to shield herself during the shooting, and she confirming that she has lost a finger on her left hand.

“I feel very lucky that is all I lost,” she said.

From the bench, Kocurek addressed the crowd for several minutes, saying she and her teenage son, who was with her during the attack, experienced “30 seconds of extreme horror,” but that the outpouring of support she has received from the criminal justice community has helped propel her through emotional and physical healing since the Nov. 6 shooting.

The support “far outweighs the evil moments,” Kocurek said.

She joked that she would have enjoyed a sabbatical but would have preferred a trip around the world to a lengthy hospital stay.

For the next 90 minutes, Kocurek, with court bailiffs and a SWAT team deputy from the Travis County sheriff’s office at her side, hugged several hundred well-wishers, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, other judges and law enforcement officials. Some brought cakes and other refreshments, served in an area just outside the courtroom.

“I’m ecstatic to see her back, and the whole courthouse family welcomes her back,” state District Judge Cliff Brown said. “She has been a remarkable example of courage and strength.”

Kocurek said she will undergo physical therapy for about nine more months and is “making progress every day.” Kocurek said she feels “very strong,” worked out Monday morning and is “hoping to get stronger than I was before this happened.”

Austin police are still investigating the shooting. In what investigators have described as a plot on her life, the shooter placed a trash bag or other object in front of a security gate at her home, requiring the driver of her car to get out to move it. At that point, the shooter closed in and opened fire.

A search warrant in the case indicates multiple people might have been involved in the crime.

Prosecutors have named a Houston man, Chimene Onyeri, as a suspect in the shooting. Onyeri had a pending matter in Kocurek’s court, and she probably would have sent him to prison for about a year after prosecutors said he violated terms of his probation from a 2012 fraud conviction in Rollingwood.

Police have not formally charged Onyeri with the Kocurek shooting. He remains in jail in Houston on an unrelated murder charge, but his attorney has said he did not harm the judge.

Kocurek said she will begin easing back into work, perhaps with some half-day schedules, but that part of her emotional recovery includes returning to work. She will start hearing cases Tuesday.

“It’s been almost 17 years since I’ve been on this bench,” she said. “And it feels like home. I’m very thankful to be here and to get my life back.”