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Sunday, July 6, 2014 - 7:19pm
Kenneth Robert Norris, an Army veteran who served during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, became the first graduate of the El Paso Veterans Court Program June 25.
“I was able to succeed because I was able to apply myself, and I know that will happen for all our participants – every single one,” said Norris to a packed room at the El Paso County Courthouse.
“We’ve had some folks who have had some difficulties, and finally they saw it. ‘Oh. I get it now,’ and now their lives will be that much better.”
The Veterans Court, associated with the 346th District Court, helps veterans adjudicate their cases outside the regular criminal justice system and receive treatment instead of a criminal conviction. El Paso’s veterans’ court, the second in Texas, began in 2009, and there are similar courts throughout the country. There are 27 participants in El Paso’s program, said Silvia Serna, El Paso Veterans Court program director.
Norris, who began working with the program in January 2013, went above and beyond the court’s expectations, said Judge Angie Juarez Barill, the court’s founding judge and judge of the 346th District Court.
Not only has Norris done well pursing a degree online through Thomas Edison State College, based in Trenton, New Jersey, but he has helped homeless people and volunteered with the New Mexico State Guard at his rank of sergeant to help evacuate people in El Paso and Doña Ana counties during severe storms, Barill said.
Participants in the court, including Norris, are true patriots, Barill said.
“I want to say that when Mr. Norris signed up for the military, he basically gave our country a blank check and said, ‘I’m enlisted to fight the wars. Send me wherever you want to send me,’ and he did,” Barill said. “And they did, and it is because of individuals like him who serve and have sacrificed to our country that he, and not only he, but also his family makes, that we continue every day to enjoy our freedoms.”
Speakers at the event included 34th District Court Judge Bill Moody, State Representative Joe Moody (D-District 78, El Paso), and El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar. Col. Karen H. Carlisle, Staff Judge Advocate, 1st Armored Division, attended, and led the ceremony in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Escobar said the number of people who stepped up to help with the program impressed her.
“In many ways that is classic El Paso,” Escobar said. “Anyone who has lived in this community for a long time knows that we take care of each other. We wrap our arms around one another and we don’t stop until we have assisted. Mr. Norris, I hope you have felt this community wrap its arms around you.”
Judge Moody said Barill has done a tremendous job establishing the court.
“This was her dream,” Moody said. “This was her concept. This has taken her time, her energy and her efforts to make this happen. All of us owe a great deal of appreciation to this very forward thinking, forward moving project that she has been at the center of.”
State Rep. Moody, son of judge Moody, said he is a former assistant district attorney, and when helping establish the court in the state legislature, he had in mind the memory of a criminal defendant who had deployed five times and racked up two driving while intoxicated charges in quick succession.
“The judge said, ‘You don’t want an attorney?’ He said, ‘No sir. I don’t want an attorney. I just want to go to jail. I want to plead guilty and I want to go to jail,’” Moody said. “He kept his head down and you could tell that something wasn’t quite right.”
The judge kept talking to the defendant though, and reminded him that not only did he have rights, but there was help available, Moody said.
“(The judge) could have moved the case off his docket and let it go and not try to intervene in that young man’s life, and he probably would have killed himself or maybe someone else. But (the judge) stepped in,” Moody said.
Barill is taking the same action in her court, and by doing that, she is not only helping individual lives, but for the community and the nation as a whole, Moody said.
“We’re celebrating today the first graduation, and I know years down the road when many lives have been impacted and many destinies have been changed, we’re going to look back on this with fondness and know that we have done the right thing,” Moody said.