The Voir Dire – Part 6

Ronelle Wilcox and CASA

Let’s look at the courtroom floor plan again.

The Courtroom at Lunchtime
The Courtroom at Lunchtime

When Sanford asked his question about CASA there were seven out of ten potential jurors remaining on the front row. Juror #1 was gone, and so were #3 and #7.  Ms. Wilcox had one empty space on her right and another on her left. She was alone, in her own space. Sanford was standing right in front of the row. He must have looked right at her when he said “Let’s start on the first row on the left side. Anybody?”  He had already mentioned CASA in his opening statements to the jury pool (disqualifying himself if he’d had any association with them), and he mentioned CASA again here. Wilcox had been so responsive during the voir dire up to that point that she had to have heard him ask about CASA one or both of those times.

Let me stop right here and say that there is nothing wrong with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) as an organization. The first CASA chapter was founded in 1977 in Seattle, and there are now thousands of chapters across the country. According to Barbara Osler, the executive director of the Deep Springs chapter of CASA, “Each child in the custody of Child Protective Services has a guardian ad litem and an attorney ad litem; and so our program, CASA, serves as the guardian ad litem; and so, that just means the guardian for the case, and so the kids have an attorney who represents their legal rights and interests, and CASA represents the child’s best interests.”

She said they typically “get involved in cases where Child Protective Services, or CPS, removes children from the home.” When a child has to appear in court, a highly trained CASA volunteer is assigned to help that child get through that experience as effectively as possible. Volunteers are required to have thirty hours of specialized training before they are allowed to assist a child in this way. They are also required to complete an additional twelve hours of training yearly to maintain that status. Their sole focus is supposed to be on the needs of that child. They do great work.

Ms. Osler was careful to explain that they are usually involved in civil cases, but she also said that their “volunteers do become involved in criminal cases at times, because, you know, if the children are victims of sexual abuse or severe physical abuse, then there could be a criminal case going on the same time as the CPS case.”

In September 2015, while researching all of the jurors on Steve’s second trial (trying to find them so I could interview them) I Googled Ronelle Wilcox’s name, and found an article from the Deep Springs Gazette, dated March 28, 2001, titled, “Child advocates sworn in.” Ronelle Wilcox was one of ten volunteers who were sworn in by Judge Justin Hawes as “Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) representatives.”

Yes, that same Judge Hawes. This chapter of CASA was his special project. He was the one that founded it in Deep Springs. At the end of the article, there was a list of the members of this CASA’s governing boards. Ada Dixon was on their Board of Directors, and Blake Goudy was on their Advisory Board.

The article also said that on February 10th, 2001, the representatives had begun “a 30-hour training.” During their required training before they could become CASA volunteers, at their swearing-in ceremony, and afterwards, the volunteers certainly met Judge Hawes and maybe some of the board members. The volunteers were also undoubtedly given materials about their local chapter of CASA. The names of board members are usually listed in an organization’s materials, so it’s likely that Wilcox would have at least seen Dixon and Goudy listed in documents while she was serving with CASA.

When the jury panel asked if they “know or recognize any of these names,” did Wilcox refrain from mentioning them precisely because she did know one or both of them as early as 2001? Even if she hadn’t known who they were before 2001, it’s ridiculous to believe that she didn’t know them by 2006.

We’re not done.

When I talked to Ms. Wilcox in 2016, I said, “And then one of the attorneys asked …this was a question about working with abused victims, and he said that people who were either CASA reps or worked in an abuse shelter, or anything like that. Do you remember how you answered that question?” She said, “Well, I had been a CASA representative, so I guess I answered that I had been a CASA representative.” I just said, “Oh, okay.” She continued, “An advocate. I had been an advocate for CASA.” I said, “You were a volunteer for CASA, right?” She said, “Yes.”

