Judge was the ‘dean of Bexar judiciary’
Retired Senior District Judge Wayne Patrick “Pat” Priest, whose decision to call for new trials led to the exoneration of the “San Antonio Four,” died unexpectedly early Friday after a brief illness.
Priest, 77, presided over many high-profile regional, state and national cases. In 2010, he presided over the politically charged criminal trial of former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, at one time the House majority leader, who was convicted of money laundering and conspiracy. The convictions were later overturned.
In 2016, Priest recommended new trials for Elizabeth Ramirez, Anna Vasquez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera, known as the “San Antonio Four,” who were convicted of sexually assaulting two girls in the 1990s. Priest stopped short of declaring them innocent but said the case needed another look.
Bexar County District Attorney Nicholas “Nico” LaHood said at the time he did not believe pursuing the cases anew would be in the interest of justice, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals exonerated them, asserting in plain but forceful language that they did not sexually assault two young girls in 1994, for which they had spent years in prison.
News of Priest’s death Friday from septic shock with multiple organ failure saddened many who looked up to him in the Bexar County justice center.
“It feels like the end of an era,” said Melissa Barlow Fischer, general administrative counsel for the Bexar County Criminal District Court Administration.
She described Priest as an oldschool judge who was respected by all in Bexar County’s halls of justice, regardless of age.
“He taught so many of us here to try cases, young and old,” Fischer said.
Priest earned a bachelor’s degree from Tulane University and his law degree from St. Mary’s
University School of Law. According to his website, he married his wife, Nancy, in 1961. They had four children and three grandchildren.
He was admitted to the State Bar of Texas in 1968 and became board-certified in criminal law in 1975. He was elected state district judge in 1980 and presided over the 187th state District Court until 1994.
In 1995, he became a visiting judge and presided over cases by assignment. Priest stopped sitting as a visiting judge last year when his health began to deteriorate, Fischer said.
Besides presiding over cases, Priest taught criminal law, criminal procedure and trial advocacy as an adjunct professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law and wrote a book, “Texas Courtroom Criminal Evidence,” published in 1998, Fischer said.
“He was so much more than all that,” Fischer said, calling him “the dean of the Bexar County judiciary.”
She said she knows of some judges who have told her when they have a question or a difficult situation, they would call Priest, or simply ask themselves, “What would Pat Priest do?”
Calling Priest a mentor, friend and confidant, Visiting Judge Philip A. Kazen said Priest’s passing was “a huge loss, personally and professionally.”
“He had an encyclopedic knowledge of law,” Kazen said. “He was a judge’s judge and always the smartest lawyer in the courtroom.”
Fischer said Priest was the best friend of her father, former prosecutor and retired state District Court Judge James Barlow. Barlow died in 2010.
“(Priest) and my dad started the Romeo Breakfast Club, which stood for retired old men eating out,” Fischer said.
“Judge Barlow and Judge Priest were thick as thieves,” Kazen said, adding that their camaraderie was admired by many.
Services for Priest are pending.
“He had an encyclopedic knowledge of law. He was a judge’s judge, and always the smartest lawyer in the courtroom.” Visiting Judge Philip A. Kazen