Black-and-white issues in shades of grey
OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma––Antwon Demetris Burks, 32, of Oklahoma City, has yet to be either convicted or acquitted on long-pending second degree manslaughter charges resulting from the April 6, 2017 pit bull mauling death of Cecille Short, 82.
The case nonetheless had an outcome of far-reaching implications on September 18, 2020, when an Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary jury of nine district judges and one attorney on September 18, 2020 voted 6-3 to remove suspended first-term Oklahoma County district judge Kendra Coleman from the bench.
“Oppression in office”
Coleman was convicted of committing “oppression in office” and of violating multiple judicial rules of conduct, but retains the right to appeal, and to run again for a judicial appointment. Pending the outcome of a tax evasion case against her, due to be tried in November 2020, Coleman could even run to replace herself.
Coleman was stripped of her judicial robe and gavel only 19 months after she was elected to represent the predominantly black northeast district of Oklahoma County.
Coleman upon election in 2018 became the only black district court judge assigned to felony criminal cases in Oklahoma County, succeeding two-year incumbent Michele McElwee, an interim appointee of then-Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin.
McElwee, who is also black and is the same age as Coleman, 44, was in June 2019 sworn in as Logan County Assistant District Attorney.
Coleman, meanwhile, in May 2019 ran afoul of Oklahoma County district attorney David Prater after twice refusing to recuse herself from the Burks trial.
Manslaughter & murder
Burks was charged with second-degree manslaughter after his two pit bulls on April 6, 2017 smashed through an allegedly poorly repaired fence to kill passer-by Cecille Short and her small dog. Neighbors said Burks, a young black man living in a historically white neighborhood, had repeatedly been warned that the pit bulls were escaping.
Short, who was reportedly nearly decapitated, was white, as is Oklahoma County district attorney David Prater.
Prater drew national attention in 2009 for successfully prosecuting pharmacist Jerome Ersland for murder, after Ersland, a white man, shot unarmed attempted robber Antwun Parker, 16, a black teenager, and then fetched a second gun, shooting Parker five more times as he lay dying on the floor of the drug store.
Alleged bias toward black defendants
Despite the conviction of Ersland, Prater has at least since 2010 been repeatedly accused of exhibiting bias toward black defendants.
Former district judge Kenneth Watson, who served two terms in office before returning to private law practice in 2016, testified on Coleman’s behalf during her trial that, as Michael Duncan summarized for the Oklahoma City online news site NonDoc, “When he was on the bench, he [Watson] had a disagreement with Prater over the DA’s attempt to remove black jurors from serving on criminal trial juries. Prosecutors and defense counsel must show a race-neutral reason to challenge potential jurors. Watson said he disagreed with how Prater was handling the matter.”
Said Watson, “I wouldn’t let [prosecutors] collectively put black people off a jury just because they were black.”
Coleman refused to recuse herself from Burks trial
Prater moved to have Coleman removed from the Burks case after she twice refused to recuse herself, “saying she showed bias toward a defense attorney and had a personal experience with a dog attack,” reported Nuria Martinez-Keel of The Oklahoman newspaper on May 25, 2019.
“In his motion to disqualify,” Martinez-Keel elaborated, “Prater said Coleman showed bias toward defense attorney Ed Blau by ruling in the defendant’s favor ‘on virtually every motion the defense has filed.’ Blau donated $500 to Coleman’s election campaign last year and co-hosted a fundraiser for her.”
Coleman appeared to do herself no favors by allegedly asking rhetorically why she would do Blau favors for $500, when she had shoes that cost more.
Blau later said he had given the Coleman election campaign $1,000.
“The carnage was terrible”
Natalie Mai, who was originally assigned to try Burks for the Cecille Short death, is the first Oklahoma County judge of Vietnamese descent. The Burks case was transferred to Coleman when another trial before Mai ran unexpectedly long.
It was then that Coleman “ruled multiple photographs of the victim’s mangled body would not be shown to the jury,” summarized Michael Duncan for NonDoc.
This was apparently because Coleman believed showing the photos would be prejudicial toward Burks, the defendant.
Acknowledged Coleman, “The carnage was terrible. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Conflicting judicial testimony
Continued Duncan, “Coleman testified [at her trial] that Mai told her that graphic crime scene photographs would need to be admitted so Prater’s office could prove their case” against Burks. Mai offered rebuttal testimony that she did not make those statements to Coleman.”
But district judge Aletia Timmons, the first black female judge on the civil docket in Oklahoma County history, testified that Mai told her the photos should “be allowed for “political reasons,” Duncan wrote.
Recounted KFOR television reporter Cassandra Sweetman, “The state suggested [Coleman] showed bias [against the prosecution] by only allowing one photo of the victim after the crime into the trial.
Prosecuting Coleman, former Cleveland County district judge Tracy Schumacher called 21-year district court judge Ray Elliott as a witness and asked him, “Have you ever limited the photographs in a murder case to one?”
