Ex-prosecutor admits helping judge accused of sending secret text messages
A former prosecutor has confessed to assisting a state district judge who is accused of texting clandestine messages from the bench to bolster the prosecution’s case during an East Texas criminal trial last year.
Such communication by Polk County Judge Elizabeth Coker was a violation of judicial impartiality that’s required during court proceedings, said the former Polk County Assistant District Attorney Kaycee Jones. Jones has since been elected as a state district judge for Polk, Trinity and San Jacinto counties.
Previously: Judge accused of texting prosecutor to aid case
For her part, Jones wrote, “I deeply regret that I acted in this manner. It was wrong and I knew better.” An official in Jones’ office said she could not comment on a pending investigation.
Coker has complaints pending against her in the texting incident and other allegations with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. She could not be reached for comment, and the judicial commission’s executive director, Seana Willing, declined comment. Coker and Jones could face disciplinary actions by the state bar and the judicial commission.
South Texas College of Law professor Geoffrey Corn said such communication by a judge, who is supposed to be an unbiased arbiter during a trial, would be “extremely improper” and undermine the public’s sense of confidence in the system.
The texting issue first surfaced in a report by the Polk County District Attorney’s criminal investigator, David Wells.
Wells reported seeing Jones relay a text message from Coker during an Aug. 8 jury trial of David Reeves, who was facing a felony charge of injury to his child.
Coker had rejected an earlier guilty plea agreement, which forced the case to trial, where Reeves ultimately was acquitted.
But before the jury reached that verdict, Wells reported seeing Jones – who was acting as an observer in the court – pass along a note containing Coker’s text message to lead prosecutor Beverly Armstrong. The written note, which Wells secured as evidence, appeared to pose a question to a witness that might demonstrate Reeves was a danger to his child: “Judge says…baby pooped on (Reeves). If he threw dog off bed because the dog peed on bed, what would he do if baby pooped on him?”
There had been testimony during the trial that Reeves had become enraged when a new puppy soiled his bed with urine and thrown the animal against a wall. Other testimony had also established that Reeves’ baby had severe diarrhea the night he was injured.
Wells said Armstrong never used that particular question but indicated the judge was regularly interjecting herself into trial proceedings via text messages.
“(Armstrong) advised it is not the first time, as Jones is in her ear all the time regarding information she believes to be given her by Judge Coker via text during trial,” the report said.
Wells and another assistant prosecutor, Joe Martin, both felt such communication was “very unethical,” the report said.
Reeves’ defense attorney, Ryan Deaton, said he did not learn about the texting until five months after the trial was over.
In the letter to the disciplinary counsel, Jones now admits receiving the “suggested line of questioning” from Coker and being told to tell the trial prosecutor. She also apologizes: “I should not have forwarded this message from Judge Coker. I fully appreciate the importance of the impartiality of a judge in a trial and my responsibilities as an attorney not to engage in such conduct. I was wrong and nothing like this will ever happen again.”
The letter also explains that Polk County District Attorney William Lee Hon had discussed the texting incident with Jones after receiving his investigator’s report. “We agreed that it should not have happened and that it would not happen again,” Jones wrote.
Besides complaints about Coker coaching prosecutors by dictating questions, complaints have been filed against her alleging discrimination in picking attorneys to handle indigent cases.
Attorneys filing the complaints against Coker and Jones expect the investigations will be finished sometime this summer.