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Bell County JP to remain in office before trial date

BELTON — Bell County Justice of the Peace Claudia Brown will maintain her elected position before she faces a trial to determine if she will be removed from office because of her controversial bond-setting decisions.

A court date for the jury trial has not been set. Bell County Attorney Jim Nichols will prosecute the case.

On Thursday, Judge Stephen Ables of the 216th District Court in Kerr County heard arguments and testimony by Killeen lawyer Brett Pritchard, who filed the petition Feb. 15 against Brown after she set a record-breaking $4 billion bond for a murder suspect. Ables then gave Brown the opportunity to defend herself.

At the end of the hour-long hearing, Ables signed the order to issue the citation, which was officially served to Brown. Ables urged Brown to hire an attorney to represent her since she had no one advising her at the hearing Thursday. He told her that the discovery process is “very technical,” and said she shouldn’t try to handle it on her own.

Ables said it has been nine years since he was the judge in a case that seeks to remove an elected official.

At the hearing, Pritchard listed some of the bonds Brown set after she took the oath on Jan. 2 to agree to uphold the Constitution and the laws. He referred to the Killeen murder case in which Brown told reporters from the Temple Daily Telegram and KCEN that she’d knowingly set an unconstitutional $4 billion bond for suspect Antonio Willis to protest the legal system.

Pritchard cited news reports from the Telegram — which first reported Brown’s bonds decisions, including extremely low bonds set for suspects charged with felonies.

Public safety concerns

Something needed to be done, Pritchard said, because the justice of the peace was endangering Bell County residents by setting low bonds for felony suspects.

“I filed the petition hoping she’d understand and start to comply with the law,” Pritchard said. “If she (Brown) wouldn’t have said anything about why she did this, police officers would have just gone to the other justice of the peace. But she announced that she wasn’t going to follow the Constitution and she was here to make changes.”

When Brown was called to testify, she talked about how privileged she was to serve as a justice of the peace.

“I’m confident you will find this case has no bearing against me,” Brown said. “For a justice of the peace, especially a new one, I’m respected for my individual judgment in every case. But I can’t discuss the individual cases.”

Michael White, an attorney assisting Pritchard, asked Brown questions, some of which she answered. At one point, Ables told Brown to listen to the questions and answer them. Brown asked White at least twice to rephrase his questions.

White handed Brown a printout of her public Facebook page and pointed out a section where Brown answered someone’s comments by saying that she was a “shameless, grandstanding opportunist.”

Brown said that she used that comment as sarcasm to turn it around on the man who called her that.

Bond decision discussed

White asked Brown about her $4 billion bond set for Willis, a move that attracted worldwide attention after multiple news outlets picked up the Telegram’s article.

Brown answered White by telling about a case a professor used in a seminar she attended. She said the professor’s case reminded her that she shouldn’t just go by the suggested dollar amounts for bonds, so she asked a police officer for advice on what to set. Brown said the officer said murder bonds always started at $1 million, so she initially set the bond at that amount.

Brown said she didn’t think Bell County Judge Jon Burrows would be happy with it. So, when the next murder bond came up, she set it at $100,000, Brown said.

She said she was “heavily leaned on” to raise the bond, but said she wouldn’t name the people she worked with.

When Ables told her to answer the question, Brown said that people at the jail pressured her, but she didn’t know their names.

“I asked them, ‘If I change the 1 to a 4, would you be satisfied? And how many zeroes should I put at the end?” Brown said. She once again said she didn’t know the person’s name.

Judicial conversations

Brown referred to an email she said Burrows sent her that told her not to set high bonds “in his county” anymore.

Brown also referred to a conversation she had with Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, but she didn’t say when that meeting took place.

Brown said she never intended to set any more bonds like the one for $4 billion, saying that it was a “one-time only, egregious error.”

“I wouldn’t do that under normal circumstances,” Brown said.

When White asked her if she was apologizing for setting Willis’ high bond, Brown said, “Who would I apologize to? That young man knew what I was doing.”

In closing, Brown said she didn’t need to defend herself to a person she’d never met, referring to Pritchard. She said she uses sound judgment in each case and has “nothing to defend herself on.”

County officials embarrassed

Pritchard said many in the Bell County legal community told him that Brown’s actions reflect poorly on the judiciary of Bell County and embarrassed them.

He accused Brown of dereliction of duty on several different counts, and mentioned that the Bell County District Attorney’s office has to monitor Brown’s bonds, take up court time to increase the amounts and to add conditions to keep people safe.

 “She (Brown) should have done it right the first time,” Pritchard said.

Pritchard said Brown once took a “selfie” of a dead body, refused to go to death inquests and refused to order evictions for landlords when people hadn’t paid rent for three or more months.

Brown told Ables she didn’t understand the reasoning for the hearing.

“I don’t see the basis of this entire proceeding. It goes against everything I’ve learned,” Brown said.

Brown asked the court to let her continue in her elected role and talked about her “honorable past,” her activity in the community and her extensive education. Brown asked the judge to consider who she was, where she’d been and where she should be when making his decision.

Dodging reporters

After the hearing, Brown refused to answer questions from reporters as she left the Bell County Justice Center.

Pritchard said he was surprised by the judge’s decision.

“I felt strongly about the case and that what she (Brown) is doing is inappropriate. I thought maybe I was blowing things out of proportion, but an independent judge decided that what I said wasn’t frivolous,” Pritchard said.

Pritchard said he had questions about Brown’s health because of her “erratic demeanor and evasive responses in the witness stand.”

Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza said after the hearing that his office will continue to monitor the bonds Brown sets and “take appropriate action when needed.”