Thousands have signed a petition calling for the judge in an ex-Baylor frat president’s rape case to resign or be removed from office after he accepted a plea deal that involved no jail time.
On Monday, Judge Ralph Strother accepted the plea agreement for Jacob W. Anderson, a former Baylor student who was accused of raping a woman referred to as Donna Doe in 2016. As part of the deal, Anderson agreed to plea to a lesser charge of unlawful restraint and will not have to register as a sex offender.
Strother and Assistant District Attorney Hilary LaBorde, who prosecuted the case, were not immediately available for comment Thursday afternoon.
The petition, titled “Request the Resignation of Judge Ralph Strother,” had more than 20,000 signatures on the Care2 Petitions website early Thursday afternoon. According to the site, about 2,000 of the signers were from Texas.
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The petition, started by a Baylor graduate, targets both Strother and LaBorde, who agreed to the plea deal.
Donna Doe’s family said LaBorde blindsided them with the plea deal after reassuring them that Anderson would be convicted. In emails between LaBorde and Doe’s family, LaBorde said she thought a plea deal would be best because she had just tried a rape case similar to Doe’s in which the accused rapist was not convicted.
Some of the reasons listed in the petition for Strother’s removal were:
- “The sixth amendment guaranteeing the right to a speedy and public trial was not honored.
- A system created by wealthy white men protects wealthy white men.
- When judges on benches see themselves reflected in the face of a perpetrator and recuse him of all responsibility, they will not feel a modicum of remorse due to their privilege of race and class.
- A prior case lost by LaBorde is not a reasonable basis for LaBorde’s lack of attempt to bring this one to trial.
- LaBorde’s unwillingness to allow Mary her day in court betrays fundamental basic human rights and perpetuates a climate in which future victims will continue to report sex crimes at an alarmingly low rate.”
The woman who started the petition, Sarah Byers, said LaBorde’s reasoning for the plea deal is unjust.
“The idea that the outcome of a separate case should inform LaBorde’s approach to this one is a defeatist attitude that has no place in 2018, let alone 2019,” Byers said via email. “The culture of victim blaming and posture of automatic disbelief of a victim’s accusations is assisted by LaBorde’s complicity.”
Strother told KWKT he has also received death threats via email in response to the plea deal.
Attorneys for Anderson issued a statement Friday that called criticism of Strother and LaBorde as “completely unfounded based on the facts and the truth.”
Attorney Vic Feazell, who has been the spokesperson for Doe’s family, said he knows Strother to be “a fair and honorable man.”
“There’s a lot of emotion over this case, and I understand why. I disagree with his decision too, but a petition to remove the judge isn’t helpful for two reasons: Texas doesn’t have a recall procedure and our judiciary must remain independent,” Feazell said. “I am still in contact with the victim and her family and am providing support however I can. She wants to get this behind her, but she is strong and encourages women to continue reporting sexual assault and not take what happened to her as a reason not to.”
After the plea deal was accepted Monday, LaBorde issued a statement in defense of the deal.
“Given the claims made publicly, I understand why people are upset,” she wrote. “However, all of the facts must be considered and there are many facts that the public does not have. In approving this agreement, Judge Strother had access to all the statements that have ever been made by all people involved and agreed that the plea agreement offered was appropriate in this case.”
Strother, the 19th State District Judge in McLennan County, ran unopposed in the GOP primary in 2016, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald. Archived news articles from The Baylor Lariat, the university’s newspaper, state that Strother was appointed to the post in 1999 by then Gov. George W. Bush. He served as first assistant district attorney for McLennan County before his appointment.
Strother is listed as a prominent alumni by Baylor University.
In 2017, Strother sentenced a man who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a Baylor student in 2013 to deferred adjudication probation and ordered him to pay for the woman’s counseling, according to the Waco Tribune.
Earlier this year, Strother allowed a man convicted of sexual assault to serve jail time on the weekends. The man was a former Baylor student and was given 30 days in days, AP reported.
Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said a petition calling for the resignation of a judge in a case that draws immediate concern from the public is not out of line with the intentions of Texas’ forefathers.
Jillson said they created a system of elected judges in 1876 because they wanted judges to be held accountable by voters.
Texas is one of the few states that elects all judges, he said, adding that Texas communities can remove or replace a judge when he or she hands down a decision the public finds offensive.
“The whole idea of electing judges is that the public gets to respond,” Jillson said.
Politicians also voiced their criticism of Strother, such as Jana Lynne Sanchez, a Democrat who recently lost a bid for U.S. Congress.
Sanchez said she was “furious” that the victim in the Anderson case did not get justice. She called out GOP judges who run on law-and-order platforms but are more lenient when victims are women or people of color.
Sanchez said women are angry about this Texas case which unfolded against the backdrop of a national conversation on women’s and victims’ rights.
“Many women are furious and have been furious following the election of an admitted sexual predator to the highest office in the land over a vastly more qualified woman. Then the appointment of Justice Kavanaugh over serious objections of millions of women served to highlight the absence of representation for women in our political system,” Sanchez told the Star-Telegram in a text message.
“Part of the #MeToo movement”
Byers, an Austin resident who graduated from Baylor, said she started the petition against Strother.
“More than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report,” Byers said via email. “If anyone is confused about why, Judge Strother sent the message to these victims loud and clear: The autonomy and reputation of a wealthy man is more important than your safety or rights.”
Byers said Doe should have been given a right to a trial.
“In a functioning democracy, the appropriate arena for this case is a trial, and the appropriate verdict makers are a jury of peers,” she said via email. “Instead, Judge Strother subjugated democracy and offered a sweetheart deal to another caucasian male. The effect of this is chilling to all women who wish to report sex crimes against them, and ultimately choose not to.”
Kimi King, a political science professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, said the case raises questions about the justice system at the same time concerns about sexual violence are at the center of high-profile news events from judicial appointments to abuses by church leaders to Baylor University’s handling of sexual assault reports.
This backlash against the Anderson case is also “part of a larger wave that is going as part of the #MeToo movement,” King said.
It’s a wave that is prompting people to become politically active or call for political change.
“I also think it is part of the national conversation we have been having whether it’s Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Matt Lauer or President Trump,” King said.
She said the Anderson case touches on many different social issues such as concern about sexual violence and harassment as well as the idea that the “Scales of Justice often tip in favor of elites,” King said.
While these controversies flare up and die down without much change in the past, the possibility to achieve some gains appears within grasp, she said.
“It’s not just social media and it’s not just women. It’s broad coalitions of women and men concerned about sexual violence against both men and women. Whether or not it produces tangible change is something only time will tell. History takes a long time,” she said.
The petition is the latest backlash against Anderson and the rape case, which has prompted several online petitions of people across the state and country speaking out against the plea deal in Anderson’s case.
On Wednesday, about 20,000 people signed a different petition for Anderson to be removed from the University of Texas at Dallas, where he currently is enrolled as a senior. On Wednesday night, UTD announced one of its students, presumably Anderson, will not be allowed to participate in the school’s graduation ceremony or attend graduate school there.
The statement did not directly identify Anderson. According to school officials, Anderson was still enrolled at UT Dallas as of Wednesday but not enrolled in a graduate program.
In 2016, Anderson, 23, of Garland, was accused of raping a 19-year-old student referred to as Donna Doe in court documents at a Phi Delta Theta party. He was arrested, expelled from the university and, in June 2018, indicted on four counts of sexual assault.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.