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EXPLAINER: A Texas judge and prosecutor discusses Jermall Charlo’s felony assault case

What lies ahead for Jermall Charlo after his arrest last week in Fort Bend County, Texas?

Jermall Charlo v Dennis Hogan - Press Conference
Jermall Charlo v Dennis Hogan - Press Conference
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images
John Hansen joined Bad Left Hook as a staff writer in 2021 and co-hosts the "Prophets of Goom" podcast.

February has been a tumultuous month for WBC middleweight champion Jermall Charlo.

For weeks, rumors have swirled of a possible mega-fight against undisputed super middleweight champ Canelo Alvarez. And at the beginning of the month, Charlo was cleared of all charges in a dismissed second degree felony robbery case that took almost six months to resolve.

Then, last week, with his legal issues seemingly behind him and the very real possibility that the Canelo fight he’s wanted for years could finally be within reach, Charlo was arrested in Fort Bend County, Texas on felony assault charges.

According to the indictment, Charlo injured a male relative by “punching or grabbing him by his hair” on September 5th, 2021. Charlo was released on $10,000 bail, and his attorney told TMZ that the claim is “an attempt to shake Jermall down for money.”

The case is complicated by the victim’s status as a member of Charlo’s “family or household,” as identified in the indictment. Charlo was previously convicted of a misdemeanor domestic battery charge in Nevada back in 2015. The terms of that sentence were satisfied over six years ago, but the Nevada conviction in a domestic violence case enhanced his new Texas case to a felony.

What comes next for Charlo? What do these charges mean, and how does his prior conviction influence the possible resolutions for this new case?

For answers to those questions and more, Bad Left Hook spoke with Njeri Mathis Rutledge, a tenured professor at the South Texas College of Law, and a former Houston Municipal Court Judge.

Ms. Rutledge has no direct involvement in this case, and no first-hand knowledge of the investigation, prosecution, or defense of Mr. Charlo in Fort Bend County. But, prior to her twelve years as a judge, she worked as a lead prosecutor in the neighboring Harris County District Attorney’s Office. She was kind enough to share her professional and academic knowledge of Texas criminal law and domestic violence issues.

Over the course of our interview, she shared her thoughts on the specific charges, how Charlo’s status as a star local athlete could influence defense and prosecution strategy, and the legal complexities of a domestic violence situation involving a male assault victim.

Our full conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

NOTE: Documents related to Charlo’s arrest and conviction in Nevada were not available for review at the time of interview or publication. A Las Vegas Justice Court order categorizes court documents as “presumptively confidential,” and all requests undergo a multi-stage review by administrative staff, attorneys, and a justice of the peace. The expedited process for media requests will not be complete until the middle of next week at the earliest. If and when those materials become available, Bad Left Hook will update accordingly.

BAD LEFT HOOK: Since you’re a former judge and district attorney, I’d like to start by asking for your perspective and interpretation on the specific charge. What does this particular felony mean, in terms of potential and likely outcomes?

NJERI MATHIS RUTLEDGE: This is certainly an interesting case. Normally, when you cause bodily injury, which is defined under Texas law as ‘pain,’ through things like slapping, kicking, or I believe the indictment said that hair was pulled, that would be a Class A misdemeanor.

But, because we’re dealing with someone who has a prior conviction out in Nevada, under Texas law, it’s enhanced to a third degree felony. Normal third degree felonies would be choking someone, assaulting them with a deadly weapon, or causing some sort of serious bodily injury. Here, based on the complaint, the complaining witness probably felt pain as defined under the [misdemeanor] statute.

The case is further complicated, at least from Mr. Charlo’s perspective, because of the ongoing pandemic. We have a disaster enhancement in place any time the Governor has declared a state of emergency. That has bumped the punishment range up to that of a second degree felony. So, the punishment range is actually two to twenty years.

Now, cases like this could get probation. That’s certainly possible. It just depends on the underlying facts, which we don’t really know yet.

