Monday, January 16, 2012

DA hopeful in trouble over residency, racism, women

Waco lawyer serves as Marlin muni judge

Marlin – Cheryl Turner says she was mortified.

After taking a tongue lashing that lasted all the way from Marlin Municipal Judge Denton Lessman's residence in Hewitt to the parking lot of a state classroom in Austin, she had to endure yet another dose of verbal abuse.

This time, it was directed at a female court employee from LaMarque, Texas. Judge Lessman was running late, and while backing and filling to make sure his 4-passenger cowboy Cadillac pickup fit between the lines of the parking place, he felt the lady crowded him with her car. She was running late, too, for the state-mandated judicial class the judge and Municipal Court Clerk Cheryl Turner were attending.

“I was totally embarrassed at his language – cursing her the way he did – I just walked away,” she said.

But the real problem was the abuse she had to put up with on the two-hour ride to Austin, according to an affidavit of complaint she filed with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct.

On August 19, “as soon as I entered the vehicle Judge Lessman started accusing me about a formal relationship I had with an ex-boyfriend, the whole ride he talked and when I tried to speak he reminded me I was in his vehicle and he is talking and I am to listen.”

The friction didn't stop there.

During a court session on August 23, according to Ms. Turner, “The judge proceeded to raise his voice in court at me, told me he needed the Fine amount and the Person's history in all Dockets.” She recalls she was nonplussed by the behavior because “The Judge had never asked me what he expected in the case dockets, I prepared them way I was trained to...”

Ms. Turner became the Municipal Court Clerk in May of 2011 after a brief stint as a dispatcher for the Marlin Police Department. Her initial experience in court was obtained under the supervision of retired Municipal Judge Linda Lawless.

Judge Lawless held court sessions each Monday of the month, something Judge Lessman changed immediately when he replaced her.

He changed to a new system of holding court only on the second Tuesday of each month, which crowded the court docket considerably. On the day in question, “The court docket was full we had scheduled approximately 165 Initial appearances and 35 Pre-Trials, 25 Bench Trials...He overloaded the docket and we did not get a lunch and we worked til 5:30 p.m. After the court he stated I was very unprepared and it makes him very angry.

“I advised him without communication from him I was unaware of what his expectations were. He never let me speak after that. I left very upset his way of communicating with me is very unprofessionsl.”

Why was the docket so crowded?

“He said he was not going to spend all his time over here (in Marlin), that he has a practice in Waco. He said he lives in Waco.”

As previously reported in these columns, Judge Lessman, who is running for Falls County District Attorney on the basis of “dual residency” in McLennan and Falls Counties, has a homestead exemption on his Hewitt residence, though he has registered to vote in Falls County.

On September 6, according to the complaint, the judge summoned Ms. Turner, Bailliff John Cornish and Marlin Police Chief Darrell Allen to a room in the police department where he again berated her for not providing the information he needed in court case jackets. She said, “he proceeded to raise his voice at me and tell me when he tells me that wants something in the Docket it better be in there...The judge was very angry and Bailiff Cornish told him that everything was in the Case Docket and that we are trying our best and with changing things every court hearing he has confused us on what he is wanting.”

The list of alleged abuses goes on, much of it directed toward defendants.

A Mr. Ward tried to hand Judge Lessman some paperwork that was folded.

Judge Lessman made him wait until the end of docket call to be heard, allegedly remarking, “...Mr. Ward is lucky he does not take his ass to jail, that who the hell was he giving him folded up papers. Mr. Ward never said a word...”

He asked the man if he had a job, if he was on welfare and if he had graduated from High School. He “made rude remarks about the earrings Mr. Ward was wearing, he stated to Mr. Ward you think your (sic) all that standing in fron of me with those fake ass earrrings, The Judge proceeded to state that he knew they were fake...”

It seems that such bench-side conferences with defendants is a common order of the day in Marlin Municipal Court – but only with certain types of defendants.
People of color are the favored target, according to Ms. Turner, who is Hispanic. Such questions were typically directed toward Hispanic and black defendants.

“I think it was more of a racist thing,” she recalls. “He was more in-depth with people of color. 'Are you on food stamps? Welfare? Are you employed? Do you have a high school diploma? How can you pay this?”

Unemployed since Nov. 1, Ms. Turner resigned from her job with benefits after Judge Lessman attempted to recruit another woman from his client base in his Waco practice. She is white.

Ms. Turner alleges he proposed to pay the white woman $3.50 more per hour than she received, but the new hire prospect declined to take the job.

She has not applied for food stamps, welfare or any other form of public assistance. She is uneligible for unemployment benefits because she resigned. According to Ms. Turner, she was offered a transfer back to the dispatch operation at the police department.

When she learned the Bailiff, John Cornish, would be the new Court Administrator and would be in charge of her evaluations, she declined the offer.

She was never formally reprimanded, she says, and is unaware of any such evaluation. Nevertheless, she told The Legendary, "I fear retaliation from him (Judge Lessman)."

Ms. Turner is raising children and grandchildren in her Waco home.

Another complainant named Latasha Freeman alleged to the Judicial Conduct commissioners that the judge made her speak aloud into the judge's bench microphone, to apologize to the gallery in the court room for laughing over his interrogation of a man accused of stealing potted plants.

He then made her wait until the end of the docket call to hear her pleading.

She alleges she spent 30 to 40 minutes handcuffed as she sat in the gallery waiting for her turn before the bench. Judge Lessman made several threats to have her put in jail and told her several times to sit up straight, like a lady.

Accused of disorderly conduct in fighting with the father of her child, she was asked about her educational background, her income and whether she works, or is on food stamps.

“Judge Lessman pointed at himself, the Court Clerk and the Chief of Police and stated since they all work they are paying for my food stamps. At that point I felt humiliated and started to cry.”

According to an investigation, Judge Lessman has moved a fifth-wheel travel trailer with no septic system onto some acreage he bought from his uncle at a rural Marlin address.

He has refused to say how much time he spends there and claims dual residence.

He wishes to replace Jody Gilliam, a white woman who has served three terms as District Attorney. Ms. Gilliam ran on the Democratic ticket before she crossed party lines to challenge Judge Lessman in the Republican Primary of 2012.

She told newsmen, “I have never heard of dual residency. I believe the voters of Falls county are smart enough to know where Mr. Lessman lives. Based on my understanding of the law, there is no such thing as dual residency. If your residence is where you make your home for yourself and your family, then, no, he has not satisfied the residency requirements for Falls County.”

Judge Lessman told an interviewer, “I have been a longtime conservative Republican, and I am running for this office with my conservative, Christian values...”

He then accused Ms. Gilliam of switching parties for political gain.

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