Local ‘wealth of knowledge’ judges 500th jury trial

A day after his 70th birthday, Jefferson County Criminal District Court Judge John Burch Stevens Jr. oversaw the selection of a jury ahead of his 500th jury trial in 16 years – a feat those who have worked with him say is unlikely to be matched.

“His birthday was two days ago, and I tried to call him a couple of times, but he was unavailable,” District Attorney Bob Wortham said through a chuckle, saying that just proves how dedicated Judge Stevens is to his profession. “He’s always busy. He’s always making something happen – that’s what he’s good at. “

Overseeing the selection of a fair and impartial jury, also known as “voir dire,” is a crucial component of a judge’s duties. It’s a process during which would-be jurists offer all manner of excuses and justifications for why they should be excused from what many refer to as not just a privilege, but a civic duty.

The Examiner watched Stevens’ 500th voir dire, where Judge Stevens dealt with all manner of disruptions and excuses. Two women leveled allegations against the judge that he was attempting to publicly embarrass them upon being asked if they have any previous convictions – a question asked of every juror.

“Well, we started right off the bat trying a lot of cases,” Judge Stevens recalled when thinking back to the beginning of his nearly 16-year tenure, saying his long-time bailiff has kept track of the number. “It progressed and it got to 100, 200, then 300 and so on.”

A love for law

Stevens told The Examiner his love for trial law developed through multiple judiciary vantage points. He has served as a defense attorney, a prosecutor for the US Attorney’s Office and, most recently, a judge of the Jefferson County Criminal District Court.

“I was a prosecutor and a defense attorney,” he said. “For criminal defense, if you never get to trial – you can’t lose. You end up realizing some clients have a lot of evidence that’s going to be hard to overcome. If you can get them on a bond, then, as long as they don’t get convicted, they’re not going to prison. That’s a strategy.

“Things play out, witnesses end up passing, or they just get tired. That’s why you have to keep pushing forward – because over time people go, ‘This has been so long I don’t even want to deal with it anymore.’ So, that’s the most important thing a judge has to do, to push the cases forward. If we didn’t assert and push, the Constitution would be kind of meaningless in a lot of cases. ”

When speaking about the sheer volume of cases that come before him, Judge Stevens told The Examiner, “We have the 21st largest county in the state, but for felony cases, we’re No. 13. For felonies, we’ve got too many for our population. ”

‘Fair and speedy’

Stevens told The Examiner that when he was a trial lawyer, the attorneys knew there were judges who would rather do something else than try cases, Stevens explained, telling The Examiner that delaying cases was an effective maneuver for defense attorneys in those courtrooms.

“Then you knew the ones who enjoyed trials,” he said. “The strategy of delay doesn’t work with them.”

According to the first words of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where the crime shall have been committed.”

Pushing for defenders to receive a fair trial without unnecessary delays has been a hallmark of Stevens’ judgments, according to Jefferson County District Attorney Bob Wortham.

“He has just done an outstanding job as a criminal court judge,” Wortham said. “I don’t know what I could tell you that would fully live up to the way he performed in the criminal district court. He is a wealth of knowledge. He knows the criminal code backward and forward. ”

The nice thing about Judge Stevens is, as Wortham puts it: he doesn’t make a bad decision. Wortham said the way to properly judge a judge’s work is through their record in appeals court.

“He’ll make a decision and a defendant will appeal it, but Judge Stevens is always right,” Wortham said. “The appellate court always sides with him. I mean, you can count the times he’s been reversed on one hand and still have some fingers left over. That’s unusual for judges, but he knows the law so well he knows how to rule. That’s a very important quality for a judge. “

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