We’ve seen the indictment, which is a little thin on details, though I was a little surprised it included the victim’s name. Generally, we don’t see a lot of those details in assault and particularly in domestic violence cases, correct?

That is correct. It’s more likely in sexual assault cases they will try to preserve anonymity. But, in Texas, the indictment is a public record. It has to go to the grand jury, and they have to name the complaining witness.

What does the charging decision tell us? It sounds like Charlo’s history and the state of emergency limits choices a little bit. Does that fact that Charlo was charged this way tell us anything given that an alternative, either greater or lesser, charge wasn’t chosen instead?

Not really. As a former prosecutor, I was always taught that you should charge what you can prove. And enhancement paragraphs certainly have to be proven to a jury.

But, in terms of policy, family violence assault cases are very serious. And looking at the indictment, where the complainant alleges he was punched and his hair was grabbed, that would normally be a Class A misdemeanor assault. Now, because of [Charlo’s] past, the prosecution really is bound. And by a matter of policy, we don’t want to ignore family violence cases. That’s why we enhance them. There are certain cases where, if you continue a pattern of behavior, you’re going to be charged with a felony. And that’s what happened here.

So, I don’t think there was over or undercharging. I think the charge was just about right. I would be curious to see how Fort Bend County is handling the disaster enhancement, which is certainly permissible by law. I’m curious to see if they’re doing that routinely in all cases, or just this one. That would be interesting information to know.

The bail in this case struck me as surprisingly low, in that it was set at $10,000 for a multi-millionaire. Does that dollar amount give any indication of the severity of the incident, or the perceived seriousness with which the case will be pursued?

I’m assuming that the D.A.’s office is acting in good faith and taking the case seriously. Given that, under Texas law, the defendant’s status as a millionaire is only one factor. And that goes to his ability to pay. But, there are other factors we’re supposed to look at when considering bail.

One factor is the victim’s safety, which can be addressed by a no contact order or an emergency protective order. Also, [Charlo’s] past criminal record. Ties to the community. The type of offense. Here, the allegation is that he pulled and grabbed someone by their hair. And that’s serious, but it’s not on the level of a murder case.

Bail also isn’t meant to be an instrument of oppression. We have a presumption of innocence, so we don’t use bail to pre-punish people. It just needs to be sufficiently high to ensure his appearance in court. Because this isn’t a homicide case, I don’t think there’s any concern about him fleeing the country.

I can say that when I was a prosecutor, $10,000 would have been a reasonable amount for a third degree felony with a prior conviction.

What should we take from the fact that the arrest was made in February over an incident that happened back in September?

That is unclear because of a lot of factors. Usually, the number one factor in delaying an indictment or arrest is a police investigation.

When the complaining witness contacted the police, was it a situation where he called 9-1-1 and they were dispatched immediately? Or, did the complaining witness delay reporting in the first place? That’s a big question.

Number two, even if the police responded right away, was the defendant present so they could interview him? Or, did the police just need to do some additional investigation? Those are the first questions that would help determine your answer.

It’s also important to note that the indictment wasn’t handed down until January, and the defendant wasn’t arrested until after the grand jury indicted him. It is not unusual for a defendant to be arrested before an indictment.

That’s actually my next question. Looking at the court documents, it says the indictment came on January 18th and the bench warrant was issued eight days later on the 26th, but not served until February 11th. Is there anything unusual about the timeline or process there?

The fact that Charlo wasn’t arrested before the indictment is unusual based on my experience. However, this happened in Fort Bend County, and I practiced in Harris County.

How many days did you say it took?

Eight days between indictment and warrant, then around two weeks between warrant being issued and warrant being served and arrest being made.

No, I don’t think that’s an unusually lengthy time. It appears that Kent Schaffer has been his lawyer before, so it’s possible they contacted his attorney and just had him turn himself in. Two weeks isn’t out of the ordinary for a case that doesn’t involve a homicide or more serious felony charge.

It’s also possible that [Charlo] may have been out of town. Looking at his past interaction [on a robbery charge in San Antonio] where he was exonerated, it looks like it took a little while for him to be arrested for that as well.

