Texas Appeals Court Judges Visit Sherman - KTEN.com - No One Gets You Closer

Texas Appeals Court Judges Visit Sherman

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SHERMAN, TX -- A drug conviction in Fannin County drew the attention of the highest court of appeal for criminal defendants in Texas, and they heard arguments during a visit to Austin College. 

A special visit on Friday was arranged to show students the court in action. Eight of the court's nine judges listened to appeals in two cases, one involving a local man who sits in prison hoping for a new trial.

Dozens turned out to watch as the judges from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, including five women, questioned lawyers inside an auditorium at Austin College. "They were real court cases that we actually got to sit here and listen to," says college senior Tim Smith.

"The demeanor that they had was also something that was telling, these are very capable individuals," says new lawyer Joseph Mandala.

Before sitting down to lunch at a special reception, the judges answered questions about their work -- including choosing from 1,800 potential cases each year -- and heard arguments in two cases, one a death penalty case from Houston and another a Fannin County man convicted of possessing ecstasy pills.

"We were arguing that it was improper, an error, to try a citizen accused in a criminal case in shackles," says attorney David Stagner, who represented Vaughn Ray Bell, 31, on appeal.

According to case briefs, Bell came in and out of the Bonham courtroom during his trial in 2010, but the jury could not see the ankle restraints. Bell's attorneys say it was an unfair practice.

"The judge over there routinely puts shackles on anybody that hasn't made bond and that's just unconstitutional," says Bell's original attorney Bob Jarvis. "We were supposed to have a fair trial and you're supposed to be presumed innocent, but when you put shackles on a man and you put him in front of a jury, the jury thinks he's already guilty."

The court is the last resort in Texas for defendants in criminal cases. For students interested in the law, it was an education to see them at work. "They are people too and their journey is really great and you have to respect it, and I think it was really interesting to hear their thought processes at that level," says college senior Courtney Kenisky.

In the Bell case, District Attorney Richard Glaser says the jury could not hear the ankle restraints, and they are now used much less frequently. We reached out to Judge Laurine Blake, but were told she cannot comment because it is a pending case. Bell was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The judges, who normally sit in Austin, will issue decisions on both cases at a later date. There is a separate appeals court for civil cases.