New wrinkle in judge's official oppression trial

HOUSTON /*Judge Donald Jackson*/ is on trial, accused of offering to dismiss a woman's DWI case in exchange for sex. Just an hour before the case was supposed to wrap up, the judge presiding over the trial said he needed to take a break.

The topic is campaign petition signatures. Judicial candidates typically capture hundreds of signatures on petitions before they file to run for judge. Now the name on some of those petitions could affect the outcome of this case.

Late Thursday afternoon, defense attorneys found out that Lance Long, the prosecutor in the case against Judge Jackson, signed a petition supporting Jackson's opponent in the upcoming judicial elections and they are concerned.

Defense attorney Dan Cogdell said, "I think it matters because it show that people who are actively involved in the investigation and the prosecution of this case are on the side of his opponent in the election."

The judge in the official oppression trial against Jackson decided to study the issue, sending jurors home for the day. It's the latest wrinkle in the case of a judge accused of offering to help a DWI defendant in his court, in exchange for sexual favors.

The state rested in the case of Judge Jackson earlier in the day and after a break, the defense requested a motion for direct verdict, which was denied.

"Objectively looking at it, it's not a question of how he really feels or how she really feels. It's an objective look, what the public expects," explained KTRK legal analyst Joel Androphy. "The public does not expect the judge to go out with some defendant in his courtroom."

The woman in the middle of the case, Ariana Venegas, spent two days on the stand testifying that Judge Jackson asked her to dinner and then asked her to enter into a relationship with him. On Thursday, Venegas was entered into the first time offenders DWI divert program. If she stays out of trouble, her record will be cleared in a year.

In court, the defense tried to portray Venegas as unreliable and called up witnesses who tried to portray her as a liar. Jackson's defense attorney spent hours grilling Stacy Biggers, the attorney appointed to Venegas after her DWI arrest.

"I talked to her at length because I think her experience was that Don Jackson didn't do anything to interfere with Venegas' right to a fair trial," explained Cogdell.

The defense is trying to paint Venegas as an untrustworthy witness. Androphy says it's a reasonable defense strategy, but a tough one to sell to jurors.

"Her character is irrelevant," Androphy said. "The fact that he met with her, the fact that he's a judge in the court, she was a defendant on trial and they were planning to go out and potentially engage in a sexual affair makes him guilty. Period."

Defense attorneys are working hard to sway the jury. Their first witness was Judge Jackson's court clerk. On the stand, the clerk described Venegas as clueless and a bit spacey, something the judge's attorneys hope will stick in jurors' minds.

But before the final witness can be called, a decision on whether prosecutors are biased against Judge Jackson will have to be made.

"You're not supposed to be prosecuted by the supporters of your enemy," Cogdell said. "You're supposed to be prosecuted by neutral, detached, objective and fair prosecutors. Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn't. But, you know, we're not going to leave any stone unturned."

Several courtroom observers told Eyewitness News that the judge will likely rule on Friday that these petition signatures are not relevant to this official oppression case. But they're not certain and the fact that the judge has to research the issue at all leaves a lot of lawyers on pins and needles for the evening. The judge is expected to make his decision Friday morning to determine if this case will proceed as scheduled.

If convicted, Judge Jackson faces up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

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