Responded Elliott, “No, for either side.”
Prater sought to remove Coleman from criminal cases
Prater eventually asked presiding district judge Tom Prince to recuse Coleman from all criminal cases, and filed a case against Coleman with the Council on Judicial Complaints because Coleman was eight months late in filing a campaign disclosure report with the state Ethics Commission.
This report, when it finally was filed, documented the contribution from Burks’ defense attorney, Ed Blau, to the Coleman campaign.
District judge Prince transferred Coleman temporarily from the criminal docket to handling guardianship cases.
The Burks trial was postponed, returning the case to Mai.
“Timmons testified that returning the dog-mauling case to Mai while Prater’s recusal motion against Coleman was pending allowed for the DA to ‘judge shop’ any time he was faced with unfavorable rulings on evidence,” reported Duncan.
Alleged tax evasion
A multi-county grand jury meanwhile in 2019 indicted Coleman on four misdemeanor counts of tax evasion. Dismissing the misdemeanor charges, Prater consolidated them into one felony count of tax evasion, to be tried in November 2020 in Oklahoma County District Court.
“The removal trial revealed,” wrote Duncan, that “Coleman owed $100,683 in federal taxes and penalties and $17,616.39 in state taxes. But her accountant testified that a payment plan with the Oklahoma Tax Commission had been reached and a similar proposal to the IRS was made.”
Coleman had also collected more than 60 unpaid parking tickets.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court on December 3, 2019 reprimanded Coleman for judicial misconduct, admonished her for not paying her taxes and fines, put her on probation, and assigned her to a mentoring program that was intended to improve her judicial skills.
The September 18, 2020 verdict against Coleman from the Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary jury centered on whether Coleman violated the terms of her probation.
Prosecutor Tracy Schumacher, summarized Duncan, who filed almost daily reports on the trial, “said that much of Coleman’s misconduct occurred after the Supreme Court reprimanded her, when she was reassigned to the victim protective order docket and refused during hearings to let advocates stand with their clients who were victims of domestic violence.”
“The removal charges against Coleman also included misconduct in holding three persons in contempt and sending them to jail without conducting a hearing.”
Denied protective orders to domestic violence victims
Possibly most damaging to Coleman, however, at least in public perception, were “rulings denying emergency victim protection to domestic violence victims when their assailants were already in jail,” Duncan continued.
“State statute says emergency orders may be issued,” Duncan explained, “when there exists an ‘immediate and present danger of domestic abuse, stalking or harassment.’ Coleman said she interpreted the statute,” contrary to previous jurisprudence, “to mean that a jailed individual could not present such a danger.
“This led to several victim advocacy groups to make judicial complaints against Coleman,” Duncan narrated. “Witnesses from the Palomar Family Justice Center and the YWCA victims advocacy program testified against Coleman.”
“Baby mama dramas”
Coleman reportedly also delivered several courtroom tirades against complainants for presenting what she called “baby mama dramas.”
Further, wrote Duncan, Coleman “admitted she had victim advocate literature removed from her office area because she needed the room for additional court personnel. Advocates had complained that Coleman’s removal of the information hampered their victim advocacy efforts.”
Taken together, Coleman’s evidentiary rulings in the Burks case, her rulings against issuing emergency victim protection orders in domestic violence cases, and her remarks about “baby mama dramas” could be construed as demonstrating a pattern frequently favoring young black male defendants, including against young black mothers.
Reverend John A. Reed Jr. testifies
But Coleman was strongly defended at her trial by the Reverend John A. Reed, Jr., described by Duncan as “a key leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in Oklahoma City.”
Reed, said Duncan, “testified that he observed Prater attempting to manipulate Coleman during the September 19, 2019 hearing in which Prater sought a blanket recusal to prevent the judge from handling all criminal cases.”
Said Reed, “I noticed the DA and really what he was trying to do and trying to say and trying to manipulate her in the courtroom. I saw all of that. I saw his anger. He had become completely angry because he could not manipulate this young African-American woman.
“This young lady represents [the black] community,” Reed contended. “She’s honest, she has integrity. She’s well prepared to represent us. The next thing about it is she has great character. She’s a blessing to the community right now.”
Critics “could sit on a Kleenex & swing their feet”
Alleged district judge Timmons from the witness stand, “Before she [Coleman] could even get her feet wet, they‘ve picked on her in ways that are petty, ignorant, racist and completely outrageous. It has been tough to watch. As my grandma would say, some are so low they could sit on a Kleenex and swing their feet.”
None of the sort of criticism directed at Coleman, however, seems to have emerged in reference to her predecessor, Michele McElwee.
McElwee’s tenure in public service, including stints as schoolteacher, coach, prosecutor, judge, and now Logan County district attorney for just over a year, seems to have been associated with a remarkable lack of controversy and frequent praise for dedicated hard work.