Weatherford Democrat

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September 21, 2012

Judge recuses self from animal cruelty case

PARKER COUNTY — A Parker County judge presiding over a high-profile animal cruelty case has recused himself and transferred the cases to another court.

Late last month, court-appointed attorney Chris Castanon for defendant Linda Pharis, accused of animal cruelty in the dehydration deaths of nine horses last year, filed a motion requesting County Court at Law 1 Judge Jerry Buckner disqualify or recuse himself.

Buckner did just that earlier this month. He also went a step further and tranferred all the charges involving co-defendant Keith Hall to County Court at Law 2, as well.

Administrative Judge Jeff Walker, who has oversight in recusals, approved the transfer of the 21 misdemeanor cases to County Court at Law 2 Judge Ben Akers last week, according to court records.

“The judge in this case has expressed his opinion that defendant is guilty of the offense charged thus the defendant cannot recieve a fair trial,” Castanon wrote in his motion.

A message left for Castanon was not returned by deadline. However, Pharis told the Democrat earlier this year that she felt statements made by the judge during a February administrative hearing indicated he believed she was guilty.

Pharis — along with thehorses' owner, Hall — faces nine class A misdemeanor charges of cruelty to livestock animals after the animals were found without water in August 2011 sometime after the well stopped pumping water. Investigators also reported the horses were malnourished and there did not appear to be enough food available to the animals. Hall also faces three class A misdemeanor drug charges.

Pharis has said she was not responsible for the horses at the time of their death.

Pharis originally signed a guilty plea during a plea negotiation on Jan. 23, which included a sentence of two years probation, a $2,000 fine and an agreement to testify for the state against Hall.

Prosecutors reportedly agreed to drop the other eight cases against her.

Pharis said she pleaded guilty because she felt she didn’t stand a chance at trial without representation by someone who knows the legal system.

She submitted paperwork twice in 2011 around the time of her arrests requesting a court-appointed attorney but never heard back, she said.

She began calling the judge and prosecutor’s offices after the Jan. 23 plea arrangement and reportedly filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, claiming Buckner had told her and other defendants during an earlier court appearance that he would not appoint them attorneys.

During her first court appearance, another defendant requested the paperwork, filled it out and was denied, according to Pharis, who added she felt the judge would not consider appointing her an attorney after his statements.

Buckner did not return calls about the issue, though he later told Pharis she misquoted him. Judges are restricted on talking about cases outside of the courtroom.

Buckner held a hearing Feb. 3, during which he set aside her plea.

 “Instead of having probation for killing nine horses, we’ll see what a Parker County jury thinks about that,” Buckner told Pharis.

He also admonished her for misquoting him and Pharis apologized.

During the same hearing, he initially denied her request for a court-appointed attorney but reversed his decision a few minutes later.

“I would rather go to trial on nine counts than plead guilty on one,” Pharis said afterward.

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