123rd District Court Judge LeAnn Kay Rafferty was removed as presiding judge in the capital murder trial of Gregory Newson last week.
Newson is charged with capital murder in the Dec. 31, 2019 shooting death of Panola County Deputy Chris Dickerson. In Rafferty’s place, Judge Alfonso Charles, presiding judge for the Tenth Administrative Judicial Region, assigned Judge Christi Kennedy, senior judge of the 114th District Court in Tyler and Smith County, as presiding judge.
Rafferty, in a request for a comment on the proceedings, on Tuesday afternoon said she was unable to provide her point of view.
“I would love to be able to comment more fully, but due to a protective order in place, I am unable do so at this time,” she said.
The recusal action was signed by Charles on May 18 and filed on May 19.
A scheduled pre-trial hearing set for Monday afternoon on a writ of habeas corpus filed by Newson’s lead attorney James R. “Rick” Hagan of Longview was cancelled or postponed.
The hearing was to consider Newson’s request to be released from jail with a “bond he can afford to pay.”
Newson’s bond had been set at $3 million before it was lowered to $2 million last year.
Hagan, reached by phone Monday afternoon, declined comment on what the change in judges might mean for the previous trial schedule, which had jury selection and the trial starting late this summer. He also declined comment on his feelings of the change of judges and said his comments in a request to have Rafferty recused from the case stood on their own.
That motion was filed on May 10. On May 11, Rafferty entered a voluntary request for her immediate recusal in the Newson cases, according to court documents.
In addition to capital murder, Newson is charged with unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon and a separate charge of aggravated assault with a firearm.
The three charges have been consolidated going forward, according to court records.
In Hagan’s motion to have Rafferty recused as trial judge, he outlined several reasons.
“In the support of this motion, Mr. Newson would show herein that the trial judge’s arbitrary, late night, eleventh-hour rulings in this case effectively sabotaging Mr. Newson’s defense, as well as her increasingly hostile communications with Mr. Newson’s counsel, evince the sort of ‘deep-seated favoritise or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible,’ and thus mandate the trial judge’s recusal.”
Hagan’s motion said Rafferty’s actions as the case moved closer to trial “utterly derailed” Newson’s defense. He cited her move to defund the defense team’s previously approved expert witnesses and remove Newson’s third chair counsel without giving him notice or an opportunity to be heard.
“Strategies in placed for weeks, months, even years have been decimated,” Hagan’s motion said. He cited “deep seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible” as among reasons to have Rafferty removed from the trial.
Instead of Newson’s defense team focusing on issues set for pre-trial hearings leading up to the trial, they were made to regroup and were “forced to litigate issues thought to have been settled,” his motion said.
He said three lawyers have been working on Newson’s defense from January 2020 until April 28. In addition to himself, Natalie Anderson has served as second defense counsel and Gena Bunn had served as third chair until April 28, when Rafferty took action to effectively have her removed.
“Instead of three lawyers (which the defense team has had from the inception of the representation in January 2020 until April 28, 2023, and on which Mr. Newson’s defense has been based), Mr. Newson’s defense has been reduced to only two (attorneys),” the motion said.
“Instead of a cadre of funded experts preparing form trial, Mr. Newson is left with a group of bewildered bystanders who feel duped, understandably unable or unwilling to assist in preparing for trial, or even remain involved in the case, given the uncertainty of their once promised funding,” Hagan’s motion said.
Hagan said the court had granted a series of motions funding various experts to assist in Newson’s defense. Those motions had been requested and approved by Rafferty on Aug. 17, 2022, March 30 and April 6.
Based on the court’s authorization, Hagan’s defense team moved forward with engaging the experts prior to the May 10 deadline for Newson’s defense to file notice of those expert witnesses. Less than two weeks before that deadline, Hagan said Rafferty took actions tripping up the defense’s strategy.
Rafferty “amended previously issued orders, slashing funding previously authorized and reducing the amounts to fractions of the original funding, effectively rendering the court’s prior authorization impotent,” Hagan’s motion said.
As a result, all of the previously approved, funded and engaged experts have given notice they are unable to continue their involvement in the case and have stopped work, he said.
Hagan said on April 27, third chair defense attorney Bunn sent an email to the 123rd District Court in the form of a motion to have the experts adequately funded. Less than 24 hours later, Rafferty removed Bunn as counsel, citing “sham allegations without a basis in the record and without notice or an opportunity to respond,” according to Hagan’s motion.
Hagan said Rafferty sent several emails to him and Bunn on the evening of April 27, from about 6:50 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. She said “Ms. Bunn is not on the 10th Administrative Region’s list for death penalty qualified council... I will not allow Mr. Newson three trial attorneys... The ‘third chair’ initially was requested for appeal only.”
According to Hagan’s account of the email thread that night, Rafferty said she would consider Bunn’s limited appointment for appellate proceedings only if he desired to move forward with having her on Newson’s defense team.
“I must admonish Mr. Newson, on the record, however, that Ms. Bunn is not qualified to represent him in this matter,” Hagan quoted Rafferty. “If this is a mistake on her eligibility, please advise.”
Hagan said that statement countered Rafferty’s comments when he recommended Bunn fill the third chair position in December 2022 when Jonathan Hyatt withdrew from the position.
“Mr. Hagan advised the judge that Ms. Bunn had agreed to accept the appointment, and the judge indicated her approval, noting she believed Ms. Bunn was imminently qualified,” the motion said. At the time Hagan said he pointed out to Rafferty that Bunn was not on the appointment list for capital cases nor did she need to be as she was being appointed additional counsel.
Hagan’s motion said Rafferty’s “antagonistic rulings and adverse demeanor” continued at a late April pretrial hearing. Toward the end of the 17-page motion, he said “one thing that could explain the Respondent Judge’s about-face on the issues is concern over the county’s purse strings.”
He cited a review of Rafferty’s official Facebook page, which included photographs of her with law enforcement officers in front of a banner reading “Back the Blue.”
Hagan cited other social media posting attributed to Rafferty which “raise grave concerns and lead a reasonable person to believe that the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned or that the judge has personal bias or prejudice concerning the subject matter of the party.”
The motion quotes Rafferty saying she did not attend any memorial services or provided funding to support those.
“I’ve been pretty cautious and careful since this case,” she was quoted in the motion. “I don’t go to things at the SO (sheriff’s office). You know, I mean, I just… I try to be real impartial everywhere, you know.”
The defense team’s motion to recuse Rafferty indicated prejudice.
“A reasonable person could surmise that the Respondent Judge’s extreme caution is driven by her perceived need to mask her true feelings of bias and prejudice in favor of law enforcement and against the Defendant, who is accuses or murdering a Panola County sheriff’s deputy,” the motion said.
On behalf of Newson, the motion said he “respectfully prays that this Court either voluntarily recuse herself from these proceedings or refer this motion to the regional presiding judge.”
That request was filed on May 10 at 5:04 p.m. with the Panola County District Clerk’s office. Rafferty filed her voluntary request to be removed from the case on May 16, while Charles, the presiding judge for the Tenth Administrative Judicial Region, filed his order of reassignment on May 19.