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Government Judge Sturns: Legal heavyweight steps down

Judge Sturns: Legal heavyweight steps down

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The Honorable Louis E. Sturns

State District Judge from 2007-2018 in the 213th District Court

Sturns also served as judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals 1990-1991 and as judge of Criminal District Court No. 1 in Tarrant County from 1987-1990. He is a former member of the Texas Juvenile Justice Advisory Board and the Texas Ethics Commission.

In January 2013, when Fort Worth Judge Louis Sturns was chosen to conduct a court of inquiry into whether a prosecutor broke the law to send an innocent man to prison for murder, Sturns was already “something of a legend in Texas legal circles,” Texas Monthly magazine noted.

Tarrant County’s first African-American criminal court judge and the first African-American to serve on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, Sturns was known for his fairness and attention to details in difficult cases.

He had listened to a full week of tedious, complex scientific evidence before ruling that prosecutors could admit DNA evidence the first time DNA testimony was offered in Tarrant County in a murder trial in 1988.

“That was a timely and significant ruling that had an unbelievable impact on law enforcement, trials and our whole judicial system,” Sturns acknowledges.

But, it was his work on the case that sent a judge to jail and lead to the criminal discovery reform bill known as the “Michael Morton Act,” that is closest to Sturn’s heart.

His court of inquiry found that former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson acted to defraud the trial court and defense lawyers, resulting in an innocent man serving almost 25 years in prison before he was cleared by DNA evidence in 2011.

“This court cannot think of a more intentionally harmful act than a prosecutor’s conscious choice to hide mitigating evidence so as to create an uneven playing field for a defendant facing a murder charge and a life sentence,” Sturns said after reviewing and examining hundreds of documents and witnesses in the case.

Both Michael Morton and Justice Wallace Jefferson, who appointed Sturns to head the inquiry, were in Fort Worth Oct. 9 for a reception honoring the 69-year-old Sturns, who retired the first week of October after 45 years as a lawyer and judge, most recently in Tarrant County’s 213th District Court.

Jefferson was the first African American to serve on the Texas Supreme Court and was chief justice of that court when he appointed Sturns to head the inquiry.

“It was one of the greatest travesties in Texas history,” Sturns said of the Morton case shortly after Morton was finally exonerated in April 2013.

“We now have more complete and open discovery rules than ever before,” Sturns told Fort Worth Business Press shortly after the reception. “The Michael Morton case put Texas in the forefront of states with regard to the right of an accused person to a fair and open trial.”

Sturns says the first obligation of a judge is to make sure both sides are heard and treated fairly and honestly.

“We have to work on that. We all have our biases, but we must be sure that we don’t let personal biases creep into the judicial process,” he said. “We have laws for a reason – to create and maintain order in our society. It is important for everyone to have confidence in the legal system. When people believe they have been treated unfairly, the whole system suffers.”

But, Sturns didn’t start his legal career with the idea of becoming a judge.

“I didn’t have any plan to be a judge. I just wanted to practice law – to be a civil rights lawyer,” he said.

Born on a farm in Henderson, Texas, in 1949, Sturns attended segregated Rusk County schools before leaving for Wichita State University, where he joined the Army ROTC, washed dishes and drove school buses every morning and evening to put himself through undergraduate school.

A student deferment allowed him to attend the University of Kansas Law School, where he worked as a janitor before going on active Army duty.

Sturns came to Fort Worth to work with Tarrant County’s best-known African-American civil rights lawyer, Clifford Davis, while waiting to take the bar. Davis, who just turned 94, was also at the reception for Sturns.

Sturns was assigned to the Judge Advocate General Corps at Fort Hood after passing the bar and worked as a prosecutor, defense attorney and legal advisor to other soldiers before rejoining Davis’ law firm.

He says he isn’t sure what retirement will involve, but he knows he’s not going to sit and do nothing.

“Just this morning, I cleaned out part of the garage,” he quipped.

What does he want people to remember about him?

“I always tried to call things as I saw them and tried to make sure of the victim’s and the defendant’s rights,” Sturns said. “Everybody deserves a fair trial.”

Sounds like a civil rights lawyer after all.

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