Prosecutors: Fort Bend judge who ‘rolled’ eyes at victim is biased
Prosecutors want a Fort Bend County criminal judge to recuse himself because they say he is biased against child sex abuse victims who belatedly report the assaults, according to court documents.
The district attorney’s office contends that Judge Robert Rolnick of the 458th District Court should not preside at an upcoming trial because he showed preferential treatment to a previous defendant accused of sexual assault. Specifically, prosecutors cited an August trial in which jurors in Rolnick’s court found Gerson Rodriguez guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child. During the proceedings, the prosecutors noticed the jurist expressed “visible disbelief in the complainant’s credibility.”
The prosecutors said they’re worried the judge’s behavior will continue in a trial slated for next week that involves delayed outcries by other victims. Rolnick, who was elected to the bench in 2018, lost the Democratic primary in March.
“Judge Rolnick made facial expressions and body gestures which behaviorally and physically indicated that he did not believe (the young woman’s) accusations of sexual abuse,” wrote Assistant District Attorney Baldwin Chin in the motion for recusal. He added that Rolnick “rolled his eyes, pursed his lips and shook his head” as prosecutors elicited responses from the victim.
The motion is based on affidavits from prosecutors in the Rodriguez trial. One of those prosecutors, Alycia Curtis, said the abuse that led to Rodriguez’s conviction happened in 2011, but the victim did not come forward until 2017, when she was 17.
The next trial on Rolnick’s docket involves Jeffrey Awalt, a man indicted in 2017 on a charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child. The accuser in that case said Awalt abused her for three years, starting when she was 7. The girl did not make an outcry until she was 13, according to court records.
The circumstances presented in these trials are not unusual, according to experts. Few victims of child sex abuse report their assaults, and those who do often wait several years to come forward, according to Child USA — a child advocacy group. Some children lack the ability to recognize sexual abuse or do not have an adult they feel comfortable telling.
At hearing on Tuesday Rolnick is expected to address the recusal motion in Awalt’s case.
During Rodriguez’s trial, prosecutors said the judge abruptly stopped the victim in the middle of her testimony to break for lunch, rather than allowing her to finish, according to court documents.
Even after testimony wrapped up and the jurors had been deliberating for four hours, the judge attempted to expedite the trial’s end by saying that he would “entertain a motion for mistrial,” according to court documents. The judge told the attorneys said he would enter the jury room to ask if the panel was deadlocked — eliciting protests from the defendant’s attorney and prosecutors. Ultimately, the judge did not enter the jury room.
By 8 p.m. on the day deliberations began, the jurors found Rodriguez guilty of the abuse — a decision that appeared to anger Rolnick, Curtis stated in her affidavit. The judge proceeded to apologize to the defendant as a bailiff took him into custody, Curtis said.
Rolnick then spoke to the jurors — a conversation in another room that appeared to have left them “upset and angry.” The jurors remained at the courthouse until 9:30 p.m., venting about Rolnick’s comments to the prosecutors and Rodriguez’s defense attorney. Their complaints continued during a walk to the parking garage, Curtis said.
“Prosecutors learned that Judge Rolnick may have personally informed the jurors, among other things, that he did not believe or trust in delayed outcry cases,” the motion continued. A footnote cites that at least one juror heard Rolnick describe the accuser as “sexually active” at the time of her outcry, even though no evidence was presented to at trial to suggest that was the case.
The new information further confused the jury, according to Curtis’ statement.
“The jurors stated that this information was troubling to them and caused them to question their verdict,” the prosecutor added in the footnote.
One juror said Rolnick’s comments left her on the verge of tears.
“She began to cry while talking about how upset the Judge’s comments to them made her and started to wonder if, because of what they were told, she did the right thing,” another prosecutor, Craig Priesmeyer, said in an affidavit.
Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Herman Martinez, declined to comment on the request for recusal in the upcoming case. He said that the judge is expected to rule in October on his client’s punishment.
Martinez said he argued for a directed verdict — which allows a jurist to refuse to let jurors render a verdict — after the state rested its case. Rolnick declined to grant the motion, he said.