7 Investigates: Sentenced to Life
TYLER, TX (KLTV) - Part One:
An East Texas judge has come under fire for allegedly including a requirement of marriage in his criminal probation.
After reports of the unusual marriage order Judge Randall Rogers gave a Tyler man in July, other East Texas residents came forward with similar accounts; other cases of more couples whose sentence in criminal court included matrimony.
Related: Judge sentences East Texas man to get married or face jail time
According to court transcripts, Rogers gave 21-year old Josten Bundy a choice during a hearing on a misdemeanor assault charge.
Rogers told Bundy he could either marry his girlfriend, 19-year old Elizabeth Jaynes, or spend 15 days in jail.
Michelle Powell, of Chandler, watched news reports of Bundy and Jaynes in disbelief.
"It was so much like my case," Powell said. "I was heartbroken for them, because I know the pain."
In July of 2015, Powell and her co-defendant boyfriend were facing misdemeanor shoplifting charters for failing to check $100.00 worth of items out through the self-check out line.
During the initial hearing, Rogers asks about the couple's marital status, according to court transcripts.
"Are they husband and wife?" Rogers asks.
"We're engaged," Powell responds.
"If you get within 100 feet of him during the probation, you go to jail," the judge stated.
Powell was facing a two year probation and was in court without attorney representation.
"I didn't want to leave [my boyfriend], I love him," Powell said. "I didn't want to be away from him."
At the hearing, Rogers asked, "Do you two want to run off and get married and come back?"
The pair agreed there in court to get married; an emotional decision according to Powell.
"That made me cry, you know, that that's my proposal," said Powell. "I was very scared. Having never been in trouble, it was just a different experience for me."
The court gave them two weeks to walk to down the aisle and return with their marriage license.
In the transcripts, Rogers said, "I am not going to force you" and "this will turn out to be a life sentence."
Less than 10 days after the rushed wedding, Powell said her now husband received a call from the court dismissing any charges against him.
Powell told the court during the first hearing that he had been on the phone and preoccupied as she went through the checkout line. She now says she wonders why the marriage condition of her probation was even necessary.
"It's like a life sentence," Powell said. "Even though I don't mind being married for the life, it wasn't supposed to be forced on me. It's hard that you didn't get to plan it that way you wanted to plan it."
A father from Frankston has similar questions about his son's 2011 case.
Bill Bull's 27-year old son, Benjerman Bull, appeared in Rogers' court in 2012 on a theft charge.
According to obtained hearing transcripts, Benjerman and his girlfriend and several females were arrested for taking items from a department store in the women's dressing room.
During the hearing, Rogers' tells the defendants they cannot be around each other, but Benjerman and his girlfriend were living together at the time.
"Then you are going to have to move," Rogers says in the court transcript. "You go around him on probation, you go to jail. You figure out how much that fiance cares for you--now, if you get married, that's a different story."
Benjerman appears to hesitate and responds, "We will have to think about it...talk about it."
Rogers gives Benjerman 30 days to make a decision.
"If they don't get married within 30 days, they separate. They go around each other, they go to jail."
And quickly wed, they did, but Benjerman's father Bill said things were rocky for the couple after the nuptials.
"The marriage did not benefit [my son], it made things worse on his way of life," Bill said. "It made it worse on his emotions, he was under distress all the time. It created more financial and emotional problems."
From Bill's perspective, the hardest part of this court-ordered marriage would come during his darkest days.
He said his son was considering a divorce, but around four months after the wedding, Benjerman suffered a severe asthma attack that sent him to the hospital on life support.
Benjerman's new wife now had rights only a marriage bond could bring: the ability to make medical decisions.
"It upset me quite a bit knowing that he was already brain dead and was not going to survive," Bill said. "That marriage certificate enabled her to keep him alive longer and for no reason. My son would not have wanted to live that way."
Bill said he contemplated filing a complaint with the state commission on judicial conduct, but after his son passed in 2013, he wanted to put it behind him. Then, he saw Bundy and Jaynes' story, reminding him of how much he disagreed with what happened during his son's hearing.
Judge Rogers had declined to comment on his sentencing practices, or on these specific cases. He no longer presides over Bundy's case after he requested a recusal in light of the media attention surrounding the case.
Read: Judge who sentenced man to marry his girlfriend recuses himself from case
It's unclear from court records why co-defendants would be allowed to co-habitate if they were married, but not if they stay unmarried.
However, in transcripts from Powell's case, Rogers says that he doesn't consider this approach to be a "shotgun wedding" and that he is leaving the choice up to the couple.
After an East Texas judge is criticized for requiring defendants in his court to get married and write Bible verses as a part of their criminal probation, a retired judge speaks out on his behalf.
Judge Randall Rogers of Smith County faced scrutiny after he gave Tyler resident Josten Bundy the option of marrying his 19-year old girlfriend or going to jail for 15 days. Bundy's story gained international attention in August and prompted the filing of an official complaint against the judge with the State Commission for Judicial Conduct.
Rogers has declined to comment on his sentencing and probation practices, and retired district judge Cynthia Stevens Kent said that Rogers ethically can't respond.
"It's incredibly frustrating for judges, but that's part of the job – they have to just take the blows and not respond to it publicly, and just try to do their work," said Kent, who served on the bench in Smith County for 24 years. "The judge has enormous discretion [to set probation] as long as the conditions are meant to protect the victim, protect society, work toward rehabilitation of the individual."
Kent believes that giving couples an incentive to get married falls within the category of benefiting society.
"I think traditionally the family unit and that commitment and stability has been a positive thing in helping people not engage in criminal activity," said Kent. "I've known Judge Rogers for a long time, and I've known him to be thoughtful and hardworking."
Sam Grover, a Wisconsin attorney with the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), who filed the complaint against Rogers in August, disagrees.
"Judges are government actors and they need to keep their personal religious bias out of the courtroom," said Grover. "What we found is that Rogers ordered a man to write out Proverbs 26:27 twenty-five times a day, and get married to avoid going to jail."
Grover said a marriage order is not permissible and the the Bible verses homework violates the separation of church and state.
"This is one issue where the Freedom from Religion Foundation actually finds itself aligned with a lot of religious groups," Grover said. "They see marriage as a sacred thing between two people and they don't really want a judge or a government official, weighing in on that."
The complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct(SCJC) is pending. Grover said it can take up to a year to get a decision from the SCJC. The commission, that investigates the complaints against Texas judges it receives, is made up of 13 members including East Texas judge Joel Baker of Smith County.
Despite the criticism from people across the nation, Kent said the incentive to marry through the courts is appropriate for the region.
"As the community attitude changes and shifts then sometimes the judges are a little behind that change and shift," said Kent. "I don't know that this issue is a real change and shift in our community – I still think this is a community where family and marriage commitment is very important."
Grover said judges are generally immune from being sued for decisions they make on the bench. The typical way to fight a disagreeable ruling from a judge that you don't agree with is to appeal it to a higher court, but that didn't happen in any of the reported cases.
"We're really just left with the judicial ethics commission as the only way to make sure that justice is served in this case," Grover said.
Rogers, who has been a judge for over 25 years ran unopposed for County Court at Law #2 judge in 2010 and 2014. He will be up for re-election in 2018.
Copyright 2015 KLTV. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2015 KLTV. All rights reserved.