Texas judge has been missing from bench for three weeks after overseeing high-profile cases

Judge Kelli Johnson, recently presided over several high-profile trials in the county, but has not been present at the 178th Criminal District Court since May 1

Mike Bedigan
Los Angeles
Wednesday 22 May 2024 22:37 BST
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Harris County Kelli Johnson
Harris County Kelli Johnson (Facebook)

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A prominent Texas judge has been absent from court for over three weeks with no explanation on where she’s gone or when she’ll return.

Harris County Judge Kelli Johnson, recently presided over several high-profile trials in the county, but has not been present at the 178th Criminal District Court since May 1, according to ABC13.

Courthouse staff told the outlet, which was first to report on her absence, that concerns have been raised previously about Judge Johnson’s mental well-being, and a spokesperson said that she was “out for personal matters.”

Multiple trials and hearings at the court have been postponed or rescheduled due to her absence.

Judge Johnson was elected in 2016 to the 178th Criminal District Court after serving as Assistant District Attorney for 17 years. According to her court bio, she is the first openly gay female judge elected in Harris County.

She has two sons, a 12-year-old and 10-month-old, with her wife Hilary Bartlett.

A Houston Police Department report from May 4 described Judge Johnson’s involvement in an incident near her home, with an officer citing a "disturbance/CIT," a law enforcement acronym for crisis intervention.

Judge Kelli Johnson has been absent from court in Harris County, Texas, for over three weeks, prompting questions about her whereabouts and wellbeing
Judge Kelli Johnson has been absent from court in Harris County, Texas, for over three weeks, prompting questions about her whereabouts and wellbeing (Justex/ District Courts of Harris County)

Court staff told ABC13 that Johnson was “a danger to herself and to the community."

The Independent has contacted the court for further information about Judge Johnson’s whereabouts, but has received no reply.

Prior to her absence she presided over the trial of Brian Coulter, who was accused of beating eight-year-old Kendrick Lee to death. Coulter pleaded not guilty, but opted for a bench trial, without a jury present.

Judge Johnson deliberated for around 20 minutes before finding him guilty of capital murder, ABC13 reported.

Coulter was charged alongside the child’s mother, Gloria Williams, who was accused of leaving her three sons in a Houston apartment with the remains of their dead brother.

Judge Johnson has also presided over the murder trials of AJ Armstrong, a man convicted of shooting his parents to death when he was a teenager in 2016.

A visiting judge has handled some court matters in her absence. Last week, retired Judge Jim Wallace presided over a trial, according to ABC13.

"At the end of the day, one of the responsibilities of the judge is to be able to serve," Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, told the outlet.

“We already know our courts in Harris County are severely overburdened, and so, any missing judge means cases effectively stop in her court… The end result is justice delayed for both the victim and those accused of crimes."

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