Celebrating 50 Years of Service: Courtroom Offers Real Life Legal Drama

The Hazel B. Kerper Courtroom.
The Hazel B. Kerper Courtroom

Alumnus Eric Pedersen remembers watching parts of the “Uncle Hilty” trial in the CJ Courtroom while a student at Sam Houston State University. Little did he know at that time that the prosecutor in the case would inspire his future career.

Inside the Hazel B. Kerper Courtroom, Uncle Hilty, a.k.a. Hilton Lewis Crawford, was tried and convicted of killing a 12-year old boy during the course of a kidnapping and given the death penalty. The case was sent to Huntsville on a change of venue because of the pretrial publicity. The prosecution was led by Nancy Neff, an Assistant District Attorney in Montgomery County who would later mentor Pedersen during his internship. Lieutenant Commander Pedersen went on to become a Judge Advocate General in the Navy.

Hilton Lewis Crawford, a.k.a. Uncle Hilty
Hilton Lewis Crawford, a.k.a. Uncle Hilty
“I was in and out of the courtroom sporadically during the trial,” Pedersen recalled. “While the evidence seemed rather overwhelming against Crawford, I did not observe enough of the trial to get the full picture. I do remember watching Assistant Montgomery County District Attorney Nancy Neff in action though. That was impressive!...She was absolutely stunning to observe in court. Neff was as smart, polished, prepared and aggressive as a prosecutor could be. There is only one Nancy Neff and she is one of the best I have ever seen in the courtroom.”

The dedication of the courtroom including (l-r)Judge/District Attorney Ernie Ernst of Walker County, Judge Max Rogers of Second Administrative Judicial Region of Texas, and Dr. Dan Beto and Dean Victor Strecher of the College.
The dedication of the courtroom including (l-r)Judge/District Attorney Ernie Ernst of Walker County, Judge Max Rogers of Second Administrative Judicial Region of Texas, and Dr. Dan Beto and Dean Victor Strecher of the College.
The Hazel B. Kerper Courtroom, named in honor of a professor of criminal law at Sam Houston State University, was originally set up for moot trials, but has served as an official courtroom for criminal and civil cases and appeals throughout its history. It provides an easy opportunity for cases requiring a change of venue, a central locale for handling local appeals, and a profound educational opportunity for students interested in the legal system.

Shortly after the Criminal Justice Center opened its doors in 1976, it hosted State v. Nacol, a change of venue theft case out of Wichita Falls. The defendant, Adam Nacol, was the owner of an upscale jewelry store and conspired with thieves to burglarize rich homes in the area. It was the first trial on a U.S. college campus other than in a law school, according to Dr. Mitchel Roth, professor and author of Fulfilling a Mandate: A History of the Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State University.

The 10th Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the courtroom.
The 10th Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the courtroom.
Most recently, the courtroom has been used by the 10th Court of Appeals. The three judge panel, which includes Chief Justice Tom Gray (BBA ’78) and Justices Rex D. Davis and Al Scoggins, hears appeals in criminal and civil cases from an 18-county region in Southeast Texas. Over the last three years, those cases have included everything from civil cases to capital murder appeals. With the support of Professor Mike Yawn of the Department of Political Science, more than 400 students a year attend the sessions.

“Justices Scoggins and Davis stated that they were always impressed with the level of attention and interest that the Sam Houston students showed in the oral arguments as well as the facilities and hospitality shown by the University, the faculty and the student organizations involved,” said a statement from the 10th Court of Appeals.
Chief Justice Gray, who graduated from Sam Houston State University in 1978 and never set foot in the Criminal Justice Center until 2012, was in awe of the facility during his first visit.

The 10th Court of Appeals poses with staff in the CJ Courtroom.
The 10th Court of Appeals poses with staff in the CJ Courtroom.
“I was so overawed by what I saw,” said Justice Gray. “As I stood there at the public entrance to the courtroom I was overwhelmed by the quality and functionality of the design. It was a perfect teaching courtroom. You do not see courtrooms like this on TV. But the closest thing my mind can compare it to is the operating room in a teaching surgical hospital where there are seats above the operating table to allow students to observe a real surgery. That is what this is except it is to observe a real trial or, in our case, real oral arguments.”

“As a graduate of Sam Houston I was honored to be able to be part of holding oral arguments in the College of Criminal Justice Courtroom when the Tenth Court of Appeals first appeared there in 2012,” Justice Gray added. “It has become an annual tradition. As long as Walker County is in our district, I will continue to support the annual tradition of holding oral arguments in this exceptional facility.”

The Courtroom hosted a meeting for Second Administrative Judicial Region of Texas
The Courtroom hosted a meeting for Second Administrative Judicial Region of Texas
Especially in the early years, the courtroom was abuzz with cases from all over the state. To be recognized as a legitimate legal venue, it was declared an extension of the Walker County courts, Roth said.

In 1977, Victoria ranch owner Hampton C. Robinson III was accused of killing Thomas Bauer, a member of another prominent ranching family from the community. The case was moved to Huntsville because of the amount of pre-trial publicity. Ironically, Dr. Wayland Pilcher, an attorney and professor at the College, served on the jury. A verdict of criminally negligent homicide was returned in just 18 minutes. Robinson served out his time in the Walker County Jail at his own request, Dr. Roth said in his book.

Sketches from the trials of Terry Denson and Stephen Orlando
Sketches from the trials of Terry Denson and Stephen Orlando.
Also in 1977, the College was the site of the trial of two Houston police officers –Terry Denson and Stephen Orlando – who were charged in the death of a young prisoner found drown in Buffalo Bayou three days after he was arrested in a tavern disturbance. The two defendants were convicted of criminally negligent homicide and also prosecuted by the federal government for civil rights violations. Sketches from that trial still hang outside the judge’s chambers near the Dean’s suite.

In 1978, the courtroom was the scene for a Corpus Christi murder trial, where Rose Marie Montelongo faced two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter in the beating death of her four-year-old stepdaughter. Her husband, Vicente Montelongo, had already been convicted of the crime, Dr. Roth said in his book.

Sketches from the trials of Terry Denson and Stephen Orlando
Sketches from the trials of Terry Denson and Stephen Orlando.
In 1980, the courtroom was the site of a jail break case, where Michael Clyde Jones of Border was charged with the death of jailer Jack Thompson. Jones was convicted of capital murder for killing the jailer during an escape attempt with cellmate and accomplice George Marshall Hall. Jones had been in jail on parole revocation from an earlier guilty plea to arson and had been indicted for a previous attempt to escape the jail. Hall was in on contempt of court charges for failure to pay child support. Both were caught the day after the shooting walking along a highway in Borger. Jones had taken the victim .357 magnum from the jail office to Hall, the triggerman, Dr. Roth said.

The jury deliberated five hours. While Jones was eligible for death, the jury returned verdict of life after 10 hours of deliberation. Because he used a gun in commission of crime, Texas law required him to serve 20 years, Dr. Roth said.

In 1983, Daniel Lee Culverhouse was convicted of the attempted murder of a Safeway Supermarket employee, a second trial following his conviction for killing his girlfriend in the same shooting spree. During the first trial, which occurred in Boston, Texas, Culverhouse attacked his court-appointed attorney in court with a water pitcher, breaking his cheekbone. Culverhouse asked to represent himself at trial, but by the end case, the attorney was back at his side. He was convicted of the attempted murder of the Safeway employee and sentenced to 20 years in prison, which he would serve after the life sentence he was given for killing his girlfriend, Dr. Roth said.

These are just some of the fascinating trials that have been decided in the College’s Courtroom, where real life cases continue to intrigue students from Sam Houston State University.


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