Taking a Bite Out of...
In cultivating a reputation as a hard-nosed jurist and dedicated anti-crime crusader, State District Judge Mike McSpadden won his 15 minutes of national fame a few years ago by promoting castration as an appropriate punishment for sex offenders. But the county courthouse has been abuzz recently over the revelation that McSpadden himself had some experience with the criminal justice system from the other side of the bench, dating to his younger and apparently more rambunctious days.
McSpadden was called as a witness last month in the trial of a disbarment lawsuit against Lee F. Burrows, a Democrat who challenged McSpadden in the 1990 election. A letter that Burrows sent during that
ampaign to McSpadden and other Republicans, in which Burrows accused McSpadden of being a "crook," led to the State Bar of Texas' attempt to jerk Burrows' law license. And that suit led Burrows to ask McSpadden the following question when he had the judge on the stand:
"Isn't it, in fact, true that many years ago when you were a bit younger, you were put under sanctions by a court in Oklahoma for having committed an assaultive act against a female, contrary to her wishes and without her consent, an indecent act against a female?" At that point the attorney for the State Bar objected, the objection was sustained and Burrows passed the witness.
But the subject arose again as McSpadden was being questioned by State Bar attorney Sharon Conway about Burrow's characterization of the judge as a "crook."
"Have you ever been convicted of a crime, other than possible traffic violations?" she asked.
"I was given probation on that, what he talked about before," replied McSpadden. "I bit a girl in the buttocks at a college dance back in college. That was the indecent innuendo that Mr. Burrows said. It was a stupid act. I regret it, but it happened." Ouch!
Contacted at his courthouse office, McSpadden confirmed the episode, which he said occurred in the mid-1960s in Norman, Oklahoma, while he was an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma. (The Press was unable to verify the exact date of the charge, as there apparently is no existing record of it available.)
"It was a fraternity dance," explained the judge. "At that time one of the popular dances was the alligator. We were stupid enough to do it."
Asked how one went about doing the alligator, McSpadden tersely responded, "You can figure it out for yourself." The judge also confirmed that his partner didn't care for the dance step as much as he did, leading to him being charged with a Class C misdemeanor. (According to a '60s survivor, when doing the alligator the dancer must writhe on the floor, preferably one that is covered with a quarter-inch of beer. Biting, however, was not a standard part of the routine.)
McSpadden correctly says that copies of the transcript of his testimony have been circulated around the courthouse by his Democratic opponent in this year's election, Lloyd Oliver, who also happens to have been the attorney who represented Burrows successfully during the disbarment trial.
"It's typical of what he'd do," said McSpadden. "I can't even imagine that you'd even consider printing it."
Despite his penchant for grandstanding, McSpadden is considered one of the better criminal court judges in Harris County. He is often described as "very fair" and "considerate" by local lawyers who, in bar polls, have consistently ranked him as a top-notch jurist. But his reputation notwithstanding, and considering McSpadden's advocacy of castration for sex offenders, some observers have joked that perhaps the judge should have had his teeth pulled out or his mouth wired shut for his own indiscretion.
But Oliver, who says he learned of the buttock-biting through fraternity connections, finds nothing funny about McSpadden's testimony. He accuses McSpadden of exploiting the castration issue to "enhance his political well-being" and says, "He is holier than thou and so inflated with himself he could blow away.... By opening this castration door, I think he has left himself pretty vulnerable in that he is less than a moral authority."
It was March of 1992 when McSpadden, as part of a plea bargain, accepted a request by convicted rapist Steven Allen Butler to be surgically castrated rather than stand trial on a new charge of sexual assault of a child. But shortly after McSpadden's ruling, Butler's original attorney announced that, due to publicity, offers by surgeons to perform the operation had been withdrawn. McSpadden then angrily reversed his decision and withdrew from the case. However, he continued to promote castration as an alternative to incarceration for sex offenders in numerous publications, as well as through appearances on the CBS Morning News, CBS This Morning, The CBS Evening News, NBC's A Closer Look, the NBC Nightly News and NBC's Today program.
During a panel discussion on A Closer Look, which aired on March 5, 1992, McSpadden spoke of the deterrent effect castration would have on potential rapists. "The word castration puts the fear of God into a lot of people back there in that holding cell," he told program host Faith Daniels.
Somewhat surprisingly, McSpadden's plight gets a sympathetic response from an unlikely source, lawyer Charles Freeman. McSpadden and Freeman have feuded for years, to the point that the judge recuses himself anytime one of Freeman's clients winds up in his court. And it was Freeman who took over as attorney for Butler when the castration plan got cut short. During that episode, according to Freeman, McSpadden made an issue of Freeman's involvement in Texas Southern University's so-called riot in 1967, after which Freeman was charged but never convicted of the murder of a Houston police officer and the wounding of two others. Freeman, however, doesnÕt believe McSpadden's misdeed in Oklahoma during the same era should be of any relevance today.
"I think any human being is entitled to rehabilitate himself and correct any dysfunctional character flaws he or she may have in order to make himself or herself a better person," says Freeman, a devout Muslim, who compares the situation to his embarrassment with the fact that at one point in his life he hated all Caucasians. "I think Judge McSpadden is still qualified as a human being, notwithstanding some of his less-than-sensitive and, in some cases, even subhuman fixations or opinions. I think I would have to extend to him the courtesy I would extend to any other person. He is eligible to be forgiven by the Creator."
McSpadden graduated from OU in 1966. That means, of course, that his 30-year reunion is coming up soon. And our sources in Norman say that the alligator is making a comeback.
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.