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Lawyers seek removal of judge from their cases

•  Recent Cases     updated  2008/03/05 18:55

Two African-American attorneys have asked that criminal District Judge Elizabeth Berry be disqualified from hearing the cases of 18 defendants they represent because, they say, she is prejudiced against African-Americans.

Berry strongly denied the assertion, saying that an e-mail message attributed to her is a fake.

The recusal motions were filed Tuesday by Fort Worth attorneys Glynis McGinty and Lesa Pamplin. The motion states that Berry directed a racial epithet at a court reporter in an e-mail she sent to her court reporter, Judy Miller.

Berry, who was in Mexico on Tuesday, flew back to Fort Worth on Wednesday to respond to the assertions.

"The reason I came back from out of the country was that I'm the steward of this court," Berry said. "The fact that someone is publicly alleging that this court is run by a racist judge is not something I'm going to stand for.

"I absolutely did not author the e-mail, dictate the e-mail, type the e-mail or send the e-mail. It's incendiary, racist, offensive language that I do not use and did not use or put in this document."

Miller said she didn't receive the e-mail, and Berry didn't write it.

"To prove authenticity is beyond our expertise," she said. "But if it was sent from her computer, Judge Berry didn't send it."

Berry has been judge of Criminal District Court No. 3 since 2003.

Pamplin contends that the e-mail, purportedly directed at court reporter Reginald "Reggie" Butler, began circulating around the courthouse last week, nearly 10 months after it supposedly was written. Pamplin said another lawyer showed her a copy of the e-mail but she does not know its original source.

Butler said Tuesday that he didn't want to comment.

On Tuesday, McGinty and Pamplin issued a news release, which they said was drafted by a number of Tarrant County's African-American defense attorneys. The two-page release cited the offensive e-mail and called for Berry's immediate resignation and Miller's immediate termination.

"It's kind of unsettling to know that in 2008 these kind of e-mails are being sent on a government computer -- and she's a judge," Pamplin said.

Attorneys who know Berry say they find it hard to believe that the veteran attorney and judge is racist.

"I've known Elizabeth as a district attorney, a defense attorney, a judge and a friend, and I can't imagine Elizabeth using that kind of language or sentiment," criminal defense attorney Jack Strickland said. "Something about this deal doesn't smell right. I wish people would give her the benefit of the doubt before they jump to conclusions."

Berry said she learned of the e-mail last month when she was notified of a confidential inquiry. She would not say whether the state Commission on Judicial Ethics made the inquiry. Commission officials also would not comment. But a Tarrant County Sheriff's Department report says a commission investigator contacted the department in December.

The judge questioned why McGinty and Pamplin would publicize the e-mail months after it purportedly was written.

"Don't you find it extremely coincidental and suspicious that over nine months later when I happen to be out of the country and unable to respond that these allegations are made public for the first time?" she said.

Leon Reed Jr., vice-president of the Tarrant County Black Bar Association, said the accusations should be investigated but that Berry should have been given the opportunity to respond before the issue was publicized.

"We're dealing with a very serious allegation that could have extensive legal ramifications," Reed said. "The first thing we should do is sit down with the judge. If she denies writing the e-mail, at a minimum an investigation should take place to determine if the e-mail was generated from her computer."

Berry said the e-mail itself raises questions about its author. For one thing, she said, she uses block letters to sign her e-mails, not the cursive signature contained in the racist e-mail.

And the date of the e-mail -- Monday, May 2, 2007 -- is incorrect, Berry said. A calendar shows that May 2 fell on a Wednesday last year.

Pamplin said she never intended to suggest that the e-mail is authentic. Her intent, she said, was to seek an independent investigation of what she considers a serious allegation.

"This is a collective action by a lot of attorneys who have concerns about this," Pamplin said. "That's why we said 'allegedly' an e-mail was sent. We're not saying it was definitive. We're saying it needs to be investigated."

Berry said it would be difficult to prove whether she did or did not send the e-mail because the county computer automatically deletes employee e-mails every 90 days.

But she said she would join with anyone, including her accusers, who wants a forensic examination of her computer to determine whether the e-mail originated there.

"If there's a way to show that the e-mail was sent or not sent, created or not created, I'd like to see that done," Berry said.

Pamplin agreed.

"If she welcomes an investigation, we welcome an investigation," Pamplin said.

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