On Thursday, August 31, 2023, The Highlander reported that Burnet County Judge James Oakley was found not guilty in a three-day trial. The trial, which took place in Blanco County, concluded with a jury ruling in favor of Judge Oakley, absolving him of the charges brought against him. The accusations involved the alleged abuse of his capacity by using a county vehicle to attend meetings of a utility board on which he serves.
The trial proceedings were closely watched as Judge Oakley faced charges of abusing his official capacity and tampering with physical evidence, among others. The case was initially scheduled to be held in Burnet County but was later moved to Blanco County District Court in Johnson City.
The charge against Oakley stated that he violated the public trust on multiple occasions between September 17, 2021, and August 19, 2022, by driving the county-owned vehicle from Burnet County to Johnson City for PEC board meetings. It was claimed that Oakley earned $3,000 per month for his service on the board. The trial jury, consisting of three men and three women, was tasked with reaching a unanimous decision on these charges.
During the trial, the prosecution called witnesses to support their allegations. Burnet County Sheriff’s Capt. Tom Dillard testified, confirming the evidence presented by the prosecution. Burnet County auditor Karin Smith also took the stand and answered questions regarding the county employee handbook, which explicitly directs staff to utilize county property for Burnet County government purposes only, not for personal use.
The defense, on the other hand, called Burnet County Resources Director Sara Ann Luther as a witness to shed light on the “on-call” staff and their responsibilities. Luther described Oakley’s role as “on-call” due to his position as the emergency management coordinator for Burnet County. This designation meant that Oakley had to be prepared to respond to emergencies at any time, regardless of the day or hour.
The trial began on August 29 with jury selection, and after three days of deliberation, the six-member jury rendered their verdict. Presiding Judge Dib Waldrip of the 433rd Judicial District accepted the jury’s decision, declaring Judge Oakley not guilty. The verdict was met with relief by Judge Oakley, who expressed his gratitude to the citizens of Blanco County who served on the jury and sought the truth in the case.
Austin attorney John Carsey represented Judge Oakley during the trial and emphasized that the jury made the appropriate decision based on the lack of evidence presented by the prosecution. The jurors concluded that the state had failed to meet its burden of proof.
It is worth noting that during the pre-trial hearing, Judge Waldrip dismissed three charges, including the felony charge of tampering with physical evidence, as well as the misdemeanor allegations of official oppression and abuse of official capacity. The remaining charge that went to trial involved the misdemeanor charge of using a county vehicle to attend meetings of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative (PEC) board.
The defense argued that Judge Oakley’s use of the county vehicle was connected to his legitimate role as a member-elected director of the PEC board. They contended that he did not misuse government property but rather utilized it within the scope of his responsibilities. The jury’s ultimate decision in favor of Judge Oakley validates this argument and clears his name of the baseless charges brought against him.
The trial’s relocation to Blanco County District Court in Johnson City added an additional layer of complexity to the proceedings. However, Judge Oakley expressed confidence in the jury pool in Blanco County, stating that he believed they would objectively evaluate the facts of the case. He looks forward to putting this legal ordeal behind him and returning to his duties of serving the people who elected him to office.
This trial’s outcome not only vindicates Judge Oakley but also highlights the importance of a fair and impartial judicial process. The jury’s diligent examination of the evidence and their commitment to seeking the truth played a crucial role in reaching a just verdict. As Judge Oakley prepares to resume his service to Burnet County, he does so with a renewed sense of purpose and a deep appreciation for the support he received from his family and the citizens of Blanco County.
Source: The Highlander