Conrad Lilly just had his conviction for assault on a public servant overturned for the weirdest of reasons — the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmate deserved a new trial because he proved "his trial was not open to the public" and the closure of his proceedings was "improper." But the background to that the April 18 decision in Conrad Lilly v. State of Texas is even more interesting, according to the lawyers who argued the case at the state's highest criminal court.
Lilly was indicted for allegedly assaulting a prison guard at the French Robertson Unit, according to the decision. The trial judge arraigned Lilly in the prison unit's chapel, which also serves as a branch courthouse for Jones County where the prison is located. After arraignment, Lilly filed a motion to transfer his trial proceeding to the Jones County Courthouse in tiny Anson, Texas.
The trial judge overruled Lilly's motion; the defendant pleaded guilty in a plea bargain and was sentenced to six years confinement. Lilly appealed his conviction; the intermediate court of appeals affirmed his conviction and he appealed to the CCA.
Melinda Fletcher, an attorney with the Special Prosecution Unit who argued the case on behalf of the state, says Jones County has handled its prisoner cases inside the prison unit for years because the county's courthouse does not have an adequate holdover cell to house prisoners. "When they have court in the prisoner cases and they've got six or 12 prisoners and they've got no place to hold them. What they have done in the past is the prisoners have sat in a bus and the courthouse is surrounded by armed guards. And they'd take them in and out. The courthouse sits literally in the middle of town,'' Fletcher says. "The citizens became quite alarmed when they would come into town and there were armed guards everywhere.''
Fletcher says she hasn't decided whether to ask for a rehearing in the case. And she doesn't know what Jones County will do now — even though the Legislature has passed a law, Texas Local Government Code §292.0231, that allows counties to maintain a branch courthouse outside the county seat. "This was done as a solution to a very real problem and I don't know what the solution is going to be now,'' she says of Jones County's chapel courthouse.
Roger Donley, the attorney who represents Lilly, says there are plenty of small counties that have the same problem but don't run afoul of the law. "They can accommodate," Donley say of Jones County. "The other thing is they don't have to bring a busload of people — they could do three at a time. I'm not trying to tell them how to solve their problem. I'm just telling them the way they did it is not correct."
According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark, the chapel courthouse will no longer be an option for hearing prisoner cases because it has heard its last case. "In light of this court opinion, there will not be any further proceedings held in that facility," Clark wrote in an email.
-- John Council