Saturday, November 19, 2005

 

Convicted judge will stay in jail as jurors go home for weekend


Houston - Harris County Justice of the Peace Betty Brock Bell is spending the weekend in jail after a jury went home Friday without deciding how she should be punished for fraudulently renewing handicapped parking tags in her dead mother's name.

Jurors will continue deliberations on Bell's punishment in state District Judge Mary Lou Keel's court Monday. Bell, convicted this week of tampering with a governmental document, could face up to two years in a state jail facility or up to five years probation.

After jurors left the courtroom Friday, Bell pleaded with Keel to let her out of jail on bail for the weekend. Keel refused, saying she could not treat Bell differently from other convicted felons.

"As I've already explained, this is my standard procedure. I don't want to deviate from my standard procedure," Keel told Bell's attorneys.

"Ma'am, I'm not a flight risk," the 56-year-old Bell told the judge. Keel did not waver. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't want to be put in a position of giving someone special treatment."

Her bailiffs then escorted Bell to a holding cell. Bell, who has been jailed since her conviction Wednesday, is being kept in segregated lockup and has a cell to herself because of dangers she could face from other inmates since she is a judge, her attorneys said.

Her legal woes stem from her attempt to renew her dead mother's handicapped parking tags at the Harris County Tax Office in September 2004. Bell put her mother's name on the renewal application and claimed the tags were for her mother, who had died nine months earlier.

Jurors deliberated Bell's punishment for only two hours Friday before going home for the day.

The final testimony focused on Bell's background and character. A number of Bell's colleagues and friends, many of them high-profile community leaders, took the stand, asking the jury for leniency and compassion. Among the 18 character witnesses testifying on Bell's behalf over a two-day period were the Rev. William Lawson, founding pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church; City Councilwoman Ada Edwards; and state Rep. Alma A. Allen.

Two Harris County prosecutors offered a different view, telling the jury they saw Bell coerce defendants into taking plea bargains when they appeared in her courtroom, even when they asked for trials or claimed they were not guilty.

Prosecutor Alycia Harvey recalled one defendant in Bell's court changed his mind about pleading guilty and asked for a trial, but Bell said it was too late.

Another man fighting a ticket in Bell's court for running a stop sign was told by Bell to pay his fine anyway, although no evidence had been presented yet, said prosecutor Todd Keagle.

"She told the defendant she understood he wanted a trial and said he should go ahead and pay his fine because he was going to be found guilty anyway," he said. Keagle said he then sought to dismiss the case, saying he couldn't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.


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