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Judge recuses herself after dodging defendant’s flung feces in Harris County courtroom

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 6/9/2022 By Nicole Hensley, Staff writer
The Harris County Criminal Justice Center houses the courthouse where a defendant threw feces at a judge this week in Houston. © Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

The Harris County Criminal Justice Center houses the courthouse where a defendant threw feces at a judge this week in Houston.

Judge Te’iva Bell marched into the inmate holdover room Thursday to garner a guilty plea from a defendant being isolated to minimize contact with others.

The prosecutors and court reporter joined her as part of a last-minute attempt to prevent the defendant, Jaccorick Nwigwe, from getting too close to the judge or anyone else in the ceremonial courtroom because of an earlier incident. That incident happened Tuesday when Nwigwe asked visiting Judge Belinda Hill if she liked peanut butter, officials said.

He then chucked his feces at Hill in an apparent attempt to feign incompetency. The fecal matter spattered the bench and plopped onto Hill’s phone, according to photos of the aftermath. She dodged the flung dung, Bell disclosed in court.

“We’re doing the plea in there in case there’s a surprise,” Bell said.

The guilty plea resulted in a 20-year prison sentence with credit for time served.

The previous courtroom stunt prompted Hill to recuse herself from Nwigwe’s pending cases on the emergency relief docket, two of which stemmed from his July 2018 arrest on charges of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon and evading arrest. Additional charges related to clashes with fellow Harris County Jail inmates and detention officers — some of which also involved his feces — have since been stacked on, according to court documents.

Bell noted in court that she was the fifth judge to take on Nwigwe’s cases. According to court records, Judges Hilary Unger and Danilo Lacayo recused themselves in 2020 because of death threats that Nwigwe made against them.

The plea this week followed a truncated attempt at trying Nwigwe on the charges a day prior. Jury selection and trial testimony began on Wednesday.

Nwigwe then refused to change out of his yellow jumpsuit and into nonjail clothing before prospective jurors entered the courtroom on Wednesday. Prior to jury selection, Bell encouraged the 26-year-old defendant to keep his shackled hands below the table and out of sight of jurors — an attempt to give him the best shot at due process.

“It’s time to try the case,” Bell told him. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

He groaned loudly as Bell recounted details of the fecal toss for the court record.

“Are you mad?” Nwigwe asked, going on to shout out that he has Tourette syndrome — a neurological disorder that can cause involuntary movements and vocal sounds called tics.

The lawyers ultimately picked a jury and began calling witnesses. By Thursday morning, Nwigwe had decided to abandon the jury trial and accept a plea deal.

Defense attorney Dennis Smith said on Thursday that Nwigwe had undergone three competency exams and was found competent each time. An independent reviewer did not find an insanity diagnosis either, leaving the court to conclude that he was malingering — pretending or exaggerating incapacity or illness. 

“Based on doctor’s reports in the court’s file, I believe he is competent,” Smith said during the plea signing on Thursday.

Smith later said he suspected that Nwigwe’s behavior in court stems from a mental health issue that did not rise to the guidelines for incompetency. The defendant spent much of his jailed time in solitary confinement following an increasing number of offenses involving inmates, detention officers and judges, he continued. 

The plea agreement, Smith continued, was the “correct ending to a very long process.”

Shelby A.D. Moore, professor at South Texas College of Law, said malingering can have a “long effect” on defendants who have a diagnosed mental illness in jails or prisons.

”You may have some mental health issue, but you’re just pretending ... that you’re mentally ill to escape liability — somebody who doesn’t want to face the concequences of what they did," Moore continued. “It’s an act, not a mental illness.”

nicole.hensley@chron.com

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