Judge: Anti-domestic violence display may have biased jury pool

A judge this month ruled that an anti-domestic violence display at the Hays County court building might have biased potential jurors against a man accused of beating and raping his girlfriend.

The display, part of a Domestic Violence Awareness Month campaign by the Hays County sheriff’s office, was a red, life-size cut-out meant to represent a local woman killed by her husband. It was at the Hays County Government Center’s entrance on the morning of Nov. 3, when jury selection was scheduled to begin for the trial of Gerald Ramsey, 29, who faces felony charges of sexual assault and family violence assault for strangulation.

District Judge Bill Henry brought up the display in court, leading defense attorney William Rugeley to object and the judge to send the dozens of potential jurors home, according to Rugeley. The hearing has been rescheduled for Jan. 20.

Henry’s decision has drawn criticism from local advocates of domestic-violence victims and raised eyebrows among some legal experts. Criminal defense attorneys, however, said Henry’s move helped preserve the integrity of the trial.

Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor and the director of Tulane University Law School’s domestic violence clinic, said that she “cannot understand” Henry’s reasoning and that she had never heard of a similar case.

“The law is squarely against domestic violence. Nobody is arguing otherwise. The issue in the trial is whether that defendant committed domestic violence,” she said. “It would be like saying that because you had public service announcements against drunk driving that you could never try anyone for drunk driving because it would inflame the jury.”

But criminal defense attorney Tim Clancy said that material from an anti-family violence campaign would impact jurors.

“We can all agree that family violence is bad. It’s whether or not the posters have a prejudicial effect on the jury, and I believe posters that are anti-family violence in a courthouse would cause bias in the minds of the jury,” said Clancy, who works primarily in Dallas. “The judge is trying to provide a fair jury trial to both the state and the defense.”

In Williamson County, District Attorney Jana Duty said there was a similar cut-out display one year in the lobby of the county’s justice center during Domestic Violence Awareness Month that was taken down after a judge’s request.

“When it was time for jury selection, the presiding judge asked that we take them down” because he didn’t want jurors “unduly influenced,” she said.

The week before the Nov. 3 hearing in Hays County, Henry said he had asked for the sign to be removed and that County Judge Bert Cobb’s office “assured” him it would happen.

“The main goal is to do everything possible to make sure that all sides get a fair trial,” Henry said.

Henry said that other judges had made similar requests of Mark Kennedy, the county’s general counsel. Kennedy said that he received all of the requests and asked the sheriff’s office to take it down.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month was October, and the jury selection hearing was on the first business day in November. Lt. Jeri Skrocki, who led the program for the sheriff’s office, said the display was taken down at some point that day, possibly after the potential jurors entered in the morning.

She said the campaign, which involved 12 red cut-outs posted at public buildings across the county, was “an effective tool for the message we’re trying to get out.”

She declined to comment on the Ramsey case, which dates to February 2012, when Ramsey of Killeen and his girlfriend went to Vice on East Sixth Street in Austin and stayed at the Best Western in Kyle, according to an arrest affidavit.

Ramsey attempted to drive while drunk from the hotel, but his girlfriend took his keys, according to her account in the affidavit. He then shoved her to the ground and slapped her, and when she attempted to fight back, he beat her, it said, resulting in many bruises that were observed by a Kyle police detective.

She tried to scream for help, but Ramsey held her mouth and throat and she couldn’t breathe, the affidavit said. It said that he then told her he “wanted to say he was sorry,” and had sex with her after she said, “Don’t do this.”

The case was first tried this summer and resulted in a hung jury. Chief Assistant District Attorney Brian Erskine then filed for a retrial.

The Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center collaborated with the sheriff’s office on the “silent victims” cut-out project, which has been used across the country. Melissa Rodriguez, the center’s director for development and community partners, said Henry’s decision to delay the trial ignored the victim’s perspective.

“The trial process is already a difficult process for victims. The victim is literally putting their life on hold every time this happens,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not unusual for victims to lose faith in the system, and that’s what prevents other victims from coming forward.”

Aaron Setliff, policy director for the Texas Council on Family Violence, said that he was unaware of any instance in which information unrelated to the case at hand and outside of the courtroom was considered prejudicial against the defendant.

“There are some cases out there where, for instance, family members wanted to wear T-shirts in court that said, ‘Remember my daughter,’ but that was actually in court,” he said.

On specific cases, he said, judges “are required to maintain a level of impartiality, but at the same time they are able to take stands on issues. No judge has to be impartial or neutral on family violence. They can all be against family violence.”

Rugeley, the defense attorney, said he believed the judge made the right decision.

“I had seen (the display). I had never stopped and read the stuff, but other people do,” he said. “My case happened to be a dating violence case, and I just didn’t want to go to trial where jurors might have been prejudiced by what they saw walking into what’s supposed to be the hall of justice.”

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