Cleveland Sanford and Wilcox
When I interviewed Cleveland Sanford, I asked him what he would have done if he had known about Ronelle Wilcox’s service with CASA. He said, “I wouldn’t leave somebody that was a CASA volunteer on a child case. I mean, I just wouldn’t do it…unless I didn’t have any other options.” I asked, “Assuming those same circumstances?” He said, “Sure. I mean, if I have the first potential juror who says that I’ve been a CASA volunteer for four years prior to this, and I quit being a CASA volunteer within the last two years, I absolutely would have used a strike on that person.”
A few weeks later Sanford sent me an affidavit, which was submitted by Steve as part of an unsuccessful appeal in June of 2017. Here are a few pertinent paragraphs.
“I was recently informed that one of the Jurors selected in the case was a CASA volunteer and that she remained silent when I asked questions directly on point to identify any potential jurors that had prior experience working with or for CASA or any other victim services type of organization.
“I was also recently informed that this Juror knew Ada Dixon, one of the State’s main witnesses, and may have known her quite well, despite the fact that she did not disclose this information during jury selection.
“Irrespective of this Juror’s knowledge of, or relationship with, Ada Dixon, I would have further inquired into her CASA involvement in an attempt to raise a challenge to this Juror for cause, and if unsuccessful, I would have used one of my peremptory strikes to prevent this potential juror from ultimately being seated on that Jury.
“Due to the nature of the case, I am 100% certain that I would not have left this potential juror on the Jury had I known that she was a CASA volunteer.”
Since January 2015, Sanford has been a district judge in Texas, on the same level as Judge Hawes. In our interview, we talked about the jury system in Texas, and how it works.
Here are a few things he said during the interview:
“When I’m picking a jury now, I often times will tell the potential jurors, ‘Thank you for your service, and I will tell you that I’m a big believer in the system, and I think most of the time the system works, and it wouldn’t work if you didn’t show up for jury duty, and so thank you for being here.’ The one case that stands out in my mind, and the reason why I say ‘most of the time I think it works,’ is this case [Steve’s].”
“It’s just a sad deal, in my estimation, because you want to believe in the system, and when you feel like the system doesn’t work, or didn’t work, it’s a problem.”
I asked him if he thought an argument about Wilcox lying was something that might get Steve a hearing at least. He said, “I don’t know how they evaluate it, to be honest with you. I mean I just don’t know what they look at, but it’s a valid point, and coupled with the fact that you have jurors who say ‘We did not reach a unanimous verdict.’ ‘We cut a deal to come up with the end result that we have.’ It seems to me that it’s a valid point because whenever you tell me that that happened, it frustrates me, because all I [as a defense attorney] can do is ask the question. If they don’t answer it I don’t have any way of knowing.”
I said, “Steve made that point the other day on the phone. He—we talk about twice a week—and he said that you clearly did your due diligence in asking the right questions to the jurors, and there’s no way that you could have known [about her involvement with CASA, or her knowing Ada Dixon] if she’s not going to speak up. And that’s got to be frustrating from a legal standpoint.”
Sanford said, “It is, because the other thing is, if you’re going to do criminal defense work, the, the deck is pretty much stacked against you to start with. To say you start with the presumption of innocence, is just incorrect. It just doesn’t happen. And especially in sex cases, more so.”
Let’s take one final look at the courtroom seating chart, and the final jury.
Of the jurors who were selected, four of them (numbers 2, 5, 9, and 10) were on the first row on the left-hand side of the courtroom [that’s a third of the jury right there]; three more (11, 12, and 20) were on the second row, and two more from the third row [so more than two-thirds of the jury came from the left-hand side]. The final four jury members were selected from the right-hand side of the room, three on the front row (31, 32, and 36) and the alternate, Penny Jo Beck (41), who was on the second row on the right side.
As Judge Hawes suggested, most of the jury members came from the lower numbers on the left-hand side. By being placed on the front row, left side, and not revealing crucial information, Wilcox was perfectly placed to be able to get that seat on the jury if that was what she had wanted.
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