SANTAFE, Texas — According to court documents, a defense motion was granted Monday afternoon to exclude Judge Jeth Jones from handling the Santa Fe mass shooting case.
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Last month, attorneys for Santa Fe gunman Dimitrios Pagourtzis filed a motion to disqualify Jones on the grounds that he had a prior connection to the case that prohibited him from presiding over the matter.
Defense attorneys argued that before Jones became a judge, he was law partner of an attorney who met with the accused shooter the day of the shooting. While that attorney, who is also now a judge, didn’t take the case, defense attorneys argued that it was still enough of a connection to create potential conflict for Jones.
“We are pleased with Judge Brown’s ruling upholding our motion to disqualify Judge Jones. Our primary duty is to protect Mr. Pagourtzis’ constitutional right to a fair trial, should it ever be restored to jurisdiction, and today’s ruling will help us do that. No one is happy with how long this case is taking, but even worse than a long case would be having to try it twice because a disqualified judge presided over it,” defense attorney Nick Poehl wrote in a statement to KPRC 2.
The family members received a notification from the Galveston County District Attorney’s office stating that Judge Lonnie Cox will now preside over the case going forward. Family members sent a copy of that notification to KPRC 2.
“This afternoon, Judge Brown signed an order granting the defendant’s request to disqualify Judge Jones. He assigned the case to Judge Lonnie Cox in the 56th District Court. We are disappointed to lose Judge Jones, but we believe Judge Cox will handle the case fairly and efficiently. He is known for making decisive decisions that are fair to all parties and for many years he held the lowest caseload in Galveston County,” District Attorney Jack Roady said in the filing.
Pagourtzis is accused of killing 10 people at Santa Fe High School in 2018.
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Pagourtzis was first found incompetent to stand trial in 2019. He was sent to North Texas State Hospital, where doctors attempted to restore his competency.
Until his jurisdiction is restored, the case against Pagourtzis remains in limbo. This is why the families of Santa Fe victims have lobbied lawmakers for more than four years to pass a law granting them access to certain evidence.
“All of our eggs are in this basket because I don’t see a future trial and if I do, it’s two or three years away,” said Scot Rice, whose wife, Flo, was seriously injured in the shooting.
However, several versions of this bill have now passed the House and Senate. That means the measure will go to a conference committee to see if a consensus can be reached.
The bill was first introduced by state Senator Mayes Middleton and grants family members access to certain evidence, such as autopsy reports and police body camera video. The bill gives district attorneys the ability to require those who view evidence to sign nondisclosure agreements and prohibits any logging or duplication of information.
Middleton’s bill was initially large and included thousands of family members of crime victims. However, the eleventh hour changes significantly narrowed the bill’s scope to essentially include only family members of Santa Fe victims. That version passed the Senate in April.
Over the weekend, the House passed a broader version of the bill, introduced by State Representative Greg Bonnen, and unless the Senate agrees with the House version, the final language of this bill will need to be worked out. in committee.
Rhonda Hart said this law is needed as the Santa Fe case is stalled.
“We’re at an impasse, we have to start thinking, ‘OK, what’s our other option?'” Hart said.
Hart’s daughter Kimberly Vaughan was killed in the mass shooting. Hart said she wants to see her daughter’s autopsy report.
“He would let me know if Kimberly went by quickly or if it was long and drawn out, that would really bring me some sort of peace and quiet,” Hart said.
Rice said he hopes the body cam video will provide more clarity on the sequence of events on the day of the shooting.
“Flo and Ann Perkins are the only two, other than Agent Barnes, who know there’s a video of them being made. So it will be hard to watch. But I think I need to see. And I think I have to process that ahead of time,” Rice said. “Personally, I want to know how it came in, there are so many rumors, people have been saying it happened this way, it came in that way. And I want to see it.
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