Upshur County judge cleared of charge, could be reinstated as early as next week
Oct. 12, 2011 at 10 p.m.
QUITMAN - A judge on Wednesday issued a directed verdict of not guilty, clearing Upshur County Judge Dean Fowler of an official oppression charge.
Judge Richard Davis also quashed an indictment of abuse of official capacity against Fowler. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct suspended Fowler pending the outcome of the charges and must reinstate him before he can go back to work as county judge. It was not clear Wednesday how long that would take, but it could be as early as next week.
"My family and I are relieved," Fowler said. "We appreciate the judge's decision. I would like to thank all of my supporters and the people who have been concerned about me in Upshur County."
Davis granted a motion for directed verdict of not guilty filed by Fowler's attorneys after the prosecution rested, citing that attorneys Rick Hagan and Lew Dunn had failed to prove Fowler knowingly violated Jimmy Caughron's rights or even that Fowler was involved in Caughron being removed from a Commissioners Court meeting.
"A first assumption - which I don't assume - is that Judge Fowler took any action," Davis said.
Caughron was removed by a bailiff under the direction of Sheriff Anthony Betterton from a meeting Nov. 30 after repeatedly wearing duct tape on his mouth to protest that public comment had not been allowed.
Betterton and Commissioner Lloyd Crabtree still face charges.
Davis restricted what Fowler and his attorneys could say following the trial because of the pending charges against Betterton and Crabtree. Trial dates have not been set in their cases.
"We are thrilled with the judge's decision," Fowler's attorney David Moore said. "I know Dean is relieved."
Hagan said he was disappointed in the outcome.
Primary testimony Wednesday revolved around Caughron, who said he had never been told he was causing a disruption by wearing duct tape at the meetings. Caughron wore the tape to two meetings before being removed from the Nov. 30 meeting.
He said he sat in the front row, wearing the tape, so he would be visible to commissioners. Moore argued the case was more about maintaining decorum and dignity in a courtroom than about free speech.
When the prosecution finished calling witnesses, Moore filed the motion for directed verdict, asking Davis to return the not guilty verdict and eliminate the need for further testimony and the jury.
Moore said the prosecution did not provide any testimony that Fowler knew his conduct was unlawful and said there was no evidence Caughron had the right to protest in the meeting, nor that Fowler was actively involved in removing Caughron from the meeting.
Hagan argued that Fowler had given a head nod to the back of the courtroom, keying Betterton to order the bailiff to remove Caughron.
"Their case is fatally flawed," Moore said. "There is no way a jury has the evidence to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."