Courthouse Steps: Grime and punishment

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The Drug Impact Court in Jefferson County is in a redbrick annex across the street from the venerable old courthouse in downtown Beaumont. Judge Larry Gist, a state district judge here for many years, now presides over the Drug Impact Court, and the technically retired jurist actually works harder than many full timers. Ironically, Gist has served with distinction for so long that many of the defendants convicted in his court are sent to the Larry Gist State Jail off Highway 69 south of Beaumont.

His cases involve drug offenders sent over from the Criminal District Court and the 252nd District Court, but in truth there are drugs involved in a huge percentage of cases heard in all of these courts. Two very different jury trials underway this week make that point quite explicitly, and shuttling back and forth between the two has the effect of making one long for a cleansing shower to eradicate the stench of all this grime and punishment.

The big case is a double capital murder trial of Jeremy Kneeland, accused of fatally shooting DeShondra Guillory, 26, and Israel Manuel, 25, at a nondescript wood-frame house at 1570 Bean Court off Magnolia St. on March 18, 2012. Testimony showed the house was Guillory’s, Manuel was her boyfriend and she was pregnant at the time of her death. A week after the deaths, the house was gutted in a fire investigators said was intentionally set.

This is the second attempt to get this case tried in Judge Raquel West’s 252nd District Court. The first time around last March, a mistrial was declared on what was described as a “technical” issue reportedly related to discovery. Prosecutors have declined to seek the death penalty so Kneeland faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted, although Judge West may allow lesser offenses to be considered when the case goes to the jury. Prosecutors Rachel Groves and Ashley Molfino have displayed crime scene and autopsy photos to impress on jurors the brutal nature of the crime.

Wednesday they played a videotaped interview Kneeland gave Beaumont police detectives where he described drug transactions including the offer of cash and sex acts from those in the house when he said Manuel came at him with what he described as a machete or big butcher knife, so the self-defense argument is in play. At press time, the trial was continuing with the defense yet to present its own case.

Next door in Criminal District Court, Judge John Stevens presided over the indecency with a child trial of Christopher Henry, 39. The case resulted from events in Port Neches in 2009 when Henry and his girlfriend were live-in babysitters for the young children of a troubled family. In 2014, their oldest daughter testified to events that occurred when she was 4 years old. She alleged at various times that Henry touched her private parts while giving her a bath, handcuffed her to a bed with tiny handcuffs, and touched her genitals through her pajamas. Prosecutor Kim Hobbs struggled to explain discrepancies, presenting Garth House witnesses who interviewed the girl to explain how young victims can be inconsistent in their recollections.

The girl’s mother was not a good witness for the state, testifying she was a convicted drug felon and the girl’s father was incarcerated for drug crimes. She said they used Henry as a babysitter when they wanted to go out and “party.” The mother testified that after she kicked Henry and his girlfriend out over money issues, he called Children Protective Services to report her as an unfit mother. Defense attorney Antoine Freeman suggested in closing arguments this was motive for reporting Henry and pointed to something the girl said in a recent Garth House interview videotaped and played for the jury. When asked why she had waited years to report the alleged fondling, she said, “I thought it was something that all dads and cousins did,” suggesting something may well have happened but that there was no proof that Christopher Henry did it. The jury deliberated less than an hour before returning their verdict: Not guilty.