Judge Inna Klein removed from cases due to undisclosed conflict with Nueces County DA's office

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A judge on Monday ordered state District Judge Inna Klein be recused from two criminal cases due to a conflict between her and the Nueces County District Attorney's Office that she did not disclose to the defendants.

The rulings, issued by the presiding judge of the Fourth Administrative Judicial Region, Sid Harle, are a result of Klein not disclosing that the district attorney’s office reported her to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct last fall following accusations she and others had watched a video feed of jury deliberations during a murder trial.

The rulings — which are likely to have far-reaching implications — mark at least the second and third cases in which a judge ordered Klein be recused due to the alleged incident with the broadcasted jury deliberations.

More:State commission dismisses complaints against Judge Inna Klein

Signaling the findings could bleed into other criminal cases in Klein’s court, the Nueces County district attorney is requesting she be recused from all cases in which his office is involved — a move that could delay hundreds of cases at a time when the county is facing a growing court backlog and an overcrowded and out-of-compliance jail.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct, has yet to weigh in on the November 2021 incident.

In May, the commission’s executive director, Jacqueline Habersham, declined to confirm or deny whether the agency had received a request to investigate from the district attorney’s office, saying such information is confidential.

Klein did not respond to a request for comment from the Caller-Times on Wednesday. The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, which dictates how judges should conduct themselves in and out of the courtroom, bars judges from publicly discussing pending cases.

The mandate comes after Harle presided over a hearing on the matter on Aug. 3 in the criminal cases of Joe Villanueva and Gambino Maldonado.

Klein, who previously presided over those cases, had declined to voluntarily recuse herself, according to court documents.

In the rulings, Harle said the “nature of the conflict” with the DA’s office and the ”lack of disclosure rises to the level of a recusal being mandated in this matter.”

Defense attorneys Lisa Harris and Terry Shamsie represent Villanueva and Maldonado. In April, another judge granted a similar motion by Shamsie requesting Klein be recused in the case of a former London ISD teacher who pleaded guilty to having an improper relationship with a student.

Defense attorney and former Nueces County Judge Terry Shamsie speaks in favor of applying for a grant for an indigent defense mental health program at the Nueces County Commissioners Court in Corpus Christi, Texas, on April 19, 2022.
Defense attorney and former Nueces County Judge Terry Shamsie speaks in favor of applying for a grant for an indigent defense mental health program at the Nueces County Commissioners Court in Corpus Christi, Texas, on April 19, 2022.

District Judge Missy Medary, who presides over the Fifth Administrative Judicial Region, is tasked with appointing a different judge for the cases of Villanueva and Maldonado. Medary did the same for the case with the former London ISD teacher.

Harle’s order left the door open for Klein to continue presiding over criminal cases in which the district attorney's office is a party under one condition: if Klein discloses the conflict and the defense agrees to waive it.

“This Order does not prohibit the Trial Court to disclose the nature of the conflict and allow future defendants and their counsel to potentially waive the conflict and proceed before the Court, or to request recusal while the conflict exists between the Court and the District Attorney,” the order reads.

District Attorney Mark Gonzalez indicated his office does not wish to waive the conflict.

On the same day as the ruling, Gonzalez sent a letter to Klein, Medary and District Judge Carlos Valdez. In it, he said the district attorney's office “expresses no opinion” concerning Harle’s order, but accepts the findings and decision regarding the conflict.

In order for justice to be properly administered, Gonzalez said, both sides must be confident “concerning the impartiality of the proceedings” and avoid the possibility or appearance of bias.

“As a result, the Nueces County District Attorney's Office requests that Judge Klein recuse herself from any matter wherein the Nueces County District Attorney's Office is a party and/or a party-representative,” Gonzalez's letter read.

The total number of active cases that could be affected in the 214th District Court Klein presides in is not clear. It could total in the hundreds.

Klein, a Republican, won the seat in 2016, beating longtime Democratic District Judge Jose Longoria. She ran unopposed for reelection in 2020. State district judges in Texas hold four-year terms.