She said yes to me on the phone, but she didn’t say anything about CASA during the voir dire. She also didn’t say she knew who Ada Dixon or Blake Goudy was during the voir dire. Even if she hadn’t been aware that Dixon and Goudy were on CASA’s boards, she did tell me that she knew who Nina Dixon was then, and did tell me that she had been a CASA volunteer. Henry Ross asked the panel if they recognized the names Ada Dixon and Blake Goudy (among others). The panel was asked if they worked “as a CASA rep or a psychologist, anything along those lines.” Wilcox had done that, but didn’t admit it.

There’s more.

Wilcox told me that, in 2006, when she was asked if she knew Dixon or Goudy, she said, hesitantly, that she, “knew who Nina Dixon was,” and “knew what she did in town, but other than that, no, that’s all I knew.” Then she added, “I just knew what her profession was,” meaning that she had heard of Dixon, but hadn’t had any contact with her, just knew her by reputation, right? Let’s see if that statement holds up.

TPIA requests to Barbara Osler at CASA revealed that Ada Dixon, on February 5th and February 12th, 2001, taught Ronelle Wilcox and the other original CASA volunteers two of the required pre-service training classes. The first was titled “Understanding Children, and the second one was titled “Dynamics of Child Abuse and Bonding and Separation.” Wilcox, in a class of only ten people, received two-and-a-half hours of training (some of it related to child abuse) from Ada Dixon, one of the prosecution’s two expert witnesses. Dixon also repeated the “Understanding Children” class on September 13, 2004, but there is no evidence that Wilcox attended that training.

Ms. Osler also told me that Dixon had been a speaker for their group in May 2001 and in February and May 2004 (which was during Wilcox’s tenure at CASA). It’s clear that Dixon had an extensive association with the group (in addition to the training sessions she provided), and appeared at the organization’s events at times when Wilcox had every opportunity to be there.

Dixon also spoke to an annual CASA conference in Dallas, was a featured speaker in a criminal justice class at Deep Springs’s local Baptist college, Stockman University, and gave speeches on three separate occasions at the Governor’s Prevent Child Abuse Texas Conference in Austin. The vast majority of these speeches and training sessions were related in some way to the topic of sexual abuse of children. Dixon also was Hanna’s counselor for over two years, and had a profound effect on the outcome of the trials. Bear in mind also, that a CASA chapter in a small city or town would be a small organization. Wilcox was in the first cadre of volunteers. It seems impossible that she could be a member of such a small group and not remember someone who was as involved with the group as Dixon.

Osler also sent me documentation showing that Wilcox served at CASA from March 23, 2001 to January 18, 2005, and that Wilcox had worked on two abuse and neglect cases during that time. About the extent of those cases, Osler explained, “The number of [court] hearings held for a case varies between four and six during the Temporary Managing Conservatorship status (first 12-18 months), and then twice per year during Permanent Managing Conservatorship status. While I do not have a record of specifically how many times Ms. Wilcox appeared in court for CASA, she appeared in the 555th Judicial District before District Judge Preston Hawes and Associate Judge Jordan Drecker.”

Wilcox was inducted into service in CASA by Judge Hawes. CASA in Deep Springs was his baby. He got it started. Wilcox volunteered for CASA for just shy of four years. Taking the low end on Ms. Osler’s estimate above, Wilcox appeared in court as an advocate for Judge Hawes’ organization at least a dozen times in front of Judge Hawes and/or Judge Drecker between 2001 and 2005.

By not revealing any of this information, I believe that Wilcox lied by omission during voir dire. If she did, she committed an intentional, blatant act of disregard for the law, possibly in order to be able to influence a jury trial. She wasn’t with CASA any longer, so she wasn’t helping children directly. Maybe she saw an opportunity to defend a child when she was called for jury duty. It was well advertised within the city that the first trial had ended in a mistrial. Remember Elmer Ross saying to Judge Hawes that he was worried about being able to get a jury at all “with all the information that’s been going around town.” This is just supposition, of course, but maybe Wilcox, knowing that she was scheduled for jury duty, and having heard a lot of that “information that’s been going around town,” thought she could help an “innocent victim” by preventing the second trial from ending in a mistrial.

Michael Sirois

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