- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) - A defense lawyer cross-examined a six-year-old girl, victim of sexual assault, on the witness stand in a courtroom filled with people.

Senior District Judge Larry Gist, then the elected Criminal District Court judge for Jefferson County, watched as tears rolled down the child’s cheeks.

He had to fight the urge to leave his seat behind the bench and hug the little girl. That trial was more than 20 years ago, but it remains clear in Gist’s memory.

It takes an emotional toll, Gist told the Beaumont Enterprise (https://bit.ly/1uIVnJn) of the 50 years of accumulated hard cases that he has prosecuted or presided over as judge.

“It actually gets harder with age,” Gist, 73, said at his office desk, piled with files.

The hard work of the justice has now been recognized. Earlier this month, Gist received the Judicial Lifetime Achievement Award in Fort Worth.

The award goes to a current or former Texas judge or justice who is recognized by his or her peers as having a reputation for and commitment to judicial excellence.

The award recognizes a judge’s significant length of service, has demonstrated a long-term, consistent and significant contribution to the betterment of the judiciary and access to justice in Texas, the State Bar of Texas website says.

Gist is the fifth judge to receive the award and is the first trial judge in the state.

Previous recipients were either Texas Supreme Court or lower appellate court judges.

The award came as a surprise because he didn’t know he was a candidate, Gist said.

The current Criminal District Court judge, John Stevens, had nominated Gist. The State Bar made the selection on Aug. 18.

Gist began his career in law as an assistant district attorney in Jefferson County in 1965 and became Criminal District judge in 1975. Since 1995, he accepted appointment as a senior district judge in the Drug Impact Court.

As Criminal District judge, he presided in the notorious case of Michael Lee Lockhart, the man who shot and killed Beaumont police officer Paul Hulsey in 1988. Lockhart murdered at least other six victims in three states, including three teenage girls.

He received death sentences in Texas, Indiana and Florida. Lockhart was executed for Hulsey’s murder in Texas in 1997.

“That was a very emotional case. He killed a fine police officer and several little girls in a terrible way” Gist said.

His overall experience earned him plaques that cover the walls of his office at the Jefferson County Courthouse Annex. Now he will need to make room for the highest award of them all.

When his assistant told him they had to go to Stevens’ court one recent Monday morning Gist was reluctant, he said with a laugh. He didn’t know what to expect. And also, he was busy.

“Mondays are very busy for us,” he said.

Award Committee chair Kelly Moore told Gist over a speakerphone in Stevens’ court that the description of the award seemed crafted for him.

Gist said he is flattered, but also overwhelmed.

“I’m not sure I’m good enough to get it,” he said. “There are a lot of outstanding judges in Texas.”

It’s not in Gist’s character to look for recognition, said Judge Leonard Giblin who was the 252nd Criminal District Court when Gist was Criminal District judge. They are longtime colleagues and friends.

“He doesn’t look for credit,” Giblin said. “It’s his nature. He’s always been like that”

Gist and Giblin came up together in the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office as prosecutors, and moved up to judge where they worked together more than 20 years.

Gist considers Giblin a partner because they complemented each other.

“He was strong where I was weak and I was strong where was weak,” Gist said of Giblin.

Gist ran for judge because, as a prosecutor, he had to ask the presiding judge to do what he, Gist, thought was best.

He sleeps at night with a clean conscience knowing he tries to do his best.

“It’s easy to be fair,” he said. “It’s hard to show people that you’re fair.”

He said that in a politically divided country, it’s easy for people to look at the judicial system as just another political arena.

He gave an example of a time, more than 20 years ago, when he headed to Houston for a probable cause hearing in which a Democrat had sued to remove a Republican judge from office.

His assistant spent a long day answering calls from people on whether Gist was Democrat or Republican.

Despite understanding their concern, Gist said it suggested politics trumped right and wrong.

“I have the authority to send people to death,” he said. “It doesn’t get much more serious than that”

In his two decades on the Jefferson County Drug Impact Court, Gist reflects that it’s the best time of his career because he “can focus on the person as opposed to the crime.” About 90 percent of those arrested in the U.S. for drug possession don’t re-offend, he said. “People can change, and they do change,” he said.

Giblin compared Gist with Santa Claus because he is always trying to help people. It doesn’t hurt that he’s plump-ish and wears a white beard.

Gist said he never had hobbies. His life has revolved around the criminal justice system.

“It’s my life,” he said. “Everybody will tell you that”

Gist graduated from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Texas law school. He earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting.

When he took the four-part exam to become a certified public accountant, the only part he passed with flying colors was the law part. He took it as a “message from above” and earned a law degree.

Then he returned to Jefferson County, where he worked as an assistant district attorney for nine years.

“This is home,” he said. “My family has been here since the turn of the century.”

When he is not on the bench, he teaches criminal trial advocacy every Saturday at South Texas College of Law in Houston.

Retirement is not in the cards.

“When my body will no longer get out of bed to get down here or my mind won’t tell me why I’m here, I will stop,” he said.

___

Information from: The Beaumont Enterprise, https://beaumontenterprise.com


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