The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct gave McLennan County Justice of the Peace Walter H. “Pete” Peterson a pass Monday.
Peterson, whose resume includes a stint as a Copperas Cove police officer, 32 years as a highway patrolman and a brief tenure as an instructor at the McLennan Community College Law Enforcement Academy, rubber stamped the arrests of 173 men and four women last May after a violent altercation in the parking lot outside the Twin Peaks restaurant. Nine men died. Twenty were wounded. Peterson, who probably has a woman and a dog someplace who love him because that is what is most touching about women and dogs, seems not to have spent a moment in his life considering law, history or civics. His legal record substantiates that.
All of the people who were arrested were initially held as witnesses. The Texas Rangers, who were closest to the “intelligence” that motivated the police presence at the Twin Peaks that day, planned to bus the witnesses to two separate locations: One location for the Cossacks, Scimitars and Bogatyrs Motorcycle Club members and a second location for everybody else.
Hours after the shooting stopped, as W. Patrick Swanton’s first press conference was being televised live in the convention center where the witnesses were being debriefed, McLennan County District Attorney Abelino Reyna decided to screw them all and let God sort it out. Maybe he did it because he is prone to heartless whims. Maybe he was pressured from above.
Stop and consider that for a moment. Who might pressure the district attorney to arrest everybody and hold them incommunicado?
A Waco police detective named Manuel Chavez, who knew nothing about any of the detainees except their names, presented a pile of photocopied arrest warrants to Peterson. The name of each defendant was scrawled in. There was little probable cause to charge anybody because the most obviously violent of the Waco brawlers were already dead. Most of the 173 men and four women were already provably innocent. Reyna had seen the proof. Peterson played the part of the righteous cop and rubber stamped the warrants. Then, apparently, because somebody told Reyna to keep a lid on this Mongolian cluster orgy, Reyna passed on the instructions to Peterson. So Peterson slapped all the defendants with a bail of $1 million each. It was a summary punishment, It subjected every defendant to false imprisonment and compelled them to pay rapacious fees to the local, bloodsucking bail bondsmen.
And, it gave local authorities time to implant an alternative narrative in the public imagination. Lives had been saved not taken. Militarized Bandidos were about to converge on Waco. All of the arrested were gang members.
Afterward, Peterson made it clear that he had intended to punish the defendants. “I think it is important to send a message,” he said on the record. “We had nine people killed in our community. These people just came in, and most of them were from out of town. Very few of them were from in town.”
In June three defense attorneys, John Hirsch, John Moore and Clint Broden, thought Peterson had behaved reprehensibly and complained to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the state agency that is responsible for investigating allegations of judicial misconduct or judicial disability, and for disciplining judges.
This week, after a mere eight months, the Commission issued a tone deaf, 266 word ruling. The 13 commissioners said, in part:
“We appreciate the allegations raised in your complaint regarding the judge’s failure to set appropriate and individualized bail amounts for over 170 co-defendants, and his improper public comments to the media regarding matters that were pending or impending before him. The Commission reviewed the facts and evidence obtained in the course of its investigation, which included interviewing individuals with knowledge of the matters addressed in the information you provided, reviewing relevant court documents, and conducting legal research regarding the issues raised by your complaint. In its discretion, the Commission determined that the judge’s conduct in this particular instance, while not necessarily appropriate, did not rise to the level of sanctionable misconduct. In conformity with the specific constitutional provisions, statutes and canons, which control the Commission’s actions in this matter, the Commission voted to dismiss your complaint, but has made the judge aware of the concerns.”
The local newspaper, the lead journal in covering this extraordinary case, the Waco Tribune-Herald defended Peterson in an editorial today titled “State judicial commission wisely balanced the law and hard realities.”
The paper believes there is “some justification” to the easy observation that the Waco defendants might have gotten a fairer shake in Somalia.
“Then again,” Bill Whitaker, the Tribune-Herald’s opinionator writes, “ hindsight is 20/20. It’s critical to remember that Peterson, who is not a lawyer (but almost as good — a retired highway trooper), was working through an avalanche of arrests in the immediate wake of a chaotic situation that left several bodies in the parking lot of a shopping center and Waco police sorting out the surviving bikers, many of them sporting “colors” associated with criminal motorcycle gangs. Like it or not, state law says that’s credible evidence for police to consider in making arrests.”