Former Jefferson Co. Judge dies from COVID complications – Beaumont Enterprise


Leonard J. Giblin Jr., who wanted to be a state trooper, but fell just under the height requirement and instead went to law school, ultimately becoming a giant of jurist in Jefferson County, died Saturday after suffering from COVID-19. He was 80 years old.

Giblin’s towering good temperament and grand sense of humor kept his courtrooms — always places of high drama between zealous prosecutors and equally impassioned defense lawyers — an arena of respect and fair play.

“In his court, you’d better know your law, because he knew it,” said Tom Maness, former Jefferson County district attorney and county court-at-law judge.” He made everyone feel comfortable in his courtroom, and I never saw him show any favoritism.”

Case in point: In October 1981, Giblin was appointed to preside in the trial of Vickie Daniel, whose husband was Price Daniel Jr., of Liberty County. Price was a former speaker of the Texas House and the son of a governor.

Price Daniel Jr. and Vickie Daniel had a tempestuous, four-year marriage and were about a week away from a divorce hearing when Vickie shot and killed him. Giblin acquitted her of the murder charge.

The flamboyant Houston defense lawyer Richard “Racehorse” Haynes represented Vickie Daniel in a child custody lawsuit and Giblin admitted he was a bit leery of Haynes and his courtroom abilities.

“I read every book on him I could find,” Giblin told The Enterprise in a May 1982 interview. “I read up on him like Patton did with Rommel,” referring to the World War II battlefield opponents.

Giblin said he was happy Haynes bowed out of the Daniel murder trial because if the two met in a courtroom, “Racehorse was going to jail on contempt charges, and I was going to the fifth floor of Baptist Hospital.”

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Tom Hanna, who turned 83 on Saturday, was elected district attorney in the early 1970s and wanted to revive the position of first assistant to run the office’s operations.

Walter Umphrey, who died earlier this month, had hired Giblin in his Port Arthur law firm but quickly realized Giblin wasn’t really interested in civil law or criminal defense.

Hanna said Umphrey told him he had a prospect for him and introduced Giblin to him. Giblin agreed to the job but only if he could have a police radio for his car, which he got.

One night, Giblin, his wife, Diane; and Hanna and his wife, Liz, were heading out to get crabs for dinner and the radio crackled that a body had been found floating in the ship channel. Giblin wheeled around to the funeral home where autopsies were done in those days, talked with the investigators and coroner and got back in his car to take the two couples to dinner.

Hanna said Giblin looked at his wife and said, “Those crabs ought to be full tonight.”

In another turn of serendipity, Hanna said he was invited to a conference by the Houston district attorney and Haynes was at the event. When Hanna told Haynes he was from Jefferson County, Haynes’ face lit up.

“(Giblin) is the best judge I ever tried a case in front of,” Hanna said.

He was very happy to pass that on to Giblin.

“I miss him terribly. We remained friends for more than 50 years. He was conscientious about seeking the well-being of the people of Jefferson County,” Hanna said.

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As Hanna had hired Giblin, Giblin, as first assistant district attorney, hired Maness in 1971.

“He had plenty of opportunity to go make a lot of money, if your idea of success is to do that,” Maness said. “He was a premiere civil servant. That’s what he wanted to do. He was scholarly and he knew how to run a docket.”

Giblin in 1974 ran for and won election as Jefferson County Judge. In August 1977, the state created the 252nd Criminal District Court in Jefferson County and Gov. Dolph Briscoe appointed Giblin as its first judge, the office in which he served until his retirement at the end of 2001.

“He had one of the best judicial careers in Jefferson County,” Maness said.

He presided in some of the toughest capital murder cases arising in the county.

A Newsweek magazine article from Oct. 17, 1983, observed this about the state of Texas against capital murderer James David Autry, who killed a convenience store clerk during a robbery in Port Arthur:

“The law was the law and Judge Leonard Giblin had always run a tight, brisk and scrupulously fair trial. He swallowed hard, threw out (Autry’s) confession and thought unhappily: ‘I may have let a capital murderer walk the streets.’”

Autry was convicted despite the confession that his attorney said was coerced. The death sentence, decided by the jury, was upheld. Autry was executed in March 1982.

For Giblin, the hard part for him remained. He had to set an execution date. He’d set dates for convicted capital murderers before, but Autry would be the first since Texas resumed executions featuring lethal injections.

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“What started bothering me was the fact that I picked out the date he was to die. That’s an awesome responsibility,” Giblin told The Enterprise. “If I wasn’t satisfied that he was guilty, I could have called and stopped his execution. But I didn’t. And a lot of judges looked at what I did during the trial and said it looked like I did it right.”

In that era, the Jefferson County Courthouse seemed a more intimate and personal place in which judges and lawyers could gather around a long, low-slung filing cabinet in the district clerk’s office, drink coffee together and trade gossip and jokes. They were professionals working their jobs but mindful of the seriousness of the work, said Larry Thorne, judge of the 31th District Court who is retiring at year’s end.

“People trusted each other,” he said. “Giblin was funny. I was in the district attorney’s office and was the chief prosecutor in his court. He used to call me Frog because I was jumping up to object. He had an excellent temperament and he loved to laugh. You could always go to him and ask for help or direction.”

Maness said Giblin was simply just fun to be around.

“His mama spoke pure Cajun French, and he could tell those ol’ jokes,” Maness said.

As to the coffee breaks in the clerk’s office, none of that worried Maness, who had been a judge then the elected criminal district attorney.

“Everybody respected each other and knew they had a job to do,” he said. “Jefferson County was blessed to have him.”

Dan Wallach is a freelance writer.



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