Every year, the LEAP Center hosts the 10th Court of Appeals, which hears 3-4 cases on Sam Houston State University’s campus. The three Justices serving on the 10th Court of Appeals are Chief Justice Tom Gray of Waco, who is also an SHSU College of Business Administration alumnus; Justice Rex Davis of Waco; and newly-appointed Justice John E. Neill of Burleson.
Our job is primarily to (1) market the event, (2) take care of the logistics, (3) arrange lunch, and (4) learn as much as possible. We rotate greeting duties at the door, while other Ambassadors join the spectators inside, giving us all the opportunity to see at least two cases.
We had several elected officials join us, including County-Court-At-Law Judge Tracy Sorenson…
…District Judge Don Kramer…
…and County Judge Danny Pierce…
They were part of a crowd that totaled some 240 students, staff, faculty, administrators, and members of the public, making for a strong audience.
Before each case, Justice Tom Gray introduces the justices and the attorneys…
…educates the public on how an appeal hearing unfolds…
…and lays out the courtroom etiquette.
The first case was Deanna Kathryn Lara v. The State of Texas. In this case, appellant Lara was found guilty by a jury of three counts of sexual assault of a child and five counts of improper relationship between educator and student. The appeal addresses whether a 17-year-old can, in fact, consent to a relationship with an educator when the Texas Penal Code bans school employees from arguing the defense of consent.
It’s not easy, of course, to make a case for a person who molested young people, particularly when there were three victims. The District Court sentenced Lara to three concurrent terms, which made us wonder why having one of the cases dismissed would be beneficial to Ms. Lara. Her attorney, however, educated us, pointing out that the number of convictions can make a difference during the parole hearing.
The second case involved a similar crime. In Everett Dale Webb v. The State of Texas, appellant Webb was found guilty by a jury of Indecency with a Child. The appeal questions the introduction of “extraneous offense evidence” allowed into the trial.
One of the aspects of the hearings that are different from the normal unfolding of an appeals hearing is that the Justices permit us to take photographs and they allow the attorneys to spend three minutes turning to the audience and explaining the “facts of the case.”
This helps us as students understand the legal arguments better, and also provides a more dynamic experience than a hearing would normally offer.
In this case, the attorney highlighted exactly what was meant by “extraneous evidence” and how he believes it inappropriately influenced the verdict, while the prosecutor, of course, argued that no extraneous information was admitted, and if extraneous information was admitted, it didn’t affect the outcome.
Following the second case, we have the privilege of having lunch with the Justices. Traditionally, we invite elected officials, University administrators, or local attorneys to join us, and this year, we invited Judge Sorensen and Associate Vice-Provost Chris Maynard to join us.
The discussion during lunch is far-reaching, encompassing the mascots of various schools (“Why isn’t the ‘Kats’ in Bearkats spelled with a ‘C’?)…
….to the nuances of family law…
…to the activities of the LEAP Ambassadors.
It really is a wonderful opportunity for us to expand our professional network, while also learning substantively about the law. But it is a short lunch, because the third hearing begins at one.
Our last case of the day involved Gary L. Tyson, Sr. v. The State of Texas, in which appellant Tyson was convicted of manufacturing or delivery of a controlled substance. His attorneys argue that (1) a witness’s allegedly prejudicial statements should have constituted a mistrial and (2) the charges were inappropriately based on the total weight of the ten cocaine rocks when the state failed to demonstrate that each of the rocks did, in fact, contain cocaine.
Because the arrest was made in Walker County, it involved local officers and the newly-elected Walker County DA, Will Durham. This was also unusual because the appellant was actually in the courtroom.
In this case, the defense again led off with the facts of the case.
And we did have a chance to see DA Durham make the County’s case before the Justices…
This was perhaps the most interesting case, and was most definitely the most full.
Following the case, the Justices permitted the audience to ask questions.
Victoria asked the first question, “What percentage of the cases that you hear results in you overturning the lower-court’s decision?” The answer was probably not heartening to the defendant in the courtroom: 2-5 percent.
Other questions included whether “race can influence the court’s decision” and “what the sentences are for different volumes of cocaine.” To the latter question, the court deferred to DA Durham, who emphasized that, while he was only “90 days on the job,” believed that the minimum sentence could more than double.
Following the final case, we had a chance to ask some more individualized questions to the Justices…
…and then we took formal photos.
It is a real pleasure and honor to host the court each year, and we are very grateful for Dean Lyons (COCJ), Officer Thornton, Deputies Barak and Walker, Tim Mullings, Amanda Burris, and Sabrina Rowley for their assistance and hospitality.