Reversal of Misfortune

New trials for two of the Mineola Swinger's Club defendants.
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In a remarkable move, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals out of Houston has reversed two of the Mineola swinger’s club cases and sent them back to Smith County for new trials. The cases are those of Patrick Kelly, also known as Booger Red (above), and Jamie Pittman. They were convicted in 2008, along with Shauntel Mayo, of running a sex kindergarten in Tyler and putting on a series of child-sex shows at a swinger’s club in nearby Mineola (I wrote about the case in April 2009 ). There was no tangible physical evidence and no adult witnesses, just the words of five children—but it was enough to send Pittman, Mayo, and then Kelly to prison for life in 2008.

Now in a couple of scathing opinions, the Kelly and Pittman cases have been overturned; Mayo’s was affirmed—but clearly because her appeal didn’t complain about the same things Kelly and Pittman complained about. The court in Kelly noted many of the strange things about the swinger’s club cases, such as the bizarre, inconsistent testimony of the kids about things such as the shooting of a dog, the hanging of chickens, flying around the swingers club on a broomstick, and the use of magic spells. “Of course, the believability of the children‘s testimony is at the heart of this case,” wrote the court, which then went on to note that none of the kids made any claims about sex abuse until they were in the home of new foster parents Margie and John Cantrell—after the kids had initially denied that anything bad had happened to them. The court also noted that the first time they did make such claims to someone other than Margie, it was during their first interview with Texas Ranger Philip Kemp, at which Margie was present and allowed to answer questions—a big no-no, according to anyone who knows anything about interviewing children in these kinds of cases.

But the court ultimately based its decision on the “numerous evidentiary errors” it found were committed by trial judge Jack Skeen. For example, Skeen refused to allow any testimony about allegations that John Cantrell, the kids’ foster father, may have abused other kids. Skeen also permitted Kelly’s prosecutors to tell the jury that Mayo and Pittman had already been convicted of running the child-sex ring that Kelly was on trial for. Kelly’s attorney Thad Davidson repeatedly objected to statements made by investigators and CPS workers about what the kids had said during their investigations on the grounds that this testimony was hearsay, but Skeen repeatedly overruled the attorney. In doing so, the appeals court wrote, “The trial court clearly abused its discretion.” In the end, the court concluded, “The record is rife with error … the trial court adopted ad hoc evidentiary rules that operated to assist the State in proving its case, while impeding appellant’s ability to defend himself.”

Coincidentally (or not), the fourth swinger’s club trial, that of Dennis Pittman, is set to begin Monday, June 21, in the same courtroom with the same judge, the same prosecutor, and the same evidence—the words of five children. The big question now is, Will Pittman’s trial go forward?

As for Kelly, his mother, Linda, got the news Thursday morning, the day before she was set to take a road trip with other family members to the Clements Unit prison in Amarillo to visit him. She doesn’t know yet if he knows the court’s decision. “We’re all real happy here,” she told me. “Though we wish he’d been acquitted.” The way things roll in Smith County, that will probably take a while longer.

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