Veteran judge praised for making tough decisions with a compassionate heart

Posted Thursday, Jun. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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After spending almost 22 years on the bench, U.S. District Judge Terry Means is still haunted by the brutal abduction and murder of Arlington teenager Lisa Rene, a case which resulted her assailants being sentenced to death.

Rene, a Lamar High School honors student, was abducted by Arkansas drug dealers from her sister’s apartment in September of 1994 to avenge a $5,000 theft by her brothers. She was raped before being bludgeoned with a shovel and buried alive in a shallow grave.

At the time Means was quoted as saying at the sentencing of the three men who killed Rene, that he “could not imagine any more heinous crime.”

“Somehow, those death penalty cases just leap to the front of my memory. You are dealing with the life of a human being,” Means said in a recent interview. “I still must pronounce the death sentence. You are informing someone that they will be put to death.

“That is a rare and focusing event,” said Means, 64, who is preparing to transition to what is known as “senior status” next month, a form of retirement where he will handle fewer cases.

Known in the courthouse for treating prosecutors, defense attorneys and even those accused of heinous crimes with respect, Means will be missed, courthouse observers say.

During the unveiling of Means’ official portrait at the downtown Fort Worth courthouse last week, Sidney Fitzwater, chief U.S. District Judge for the Northern District, described his colleague as a true friend who was always thoughtful and fair-minded in the courtroom.

Means has a compassionate heart; but he is someone who can make the tough decisions, he said.

“Today is decidedly a day of mixed emotions,” Fitzwater said.

Looking back, Means, a thin man with salt-and-pepper hair and a gentle demeanor, said that although he tried many important cases, the death penalty cases will always weigh on his mind.

He recalled that he got the Lisa Rene case soon after the federal death penalty had been reinstated. It had been declared unconstitutional.

“Those cases will always prey on my mind,” said Means.

Demanding job

While maybe not a household name, since 1991 Means has presided over cases involving Tarrant County’s leading corporations and citizens.

It was Means on the bench when a whistleblower filed a lawsuit against Lockheed Martin claiming that the defense contractor followed unsafe and fraudulent practices in developing flight control software for the F-35 joint strike fighter. He dismissed the case.

He rebuffed efforts by the influential Moncrief family to unseal an affidavit detailing specific allegations in the Internal Revenue Service’s investigation into their finances following the raid of the wealthy oil and gas family’s downtown offices by federal agents. But he brokered a deal allowing the Moncriefs to get back some of the documents they needed to run their business.

Means also recently sentenced a former Arlington strip club owner who wanted to kill Mayor Robert Cluck and an attorney who represented the city in a murder for hire scheme

“This is a very demanding job; I’ve sacrificed a lot of time with my family,” Means said. He said he rarely took vacations, and described bringing work home with him at night.

In fact, Means has handled 10,534 civil cases and sentenced 2,300 criminal defendants.

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Growing up in a ranching family in Artesia, N.M., Means had a childhood fascination with politics and the law. His parents had just gotten a black and white television, and 8-year-old Means watched the 1956 Republican and Democratic conventions.

“I couldn’t get enough; my parents thought I was a bit odd,” he said.

Taking a leadership role was also important to Means. He was president of his high school student council and, when he went off to college, became president of the Southern Methodist University student senate as well as his fraternity.

He also attended law school at SMU where he met his wife JoAnn who was also studying law. They married and moved to Corsicana where they practiced law together until Gov. Bill Clements appointed Means to the 10th Court of Appeals in 1989.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush appointed Means to the bench in the Northern District of Texas, which includes Dallas and Fort Worth.

Means said when lawyers and criminal defendants come into his courtroom, he treats them with respect and dignity.

“I call an attorney ‘Mister,’ just as I would call a criminal defendant ‘Mister.’ Everyone is entitled to due process,” Means said.

But he also doesn’t hesitate to make attorneys toe the line when necessary.

Former U.S. Attorney Richard Roper who now practices in Fort Worth, joked about Means setting time limits for him to present his arguments. Roper prosecuted the Lisa Rene case.

“You hear an amiable and friendly voice say “Mr. Roper, you only have an hour and a half left on your case.’ I would give him a painful look and he said, ‘You know, why don’t you just get to the point.’”

Fewer cases

When Means changes to senior status next month, he will handle fewer cases, saying he wants to reduce his caseload by 50 percent. He will get through the cases on his criminal docket and said that other federal judges can help with the civil cases.

In his spare time, Means wants to write three books.

He wants to tackle the subjects of constitutional reform and presidential politics.

But Means, who lived in Corsicana before settling in Fort Worth, also wants to write about a Corsicana soccer team that overcame many obstacles to win state and regional championships, beating better-equipped teams such as Dallas.

The book would also tell the story of a farmer who coached the team and his son who was tragically killed in a farming accident shortly after the team’s victory.

When Means presides in his courtroom, he intends to continue his practice of treating everyone with dignity and respect.

“I, like every judge here, am a flawed human being struggling to do the work …” Means said.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696 Twitter: @fwstliz

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