You mentioned Charlo’s attorney, Kent Schaffer. Any direct experience with him, or thoughts and insights on his professional reputation as a defense attorney?

Yes, Kent Schaffer has a very strong reputation of being an excellent and aggressive defense attorney. When I was a prosecutor, I was in court with him during docket, but we have not tried a case together.

His reputation is solid. I have no doubt that Mr. Charlo is going to be very well represented.

There are some interesting timelines overlapping here, in that Charlo was involved in a case in San Antonio involving allegedly robbing a waitress. This assault indictment and warrant started to develop, based on what we see in the court documents, shortly before it was announced that the San Antonio case was being dismissed.

Skeptics can see the origination of this assault case as an opportunistic attempt at leverage to get money. Sympathetic observers might think that the victim wanted to avoid this situation, and only pursued action once it became clear Charlo wouldn’t face any legal consequences in the robbery case. Can you tell us, as someone that’s had to evaluate situations like this, what sort of things you look at and weigh when making determinations on how or if to proceed with a case?

Well, the timing is certainly curious. And that could have played a role in the police investigation and any delay in bringing charges in this case.

The most important issue as a prosecutor is witness credibility, and what the evidence shows. So, if the prosecutor’s office found this complaining witness appeared credible, reliable, and truthful, then they’re under an obligation to proceed.

Now, the robbery case was such a strange case, and one that he was ultimately exonerated from… [Pause] To me, it seems far-fetched for someone to use that case as a jumping point to try and get money from this defendant. Because the facts in that one are just really weird.

I also have a hard time thinking that a male victim, not romantically involved with the defendant, would stay silent, hoping that the defendant would be arrested or face consequences for another case. As a prosecutor, I would always proceed with caution. But if I felt the witness was credible, I would move forward.

You were a judge and a prosecutor in Harris County, which covers the city of Houston and is adjacent to Fort Bend County, where Charlo’s case is being handled.

I think that the political, economic, or demographic impression people have of Houston, Austin, Dallas, or any major Texas city might differ from what we see across the county line into what I would consider a more conservative area like Sugar Land and Richmond in Fort Bend County.

How does the venue of Fort Bend County potentially influence the process and potential outcomes for this case?

I think venue and location always impacts a trial. I did look at the area, and it’s actually pretty diverse according to the Census Bureau. If this was a hot-button political issue, maybe there would be greater concern. But, in this instance, we’re just asking a potential jury to put away any preconceived notions, and focus on the evidence. And I’m sure the citizens of Fort Bend County can do that.

Now, there are certainly areas in Texas where I’ve practiced as an attorney that have a very dark history. Klan meetings, long standing issues of white supremacy, all of that. But, that’s not Fort Bend County. I think it’ll be fine in Fort Bend County.

What about the fact that Charlo is a black athlete famous for a combat sport? Particularly given that he’s known for having a brash personality and a history of legal entanglements? How does that change the dynamics and the calculus for someone defending or prosecuting a case like this?

For a prosecutor, that’s something they can really play off of. Any time you’re in a fight with a world class boxer, there’s potential for serious violence and you’re almost certainly going to be outmanned. Someone like that, you would want them to exhibit self control and keep their hands to themselves.

As a prosecutor, I would, for lack of a better word, try to “clip the angel wings” in the eyes of anyone that sees him as a hero, and try to highlight any violent tendencies. As a defense attorney, I’m sure Kent Schaffer is going to help him tone down some of that brashness before the trial.

Generally, his legal entanglements and celebrity aren’t things a jury should be considering. But, because we have an enhancement paragraph which gives the felony court jurisdiction, a jury does get to know about that prior case.

So, there’s no avoiding the details of the Nevada case if this ends up before a jury, or in the event of a bench trial… Is a bench trial even an option in this situation?

Oh, a bench trial is always an option. In Texas, we value the right to a jury trial so much that you can get a jury trial for anything, including a seat belt case. But, if the defense wanted to waive that right to a jury trial, and the prosecution didn’t object, they could certainly do that. It’s unlikely that would happen, but it’s certainly his right.

