GALVESTON — A district judge presiding over the trial of a man accused of keeping his son in an 8-foot-by-6-foot particleboard box was recused Wednesday after making posts about the case on social media.
Judge Michelle Slaughter of the 405th District Court was recused by former Montgomery County Judge Jim Keeshan on the third day of the trial.
Slaughter said in a statement that her online posts contained public information that was publicly available in the courtroom.
“In an effort to provide governmental transparency, I made statements on my Facebook page that were readily available to any member of the public who was present in the courtroom,” she said.
Recent posts on Slaughter’s public Facebook page included a reference to a piece of evidence that had not yet been admitted in the trial of David Wieseckel, 44.
The particleboard structure the father allegedly kept his son restrained in was erected in her courtroom on Tuesday evening after the jury had been dismissed for the day. It had not been admitted into evidence when the post was made.
Attorneys discussed setting up the box for jurors while on the record in court Tuesday.
Slaughter also shared a link to a news story on the trial, which began this week, and made a post referring to opening arguments.
“After we finished Day 1 of the case called the ‘Boy in the Box’ case, trustees from the jail came in and assembled the actual 6’x8’ ‘box’ inside the courtroom!” the post said.
Because Slaughter would have assessed punishment if Wieseckel was found guilty of the charges of injury to a child and unlawful restraint of a child, she was essentially a “quasi-juror” in the case and should have refrained from reading materials outside the scope of the trial, attorney Nicholas Poehl, who is representing Wieseckel, said.
Slaughter instructed jurors to “not post anything on Facebook or other social media about this case until I release you from this instruction,” according to the motion for mistrial.
The judge’s Facebook posts compromised Wieseckel’s right to a fair trial, Poehl said.
Poehl filed a motion to recuse Slaughter and a motion for a mistrial after seeing the posts on Slaughter’s Facebook page Tuesday evening, he said.
Jurors were polled Wednesday on whether they had read any outside information on the case, although Slaughter did not mention her online posts.
All jurors said they had not read any outside material on the trial.
According to the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, a judge “shall abstain from public comment … in a manner which suggests to a reasonable person the judge’s probable decision on any particular case.”
Slaughter dismissed the motion for a mistrial, but that order was voided by the motion to recuse, Poehl said.
In a hearing on the motion to recuse Slaughter, Galveston County First Assistant District Attorney Donna Cameron presented evidence but did not argue for or against the recusal.
“We are not going to argue one side or the other,” she said.
In her response to the motion for a mistrial, Slaughter wrote that her online posts noted only that the trial was occurring and made no statements on outcome, evidence or any other information that was not visible in a public courtroom, Cameron said.
Judge Olen Underwood, who presides over the Second Administrative Judicial Region, appointed Judge Lonnie Cox of the 56th District Court to the case after Slaughter’s recusal.
Jurors heard less than an hour of testimony before being dismissed Wednesday.
Wieseckel is standing trial after being arrested with his wife, 50-year-old Linda Schwan, on charges of injury to a child and unlawful restraint of a child.
Schwan’s case is pending trial later this year in Slaughter’s court.
Attorney Julia Hatcher, who is representing Schwan, said Wednesday she intended to ask that Slaughter also be recused from her client’s case.
Posts on Slaughter’s public Facebook page going back to March 2013 make references to jury selections, trials and the court’s docket.
The majority of the posts discuss cases in broad terms, including verdicts and announcements about the start of trials.
Seana Willing, executive director of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, said social media are more frequently affecting trails.
“It’s something that all states are encountering as social media grows,” she said.
Slaughter’s public Facebook page had 359 “likes,” or 359 subscribers who see posts on the page as of Wednesday evening.
The “biography” section of the page states that the social media site would have no bearing on Slaughter’s rulings.
She wrote: “Likes and comments to this page will have no bearing on how I rule on any case. I will listen to and review all evidence in each case. I am fair and impartial and will rule in accordance with the law as it is written.”