Judge Inna Klein gives the oath of office to the 79th Corpus Christi Police Academy during their graduation ceremony at the Selena Auditorium on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.
Judge Inna Klein gives the oath of office to the 79th Corpus Christi Police Academy during their graduation ceremony at the Selena Auditorium on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

The emergency meeting

The Board of Judges held an emergency meeting over Zoom on Tuesday to discuss Gonzalez’s letter and hear from Klein on the issue.

Valdez, the presiding judge over the monthly meetings, said no action was taken during the brief meeting. Klein did not attend the meeting, he said.

The judges made plans to meet again next week to discuss the path forward.

Other options could be discussed at the meeting, but Valdez said he sees two possible solutions: Either all the cases in Klein’s court involving the district attorney's office are shifted to other courts, or a visiting judge is appointed to hear the cases until the conflict is resolved.

The former could worsen the court backlog and negate the benefit of a new, temporary auxiliary court starting in the fall. That court will be paid for with a state grant the county earned specifically to tackle its backlog.

More:Nueces County awarded state funds to establish public defender's office

Appointing a new judge to work in Klein’s place until the situation is resolved, however, could be costly, Valdez said.

The emergency meeting marked the fourth time the Board of Judges convened since July. Typically, the board meets once a month. Last week, the judges heard from Gonzalez about staffing deficiencies in his office, which is down more than a dozen prosecutors.

The accusation

In November 2021, First Assistant District Attorney Angelica Hernandez filed a motion accusing Klein of watching jury deliberations during the murder trial of Derek Parra, of Corpus Christi.

"Judge Inna Klein in violation of Texas Code of Criminal Procedure ... watched the jury deliberation by the use of her courtroom camera system," the Nov. 15 motion stated. "Judge Klein not only watched them, but she allowed members of her staff, defense counsel, and state prosecutors to watch the jury deliberations."

Klein recused herself from the case on the same day the motion was filed — also the same day the punishment phase was set to begin.

Klein was made aware that the deliberations were possibly being recorded earlier that day, according to an email she sent to Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales that afternoon. The Caller-Times obtained a copy of the email thread via an open records request.

In the email, Klein said she was unable to locate which entity may be in possession of the recordings.

“We first contacted the IT department but were told by the IT that the Sheriff’s office maintains the system. We contacted the Sheriff’s office but were told that it is the county building maintenance department who maintains the surveillance. At this time, we are still unaware of who does it,” she wrote. “We are also not sure if anyone is in fact recording it, whether it is stored anywhere and if so for how long.”

Juries typically deliberate in secret in a separate room during trials. However, juries during this time were deliberating in the district courtrooms in accordance with local COVID-19 protocols.

Klein wrote that the courtroom surveillance cameras were also capturing the deliberations. “Both situations are problematic,” she wrote.

A jury acquitted Parra of murder and aggravated assault in the 2019 killing of Joe Andrew Treviño, 27, of Austin. Parra did, however, plead guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Hernandez, like Klein, later recused herself from the punishment phase of the trial.

The investigation

Hernandez said she requested the Nueces County Sheriff’s Office investigate the incident for possible criminal charges against those accused of being in the room and watching the video feed.

"It's a hard situation because we do have assistant district attorneys that were also present at the time this was happening," Hernandez told the Caller-Times in November. "But there has to be accountability and equal treatment under the law. That applies to a judge, to a bailiff, to an assistant district attorney, to a defense attorney — to anyone who was in there."

On Wednesday, Hernandez deferred questions about the investigation to the sheriff’s office, saying a case file was never sent to the district attorney's office.

But it appears there was never a criminal investigation to begin with.

In a text message to the Caller-Times on Wednesday, Nueces County Sheriff J.C. Hooper said the sheriff’s office did not move forward with a criminal investigation into the incident and instead found “an administrative inquiry and review would be more appropriate.”

Hooper said he conferred with County Attorney Jenny Dorsey before making the decision, which came shortly after the incident came to light.

“I consulted with the county attorney, and we agreed that a criminal investigation was not warranted,” he said.

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Judge Klein taken off cases due to conflict with district attorney's office