The conviction of a Wichita Falls man who was absent during his capital murder jury trial was recently upheld by a Texas court of appeals, according to an article on the front page of the Wichita Falls Times Record News today, Friday, January 15, 2016. Defendant Jerry Joe Garza was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole in a trial which was made unusual by the fact he chose to be absent while jurors heard evidence and attorneys argued his case. The interesting trial was presided over by Wichita Falls 78th District Court Judge Barney Fudge who sent defense attorneys to the defendant’s cell everyday to remind him of his right to be in court.
The Seventh District Court of Appeals of Texas issued its Memorandum Opinion on January 7, 2016 in which the appeals court judges affirmed the trial court’s handling of the fascinating trial. The trial began in December and lasted 5 1/2 weeks through Christmas. There was so much publicity by the Wichita Falls news media that the trial had to be transferred to Denton, Texas after pre-trial hearings were held in this city a stone’s throw from the Red River.
One unusual event included the defendant lunging at a Channel 3 TV (Wichita Falls NBC affiliate) cameraman in the hallway outside Judge Fudge’s courtroom in the hallway of the Wichita County Courthouse which is located in Wichita Falls. Doug Bilyeu, News Director for KDFX/KJTL television, said today, “When our photographer came back to the station and told me what happened, first I was glad he was okay. When I watched the video of what happened I was really impressed with how fast the Wichita County deputies took the suspect to the ground which actually kept our photographer from being hurt. It’s definitely not something that happens often when covering a trial but it’s a good teaching moment for the rest of our staff why they always need to be aware of what’s going on around them while they’re out covering the story.”
While Garza stayed away from the courtroom, a jury convicted him of murdering his girlfriend Monica Partida in 2012. The conviction was returned by the jurors a year ago.
The Appeals Court Order read as follows: “Throughout the proceedings against appellant , appellant refused to cooperate with his appointed attorneys. On August 7, 2012, the Wichita County Public Defender’s Office was appointed to represent appellant. Within a matter of two months or so, on October 1, 2012, the attorney for the Public Defender’s Office filed a motion to withdraw. The motion stated that appellant refused to meet and discuss his case with the attorney and that appellant refused to attend court. Appellant was present in court the day the motion to withdraw was considered, however, the record reveals appellant refused to participate in the hearing. During the hearing, the trial court addressed two questions to appellant, which he refused to answer. Eventually, when asked if he was going to address the court, appellant answered, “No, I’m not.” Appellant then became agitated at the presence of the press at the hearing, and this resulted in a profanity-laced tirade that ended up with appellant being held in contempt. The trial court denied the motion to withdraw.”
Justice Mackey K. Hancock, who signed the Order, further wrote in the opinion, “At the next pretrial hearing, on January 17, 2013, appellant was present, however he continually disrupted the proceedings with outbursts and threats and eventually had to be removed from the courtroom. At this time, appellant signed a written waiver that he not be forced to attend any further pretrial hearings and settings.”
Mackey’s opinion also included the following: “Subsequently, on April 4, 2013, the Wichita County Public Defender’s Office was allowed to withdraw from representation of appellant. On April 24, 2013, appellant was appointed new trial counsel. On June 6, 2013, appellant’s new trial counsel notified the trial court that his client had requested that counsel guarantee appellant would not have to be brought before the trial court to attend any pretrial matters. Thereafter, on July 9, 2013, appellant petitioned the trial court to dismiss his appointed counsel. The trial court denied the request. Appellant again filed a handwritten waiver of his right to attend pretrial hearings.”
The trial was also delayed by jury complications. One juror was delayed returning from Portugal for two days. Another juror was sick which caused a delay. Judge Fudge had seen that two alternate jurors were chosen in the event jurors were unable to continue with the trial. Because the juror in Portugal and the sick juror were ultimately able to continue with the trial, the court never had to resort to calling in the alternate jurors. But the juror situations never were complained about in the appeal of this conviction.
Justice Mackey’s opinion recites that the sole ground for appeal was the fact appellant (Garza) was tried in front of a jury without him being present. His opinion continues as follows: “Because the case was pending as a capital murder, the trial court appointed a second attorney to assist trial counsel on October 8, 2013. On February 27, 2014, appellant again petitioned the trial court to dismiss his attorneys. The trial court held a hearing on appellant’s motion to dismiss his counsel on March 13, 2014, and appellant personally appeared for that hearing. After hearing appellant’s arguments, the trial court denied the motion and admonished appellant to work with and communicate to his attorneys.”
Justice Mackey’s opinion continued as follows: “As the case proceeded toward a trial date, trial counsel were faced with the refusal of appellant to review the evidence against him. According to the record, trial counsel began keeping a log of every time they attempted to visit with appellant about his case. Appellant continued to refuse to visit with his trial counsel during this period.”
Judge Fudge persevered and was able to commence the trial on December 2, 2014, with the voir dire of the jury panel. The appellate opinion states, “Prior to commencing the voir dire, appellant was again admonished regarding wearing jail clothes at his trial. Once again, appellant refused to answer the trial court regarding wearing of jail clothes during his trial.”
The capital murder trial continued as worded in the opinion as follows: “Prior to beginning voir dire and while appellant was personally present, he was arraigned outside the presence of the jury panel. Appellant entered a plea of not guilty at the arraignment. The trial court proceeded with the voir dire of the jury pane. Appellant was personally present throughout the voir dire process. The jury was selected, sworn, and instructed by the trial court in the presence of appellant. Trial on the merits was scheduled to start the next day on December 3, 2014.”
The opinion recounted the following events: “On December 5, 2014, the trial on the merits commenced. Prior to beginning the court session, trial counsel visited with appellant in an attempt to get him to come to court. Appellant refused to attend the trial.”
A key part of the opinion stated that, “Such was the pattern of appellant’s behavior throughout the remainder of the trial. Each day he was requested to appear personally in court, and each day appellant refused to appear.”
Appellant argued before the Court of Appeals in Amarillo that the “trial court’s action in continuing the trial after he had refused to go to the courtroom was error that requires that we reverse this conviction.” However, the Court ruled, “We therefore find that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in continuing the trial when appellant voluntarily absented himself from the proceedings.”
The Court therefore affirmed the conviction of Garza and life sentence without parole. The case was heard at the appellate level by Justices Campbell, Hancock and Purtle.
The jury trial was presided over by Judge Barney Judge. Dobie Kosub of the Wichita County District Attorney’s Office was the lead prosecutor. Maureen Shelton is the current Wichita County District Attorney in Wichita Falls, Texas.