By CLINT FOSTER
FORT WORTH – One mistake should not taint a lifetime of success and achievement. That was the theme of conversation when two Tarrant County attorneys sat down with the Index Monday morning to defend the honorable Judge Jerry Ray following a courtroom incident in late October.
Defense attorneys Jim Lane and David L. Richards said they hope the event that triggered a deluge of critical national press coverage won’t negatively influence people’s perceptions of Ray, who they called one of the best judges around.
“You don’t judge Joe Montana or Bret Favre by the last pass they threw,” Richards said. “This was the last pass he threw and it wasn’t a good one. But his career is incredible.”
Ray attracted the attention of large publications –including the Star-Telegram, Texas Monthly and Slate –after an outburst during a DWI case in Fort Worth, Oct. 29. The former 29th Judicial District Judge was a visiting judge in the case, “helping out Tarrant County,” as Richards put it, because the regular judge could not be there.
A 21-year-old defendant was on trial in connection with an Arlington traffic stop in 2010. At that time, the 17-year-old driver blew a 0.095 on an Intoxilyzer test, putting him over the adult legal limit for blood-alcohol content of 0.08, in addition to being under the drinking age.
While the jury was meeting, they sent a note to Ray asking if they could ignore the results of the breathalyzer test in their verdict. Later, the jury delivered a not-guilty verdict, prompting a strong reaction from Ray in the courtroom. According to the court reporter’s transcript, Ray responded:
“I’ve been at this such a long time I know better than to get angry. But you just decided to ignore the law and your oath, and you know you did. The note that you sent out says, ‘Can we ignore the Intoxilyzer’... for whatever reasons, you chose to ignore that part of the evidence. And you have the right to do that. It’s called jury nullification... Perfect example, the O.J. Simpson trial. He clearly committed murder, and the jury didn’t want to convict him, so they found a way to – to render a not guilty verdict. So it happens. I’ve been around over 40 years in this profession, tried an awful lot of cases as a defense lawyer, as a prosecutor, and as a judge, and it happens. But this ranks among there as one of the most bizarre verdicts that I’ve seen. Thank you for your service, and you are excused.”
Ray went on to tell the defendant that he “got lucky” and was “absolutely legally guilty” but that the court was “obligated to accept” the not-guilty verdict.
The nature of Ray’s comments and his choice of words, particularly comparing the trial to that of O.J. Simpson – who was acquitted in a 1995 Los Angeles County Superior Court murder case but later held liable for civil damages – seemed to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Also his use of the phrases “jury nullification” – when a jury knowingly and deliberately rejects evidence to send a message larger than the case itself – and “legally guilty” drew national attention.
But Lane said he understood Ray’s frustration with the situation.
“I was not surprised that he got a little testy,” Lane said. “Those jurors took two oaths: one to tell the truth and another to follow the law. A note came out basically saying, ‘We don’t want to follow the law or the facts. How do we get around it?’ At least, that’s how he interpreted it. He is such a purist, as far as the law is concerned, [and] his emotions played a little bit too much into that.
And I think he knows it. I don’t think he meant anything malicious by it. He was trying to point out something that was apparent to him as a judge. He probably just didn’t say it the way it should have been said. But would he do it again like that? Never in a million years.”
Regardless, the incident in October has led one publication to call Ray the worst judge in the nation. It’s a title that both Lane and Richards said is completely unfair.
“What he did was a mistake, but to be called one of the worst judges in the country is ridiculous,” Richards said. “He’s one of the best judges in the country. He knows the law inside, out.”
“The Defense Bar that thinks he’s not the kind of visiting judge they want have misjudged Jerry Ray,” Lane said. “The people of Palo Pinto were lucky to have him all those years. He’s exactly what anybody would want in a judge, as fine a judge as I’ve ever had the opportunity to be in front of. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and if I could try a case in front of him every week I’d do it. He always went out of his way to make sure things were done in accordance with the law and they were fair. He never tried to prejudice or influence anything that ever happened in a courthouse. Judges can influence things if they want to; I never saw that from him. He’s truly a no-nonsense judge, though.”
Richards said one of the things he admires most about Ray is his knowledge of the law. He said while most judges are more interested in politicking, he has always observed Ray as a continual student of the law, always building on his knowledge and understanding of his craft.
“He’s always studying the law, more than any judge I’ve seen,” he said. “I’ve never been in his office when he’s politicking. He does what people are paying him to do: be a judge, not a politician. It’s refreshing.”
Lane and Richards did not shy away from what some may call Ray’s ‘temper’ in the courtroom. Both recounted stories of Ray becoming “pretty irritated” with lawyers who showed up to court late or not properly prepared for their cases. But Lane stood by Ray’s intense dedication to always running a fair and efficient court.
“If anybody has ever been in Judge Ray’s court, he’s not a warm and fuzzy judge. He’s all business,” Lane said. “Judge Ray will tell you what’s on his mind faster than a lot of people. Is that bad? I married a woman that’s just like that. She’ll tell me exactly what’s on her mind and that’s why I love her. That may be why I’m so fond of Judge Ray. You don’t have to wonder what that man is thinking or what he’s going to do. He’s going to follow the law and do it as efficiently and quickly as he could. For lawyers that try cases, you can’t ask for anything better than that.”
Both Lane and Richards said everything surrounding the DWI case in October got blown out of proportion. They said, although it was not right for Ray to say what he did and essentially tell the jury their verdict was wrong, to judge Jerry Ray on the strength of his character and ability to do his job by this one isolated incident would be an incredible injustice.
“It’s unfortunate, but I would hope that this little bitty hiccup would not have any influence on people’s perception of Jerry, who he is, what he’s done and what he will continue to do,” Lane said. “If we were all judged forever off of one stupid thing we said, then this would be a pretty lousy life. [But] this, too, shall pass. I just think it’s a shame that Tarrant County may not use him for a while. I don’t know anybody that’s any better.”