Like Banquo’s Ghost, the T.J. Burris Story Won’t Stay Buried
By Investigative Reporter John Taft 3-25-01
Grants Pass -- The following story originally appeared in Behind the Scenes in JoCo. Strobezone is now gathering the stories on T.J. Burris who was sentenced to several years in the Oregon Penitentiary. Was he guilty of the sex offenses as charged? This we will never know because of the fair trial issue. Did Judge O’Neal, DA Prosecutor Jody Stutsman Vaughn, and Oregon State Police Investigator John Anderson all behave in a rational and fair manner? The local news media: The Sneak Preview, the Daily Courier, KAJO radio were all involved in the T.J. Burris trial. Were they fair or biased?
The Sneak Preview’s editor Curtis Hayden probably did more to stop the recall of the Judge than all others combined. Hayden incorrectly quoted Jody Stutsman Vaughn as saying Burris had previously been convicted of a sex offense. This wasn’t true and Hayden recanted the statement and apologized. But, the public read it and believed. This saved O’Neal..
Local pastors spoke from their church ordained 501 c 3 organizations on this great public debate. Judge O’Neal belonged to one of the prominent churches. I spoke to Pastor Bob Bonner of Calvary Crossroads who defended Judge O’Neal in regard to the judge’s questionable courtroom behavior. Pastor Bonner showed a bias in favor of the judge. Did he influence his congregation on how to vote to recall the judge? This would be an easy thing for a pastor to do, and the conclusion is not a difficult one.
Now Judge Gardner is holding court hearings (March 22,01) in Josephine County on charges brought by local defense attorneys against the district attorney’s office of improperly influencing grand juries. The DA is accused of influencing grand juries by using instructors from various agencies, including children’s services, narcotic officers, state police officers, to inform the jurors on the legalities of, drugs, and sex abuse cases pertaining to the indictment the DA was seeking. The result, usually, was an indictment. In fact, if the rate of indictments by the grand juries wasn’t 100% this reporter would be greatly surprised. Under this tutoring the grand jury became clones of the DA. How can the state lose on a deal like that? The fact is they seldom did. Interestingly, Jody Stutsman Vaughn, the excitable T.J. Burris prosecutor, was the one that brought in children’s services to inform grand juries on sex cases.
This grand jury sent T.J. Burris on a long tortuous journey through the infamous Josephine County criminal justice system. In attempting to defend himself Burris spent well over $100,000 on his defense, with a reported $80,000 going to his defense attorney Claudia Brown’s firm. In the end Burris went to prison. First the procedures then the conviction. The DA gets up to a 98 percent conviction rate in most prosecutions.
One of the biggest money transfer agencies in this county of about 75,000 is the Josephine county criminal justice system coupled with the local attorneys.
At the conclusion of this article are the following prophetic words: "The road this case has taken may be rife with potentially damaging legal land mines that could start exploding at anytime, to the embarrassment of those involved." It appears the land mines have started to explode 29 months after the following article was written. Will there finally be fair trials and justice in Josephine County, and what about T.J. Burris? JT
The following is from the web site of Behind the Scenes in JoCo:
10/13/98 Folks the following article is from GUEST REPORTER John Taft. Mister Taft is the editor of the JCTA Monthly Report, a newsletter with a significant number of readers in JoCo... He is also President of the Josephine County Taxpayers Association (JCTA). Mister Taft's contributions to my page Behind the Scenes in JoCo are always welcome here...
October 13, 1998
Editor Peter Sparacino
Sparacino's Web Page [Behind the Scenes in JoCo]
Dear Mr. Editor:
The October 1998, "Readers Digest" page 55, has a short story about a
13-year old boy that cried he was sexual molested, by his mother's
twenty-one year old boy friend. The prosecutor pursued the case, the judge
helped the case along, and the jury convicted. An older man on the jury
didn't buy the boy's story. He thought the boy concocted the story to keep
his mother from marrying this man. The rest of the jury was angry that
this juror did want to convict the man. The other jurors questioned his
hearing and mental abilities.
He finally gave in and voted for conviction. Afterwards his conscience
bothered him because he had been part of a flagrant miscarriage of
justice. He hired an attorney and spent $6,500 of his own money to help
the twenty-one year old man win his freedom.
The judge voided the conviction on the grounds of improper representation,
and the boy later recanted his allegations, saying his earlier statements
were a lie.
The Josephine County District Attorney's Office is small, funding is
limited, and it does not have its own investigator.
The DA's office handles nearly 6,000 cases annually with approximately a
98 percent conviction ratio for the cases prosecuted. Are mistakes made in
the processing and conviction of this huge number of cases? Does the DA's
office ever admit to making an error? Are errors ever glossed over? In
order to save face for the prosecutor or the DA office's reputation, are
possible victims left to languish in jail or with a criminal record?
I often think of Prosecutor Jody Vaughn and her seemingly rabid attitude
toward and her vigorous prosecution of T.J. Burris for alleged sexual
acts involving a child. Thinking about the parallel elements in these two
cases leads me to speculate that if the case involving the thirteen year
old boy was brought to the attention of the JoCo DA's office would it
prosecute if it had the same information the other DA's office used in
prosecuting the twenty-one year man? Ans. Probably. Would Prosecutor
Jody Vaughn prosecute the twenty-one year old man as she pursued legal
punishment for T.J. Burris? Ans. Most likely. Would Judge O'Neil respond
similarly as he did in the two T.J. Burris trials? Ans. Most likely. And
last, would a jury given the same controlled information by the
prosecutor and witnesses vote for prosecution? Again, most likely.
The problem is that the boy was lying, and the entire prosecution revolved
around a lie. The case investigator bought into the lie of the 13-year-old
like the OSP investigator has allegedly done with the child who accused
T.J. Burris. The OSP investigator has reportedly said that, " Without a
doubt T.J. Burris is guilty." The DA's office thought the case had merit
to prosecute the twenty-one year old man, the prosecutor pursued the lie,
the judge was involved in the lie, and the jury was fed lies that they
believed (most of them) and voted for conviction. Could this have happened
to T.J. Burris here in Josephine County?
You can't say it couldn't have happened in the T.J. Burris case. In the
other case the 13-year-old boy lied, a miscarriage of justice took place,
and the entire judicial system bought into that lie. A 21-year-old man
went to prison for something he didn't do. Many community residents
believe the same thing happened in the T.J. Burris trial.
On October 5, 1998, after the second hearing and two trials, Judge O'Neil
is reading transcripts of the second trial to see if he believes there is
reason to hold another trial for an apparent juror problem that could have
prejudiced the case against Mr. Burris thus depriving him of his
The road this case has taken may be rife with potentially damaging legal
land mines that could start exploding at anytime to the embarrassment of