“Because We Can” is a recent hit also inspiring the latest tour name of rocker Jon Bon Jovi. “Because I can” was the response Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham, the Texas soldier whose March 16 arrest by Temple police spawned a viral video, gave Officer Steve Ermis when asked “why are you carrying this?” of his openly visible weapon. And “because they can” is the attitude projected by the office of Bell County Attorney Jim Nichols with the interestingly aggressive prosecution of this Class B misdemeanor.
Right fighting is a term used to describe those who fight to be right, not necessarily to make the right decision. It’s having to have the last word in an argument, to not back down, to prevail regardless the cost or carnage. It’s dysfunctional behavior in personal relationships, it’s a betrayal of public trust when engaged in by taxpayer-funded entities. It’s applicable to Bell County officials’ prosecution of Grisham.
The questioning by Ermis, a 27-year department veteran, interrupted a 10-mile hike Grisham and his 15-year-old son were on as part of a Boy Scout badge project. Ermis was responding to a non-emergency report of a couple walking west on Airport Road, an area on the outskirts of Temple. The caller termed an individual carrying some kind of gun as “odd” and further offered she thought they were white with one being a woman. The man, she said, was carrying the weapon, but not waving it around.
That both Grisham and then his son, Chris, were able to capture much of the encounter on video brought visibility and scrutiny of the case by gun rights activists.
The law, specifically Brady v. Maryland, requires the release of evidence, something often handled as a simple administrative matter. Despite the common release of dashcam video – especially in high profile cases – refusal by both the Temple Police Department and later the Bell County Attorney’s Office suggested prosecutors’ discontent with the case’s widespread media attention and public scrutiny.
The video is significant as it documents the initial encounter between Grisham and Ermis, the encounter which prompted the events seen on Grisham’s widely-viewed video. Opening seconds of the dashcam video establish the initial demeanor and actions of both Ermis and Grisham. In setting the stage and providing context for what’s seen in the Grisham video, this footage is key.
The county attorney’s refusal prompted a mid-May hearing which generated expense for taxpayers and for defendant Grisham. Visiting Harris County retired Judge Neel Richardson ordered the Bell County Attorney’s Office to release two police videos and an audio recording of the call which initially brought Temple police officers in contact with Grisham. The release, however, was only for use by Grisham’s defense team, not for dissemination to the press or the public – an order which continues standing today.
The dashcam video was shown in open court at a July pre-trial hearing, but monitors were positioned so as to obscure the view of court spectators.
As the pursuit of this case consumes significant public funds, a pattern of state-sponsored information suppression has become increasingly evident and troubling. That has attracted attention from open government and other taxpayer advocates.
The actual trial again showcased questionable actions and case facts seen throughout this prosecution.
Heightened security appears to have been scheduled with each court appearance. From the Bell County Justice Center entrance to in and around the courtroom, sheriff’s office personnel seemed far more numerous than usual. If they were scheduled in addition to the regular detail, that’s extra taxpayer expense. If they were diverted from other areas, what other potentially important tasks were left unattended?
While in the courtroom, spectators were – sometimes tersely and selectively – warned to turn off all electronic devices. Even on the first day of trial while an audience of approximately 25 sat in the courtroom two hours past the court’s posted start time as attorneys argued pre-trial motions in the judge’s chambers outside public view, deputies admonished some (not all) that were spotted with devices turned on.
Live-tweeting and real-time Facebook posting by both media and other spectators have become common practice in courtroom proceedings, but not in Bell County – at least not for this case.
Trial testimony created new and interesting views of activities related to Grisham’s current Class B misdemeanor interfering with the duties of a police office charge. The charge has been downgraded twice since his arrest.
Watchdog Wire contributor “The Legendary” Jim Parks wrote “prosecutors stipulated that the complaining witness, a CASA program director at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Central Texas, named Laura Wilkerson, never mentioned being ‘alarmed’ when she originally reported the ‘odd’ behavior of Sgt. C.J. Grisham on March 16…”
He further reported:
It was not until she arrived at the offices of the Temple Police Department to meet with an investigator who took her statement that she followed his suggestion and used the modifier he suggested to describe her state of mind, prosecutors agreed. The word is “alarmed.”
The case’s only eye witness to the full encounter – Grisham’s son, Chris – was brought to tears during his time on the stand after admitting he had talked with his parents regarding the trial. Prosecutors sought to disqualify him from testifying after learning he was not instructed to refrain from discussions or listening to discussions about court proceedings.
After an in chambers conference, Richardson allowed the testimony saying: “The spirit of the intent of what the court meant was that people who were going to testify could not discuss the case or be present when it was discussed, and I don’t blame Chris, Jr. I blame his parents.”
Despite an exchange some observers termed “bullying” and “not letting the kid speak,” the younger Grisham gave testimony concurring with the events depicted in video clips. His account was similar to that of other witnesses.
Blue Rannefeld stood up to the gaffe; he squared off with the bench and belted it out as he told Judge Neel Richardson how the cow ate the cabbage.
He had just come out of the judge’s chambers – mud in his eye, hot, tired and frustrated – after an extended conference with prosecutors about pesky disagreements over the jury charge. He reminded the judge that he had not ruled on a motion he made for the judge’s recusal after hearing “your previous statement you made referring to my client and his wife as yokels and how you will teach them a lesson in parenting…”
From that upside down attitude, he continued to gain altitude, adding “You may call me a liar, and it’s true I do stand up to bullies. In fact, you can hold me in contempt of court. I brought my toothbrush.”
With that, he tossed the implement of oral hygiene on the defense table as the judge promptly said, “Overruled,” thus nixing the motion for his own ouster.
“Yokels”? “Teaching lessons”? Judicial impartiality or right fighting?
Temple Daily Telegram reporter Deborah McKeon reported on the questioning of Sgt. Thomas Menix, by defense attorney Rannefeld. Menix arrived on the scene after the exchange had begun.
Much of Grisham’s defense centered on alleged discrepancies between statements Ermis claimed he made versus what he was heard to say on two dash-cam videos, one from Ermis’ patrol car and the other from Sgt. Thomas Menix’s patrol car.
Two points made by Rannefeld were confirmed by Menix — that Ermis never asked Grisham for his weapon as he reportedly claimed he did in a conversation with Menix behind the patrol car the day of the arrest, and that Grisham didn’t start moving his hands around in the weapon’s vicinity until Ermis tried to take his AR-15. In fact, Grisham’s hands had been out by his side until Ermis tried to grab the weapon.
A brief portion of Menix’s dash-cam video was played for the judge and jury, but only the audio was available for the audience. Ermis’ voice could plainly be heard saying he had asked Grisham for his weapon.
McKeon reported on a final defense witness, Don Clouder, a Temple resident who lives near the spot of Grisham’s arrest. He testified that “the area is rural and that hunting and firearms are common in the area.”
She also quoted Bell County Attorney Jim Nichols stating no Grisham dashcam videos will be released as public information until after the case’s conclusion including “until it is known if Grisham files an appeal.”
Right fighting is destructive and, in this case, expensive. As noted before, the city of Temple and Bell County have spent significant tax dollars in pursuit of this misdemeanor case, a case which appears more a clash of two tempers than any commission of a substantive crime.
The many labors hours expended have undoubtedly diverted resources from more productive tasks that should have better served taxpayer interests. Questionable actions on the part of government officials create serious credibility issues. The potential of civil litigation exposing taxpayers to additional financial risk remains unanswered.
A new Nov. 18 trial is scheduled. It will be interesting to watch the public’s reaction to what appears government fighting to be right over making the right decision – at taxpayer expense.