More East Texas Couples Forced To Choose Marriage Over Jail Come Forward
Giving a young couple the “choice” of getting married or going to jail is kind of like blackmailing someone. The young person's misdemeanor assault charge or petty theft charge might stay a secret from an employer who would likely fire him— just as long as he just prematurely enters into lifelong matrimony with his girlfriend, right now.
That's exactly the kind of choice that Smith County Judge Randall Rogers has given to at least three misdemeanor defendants in his courtroom.
Back in August, Rogers was all over the media, in outlets as far away as the New York Daily News, when 21-year-old Josten Bundy came forward and explained that Rogers gave him the option of 15 days in jail—or getting married to his 19-year-old girlfriend, Elizabeth Jaynes, and writing Bible verses 25 times a day, specifically Proverbs 26:27. Bundy had been charged with assault after punching Jaynes's ex-boyfriend in the jaw when he was rude to her.
The couple “chose” marriage. And then, from 1,000 miles away, Sam Grover with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin, filed a complaint with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, claiming that Rogers's ultimatum violated the First Amendment's separation of church and state.
As news spread of the Bundy's strange punishment, other couples stumbled across the reports and thought they sounded pretty familiar. KLTV reports that, in July, Michelle Powell and her fiance faced misdemeanor theft charges in Rogers's courtroom after failing to pay for $100 worth of items in the Walmart self-checkout line. Upon learning that the couple was engaged, Rogers ordered that, as a condition of probation, the couple could not even come near each other for two years. Or, instead, they could just get married immediately. Within two weeks, they tied the knot.
KLTV reported that, according to court transcripts, Rogers told the couple,"I am not going to force you" and "this will turn out to be a life sentence."
In another case, a father claimed that his son, Benjerman Bull, appeared in court with his fiancee, both of them facing misdemeanor theft charges. The couple also told that they couldn't come in contact with each other as a condition of probation. Bull had explained to Rogers that the two of them lived together. And according to KLTV, Rogers replied: “Then you are going to have to move. You go around him on probation, you go to jail. You figure out how much that fiance cares for you. Now, if you get married, that's a different story."
So they chose marriage. Within four months, around the time they were already considering a divorce, Bull suffered a severe asthma attack and had to be put on life support—a decision that his wife made for him with legal power of attorney. Bull didn't make it. His father, Bill, told KLTV that the woman's decision is one the family opposed, and that Rogers, by essentially ordering the marriage, is the one who enabled it. “My son would not have wanted to live that way,” he said.
When the Houston Press spoke to Grover about Rogers's strange punishments in August, Grover said he had never heard of this happening before. Now that he's heard of the additional cases, he's considering using them to supplement the Bundy complaint, which is currently under investigation. “I think at this point Judge Rogers knows he messed up," Grover said, "and at this point it's just a matter of getting him to acknowledge that publicly.”
KLTV reported that, in transcripts from Powell's case, Rogers acknowledged that he didn't see anything wrong with this because he was giving the couple a choice.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.