like our judges to be no-nonsense jurists, the term “sober as a judge” comes to
mind, but the Texans we elect to the bench often figure in amusing stories. Especially
long-time judges like the late Mace B. Thurman Jr., who presided over 147th District
Court in Travis County from 1957 to 1990 and occasionally sat as a visiting judge
for another decade after that.
Thurman, a University of Texas law school
graduate who died in Austin at 91 on
Sept. 8, began his judicial career in 1941 as a Travis County justice of the peace.
Back then, a JP’s duties included acting as a coroner in cases of violent or suspicious
deaths. By statute, a JP still has the authority to rule on a cause of death but
the larger counties now have medical examiners to do that work.
at some point during his tenure as JP, Thurman had been summoned by police to
the scene of a fatal shooting to make legally official what someone armed with
a revolver had already attended to.
Somehow, Thurman managed to get there
before any officer arrived. Walking up on the crime scene, he spotted the sprawled
form of the newly departed easily enough. But what quickly captured all the judge’s
attention was the man standing over the body, a cocked pistol still in hand.
knew the man, but that didn’t make much difference in his agitated state. Adrenaline
still surging through the shooter’s body, the man waved the weapon around frantically,
occasionally pointing it at the judge.
“Judge, I killed him,” the man
confessed, “but I had to. He was trying to kill me. Now I don’t know what to do.”
Again, the pistol in his hand pointed this way and that and seemed in danger of
being discharged again at any moment.
“Judge, what do I do?” the man pleaded
Figuring the guy was so wired up he might accidentally shoot
him, Thurman thought fast and yelled just one word: “Run!”
took the judge’s advice but the police rounded him up a short time later with
judge’s most somber duty is to pronounce final sentence, something he did thousands
of times over the years. Two stories about Thurman illustrate how humor – intended
or not – can even creep into that duty.
In one case, Thurman sentenced
a career burglar to 30 years “to do,” as opposed to a probated sentence.
the harried soon-to-be inmate said, “I’m 60 years old. I don’t believe I can do
looked at him for a moment before saying:
“Son, just do the best you can.”
In another case, a noted heroin dealer got convicted of distributing his
deadly product on the streets of the Capital City.
sentencing him, Thurman started off pronouncing that the defendant would be assessed
a $10,000 fine.
The dealer, who had been out on bail, reached into his
pocket and pulled out a big wad of cash.
“Judge, I think we can take care
of that right now,” he said, his voice betraying his obvious relief at getting
off with nothing but a fine.
Again, Thurman just looked at him for a moment.
“Now reach in your other pocket and pull out 10 years,” he said as the
defendant’s hopeful smile faded faster than a junkie’s high.
occasion, Thurman merely intended to be helpful when a murder defendant approached
the bench and said, “Judge, I’d like a change of menu.”
man had spent enough time in jail to know that he might have a better chance if
his trial were transferred to another jurisdiction. But he had his nomenclature
“You mean a ‘change of venue,’” Thurman corrected gently.
“No, your honor, I mean a change of menu,” the defendant replied. “I’m getting
sick of them baloney sandwiches they serve us in jail.”
Thurman only drew
one opponent in his entire career, and easily won re-election that time. He knew
the good and bad people of Travis County and they knew him.
His name recognition
and solid reputation made him a natural target for practical jokers. Of course,
no lawyer who practiced in Thurman’s court could have gotten away with pulling
one on the judge, but the owner of one of the local funeral homes was not so encumbered.
good friend of the judge as well as a jokester, the mortician went to another
Austin professional – a locksmith – and purchased a paper bag-full of key blanks
which he had engraved with the following words: “If found return to Judge Mace
Thursday for $1 reward.”
Then the conspirator drove to the poor part of
town and scattered the keys along the sidewalks over a wide area. For days after
that, the judge good naturedly shelled out a dollar bill to everyone thoughtful
enough to return his “lost” key.
© Mike Cox
17, 2009 column