THE JUDGE WHO HAD A PRICE TAG
Texas elects all its judges. Some say the need to raise campaign funds and placate the wishes of various political constituencies, corrupts the wearers of the black robes. That may be true, but that’s not the subject of this blog. This blog is about a district court judge in Harris County, Texas who was willing to sell his integrity one felony case at a time. It’s also about others who worked in the criminal justice system who took on this powerful judge and sent him to prison.
Sergeant Bob Rees and Officer Stan Plaster worked in Houston’s Vice Squad. One of their informants told them he’d been in a poker game at which there was some talk about bribing a judge by pawn shop owner Nukie Fontenot. Seems Nukie had been indicted for receiving stolen property, theft and aggravated robbery. But he was a lucky guy. His case ended up in the courtroom of Judge Garth Bates.
The case that Nukie Fontenot was charged in was being worked by Detectives Sam Nuchia and Earl Musick, two cops who enjoyed their work. They took a simple approach to this case. Although there’s little debate that the “briber” and the “bribee” are equally criminals, a judge has a higher standard to live up to. So the detectives contacted Nukie and told him simply that they knew he was trying to bribe the judge. The old saying that there is no honor among thieves proved to be accurate once again. Nukie agreed to record conversations, become a state’s witness and help put the good judge away.
I won’t lay out all the details of the pay-off, but for $60,000 Bates agreed to see that Nukie didn’t have to spend time in prison. After the money was paid, the intermediary between the Judge and Nukie, a man by the name of Ed Riklin, was arrested outside his apartment on McCue Street in Houston. As that task was completed, the detectives got a pleasant surprise. Judge Bates, driving his Cadillac, pulled into the parking lot. When he realized his friend was being arrested, he attempted to leave, but was stopped by the officers. Detective Musick arrested him, found $2,900 of the marked money in his coat pocket and a pistol on the seat of the Caddy.
Now Earl Musick took his job seriously. He carried a card with the Miranda Warning printed on it and read the warning to the good Judge as required. Bates was insulted and interrupted Detective Musick to assure him he was a district judge and understood the law. Maybe so, maybe not, but he continued to talk to the detectives, telling them what a grave mistake they were making by arresting him. Some of that conversation was used against him at trial.
When the case went to court, the prosecutor admitted into evidence the little blue card with the Miranda Warning printed on it that Musick carried. After Bates was convicted, the Detective was allowed to retrieve the card and still has it as a memento, since he is one of the few, if not the only, law enforcement officer in Texas who has ever read a sitting district court judge his legal rights.
Bates got 8 years in prison for selling justice from the bench, but he only served 3 months. Seems fellow District Court Judge Thomas Routt managed to change the former judge’s sentence to allow him to be placed on shock probation. The two men not only served as district court judges together, but both had been municipal (or traffic) court judges previously for the City of Houston.
Sam Nuchia later became Houston’s police chief, an attorney and a judge himself. Earl Musick obtained his law degree and now practices law in Houston. I wasn’t able to learn much about Garth Bates after his conviction. He’d be 100 years old today if still alive, but then they say, only the good die young. I’m pretty sure of one thing though, he’s no longer wearing a long black robe with a price tag hanging off it.