AUSTIN (KXAN) — The judge tasked with overseeing four of the Austin Police officer use-of-force cases related to the May 2020 protests has asked to be excused in all four of the cases. Court documents claim she said she believed the indictments against the officers were “politically motivated.”
Judge Julie Kocurek filed an order of voluntary recusal in the cases for officers Stanley Vick, Justin Berry, Joshua Jackson and Joseph Cast, according to Travis County court records. Hearings for Vick and Berry set for Tuesday morning have been rescheduled to a later date.
Kocurek confirmed with KXAN the purpose of the Vick and Berry hearings originally scheduled for Tuesday morning was for her to make a determination on the defenses motion to compel the Travis County District Attorney to disclose the names of grand jury witnesses.
In mid-February, it was announced 19 Austin Police Department officers were indicted on aggravated assault by a public servant charges related to the racial injustice protests of May 2020 in downtown Austin. Travis County District Attorney José Garza said then many protesters suffered significant injuries as a result of less-lethal rounds and were “innocent bystanders.”
Kocurek’s court empaneled the special grand jury that ultimately returned those indictments.
According to a Monday court filing by Garza, Kocurek told an assistant district attorney over the phone she believed prosecution of the officers came as the result of a “politically motivated campaign” from Garza, saying “she enjoyed a good relationship with law enforcement in Travis County.” KXAN reached out to Kocurek’s court regarding this, and in response, Kocurek provided the following statement:
“I am recusing myself not because I have a bias or prejudice against the State, but rather to ensure public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.
In filing these motions, I think it is important to put my conversation with Mr. Gilford into context. My perception of our discussion somewhat differs from Mr. Gilford’s.
As the judge who impaneled the special grand jury, it was my responsibility to set bail in these cases. The purpose of my call was to discuss the bail to be set in these cases. I had just received a call from the clerk and/or jail indicating that there were 20 uniformed police officers waiting to be booked into jail and they were waiting on me to set bail in each of their cases. Moments later, I received a call from one of the attorneys of the police officers indicating that the District Attorney’s Office had agreed to setting a one dollar bail on each of these first degree felony offenses. This was highly unusual. These types of communications happen frequently in setting bail. I was calling to confirm this information with Mr. Gilford.“
Due to the recent filing by the State, I believe my impartiality will be in question by some in the community. The perception of others is important, especially in a cases like these.”
The filing includes a recount of the conversation with the judge from the assistant district attorney, who works under the Civil Rights Division with the DA’s office.
The assistant district attorney said once news of the indictments came out in February, he emailed Kocurek, so she could prepare her court and staff for the “substantial amount of work” that would follow. He also tried to get in touch with her court administrator.
He then got a text from Kocurek asking him to call her, the filing stated. The assistant district attorney said he immediately gave her a call with another colleague in the room. Kocurek answered the phone and said she “felt betrayed” because “there were so many indictments against police officers.”
The assistant district attorney said in the filing he explained to Kocurek in his experience, judges did not expect to briefed on the cases being presented unless something came up before the grand jury that required a judge’s attention.
The assistant district attorney said he didn’t discuss details of the officer cases nor the evidence presented to the grand jury with Kocurek, and he doesn’t think anyone employed with the DA’s office did either, according to the court filing.
Kocurek reportedly ended the call saying she hoped the DA’s office “had evidence to support the offenses charged in the indictments,” the assistant district attorney said in the filing.
KXAN reached out to the DA’s office for a comment on the filing and asked when it was made aware of these communications and why the notice wasn’t filed until April 25. The DA’s office declined to provide a comment at this time.
Garza told KXAN in May 2021 one of his goals was to present law enforcement use-of-force cases, particularly surrounding the deaths of Mike Ramos and Javier Ambler, to a grand jury.
“It is so important that our community have faith and trust in our criminal justice system,” Garza told KXAN after he took office in January 2021. “That they have faith if a law enforcement officer engages in misconduct, that if a law enforcement officer breaks the law, that they will be held accountable. So, that is our goal.”
Former Travis County Judge Charlie Baird told KXAN after years on the bench himself, he understands Kocurek’s decision.
“I think that Judge Kocurek took the cautious route of just going ahead and — being confronted with this issue — saying, ‘I’m going to take any question away from this, remove myself, and let the cases proceed through the normal process of the criminal justice system,'” Baird said.