But if this does end up in front of a jury, there’s no way to try and get his prior conviction excluded because it ties into the preconditions of the charge?

Absolutely, because of the charge. Normally, we have a bifurcated system in Texas. That means we have separate guilt/innocence and punishment stages. When someone is found guilty and there’s a punishment phase, any bad thing that’s ever happened that might show a propensity for violence, even if the police were called to their house for an incident that didn’t result in a conviction, all of it comes in.

We usually keep it out during the guilt and innocence stage because we don’t want people prejudged based on their past. But, because it was a prerequisite for jurisdiction, the jury would have to know about it.

Jermall Charlo and his brother Jermell are quite well known in the Houston area. Last June, the Mayor of Houston declared “Jermall and Jermell Charlo Day” as part of a big publicity event where the Charlo brothers received framed proclamations in their honor.

We’ve already seen stories about a county commissioner reaching out to prosecutors in Bexar County over the robbery charge where Jermall Charlo was ultimately exonerated, and the family isn’t even from that area. How does a defendant with the stature of a local hero and star athlete change the dynamics of a case like this?

The county commissioner did a very foolish thing contacting the D.A. in that case. Especially because that hit the media, I doubt a mistake like that will happen again.

But, in terms of navigating this case? For the prosecutor, they need to downplay the hero status and the fascination we have with athletes and celebrities. That will be their job, to show that the real person is not the public persona… Or, maybe it is his public persona, right? That the violent person you see in the ring is the same one who lives in his home.

As the defense? To the extent there are fans who value and appreciate all the hard work it took for him to build the career he has built? That celebrity actually benefits the defense much more than the prosecution.

You have a lot of academic and professional experience with cases involving domestic violence. How does that element of domestic violence change the situation in terms of investigation, prosecution, and resolution of an assault case?

Oh, domestic violence is challenging in most assault cases primarily because of that relationship between the alleged assailant and the victim. It’s one thing to call the police in the heat of the moment and make an accusation. It’s very challenging for some people to stick to their guns after there’s been a cooling-off period and they’re thinking about the potential consequences for someone that they live with, or have a relationship with, or is a member of their family, possibly being convicted.

It’s also complicated because in many cases, they do maintain a relationship or continue to live in the same household. Another interesting question is, “Is the complaining victim still living there or not?” The victim may depend on the assailant for financial support. All of those things have an impact.

As a prosecutor, when we have a domestic violence victim versus a traditional assault victim, there are other concerns about protective orders and no-contact orders. Because of the relationship, there’s a chance of the victim being re-assaulted. There are concerns about counseling when we have post-traumatic stress response. And in more traditional family violence cases, there are patterns of a cycle of violence and what people may have heard of as ‘battered woman syndrome.’

In a traditional case of assault, eyewitnesses are compliant, ready to cooperate, and want to see justice done. But because of that real connection and feeling of loyalty in a family violence case, or a case where you know the perpetrator, it can be really hard. You’ll often have complaining witnesses who think about changing their mind, and then we have to start talking about mandatory prosecution and no-drop policies. There, we go forward regardless because of concerns that the victim may still be within the defendant’s control and may not be able to advocate for him or herself.

You mentioned “more traditional” domestic violence cases. In this situation, there’s an added twist, at least in terms of public perception, because the victim in this situation is a same-sex, non-romantic adult member of the household or family.

We’ve seen public observers of this case question whether a domestic violence law is “supposed” to apply in circumstances like this. Why is it that these laws are written in a way that does cover this sort of situation, when the perception of “traditional” domestic violence usually means a female victim or a romantic partner?

Not only does the public have that perception, but unfortunately I think many jurors can have that perception as well. But, the fact of the matter is, it’s exactly what the legislature intended to apply this law broadly. It’s not just meant to apply to married couples and dating couples. It’s also for parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Because violence within that family structure is a concern regardless of a romantic relationship.

I also think, just from an evidentiary perspective, it can be challenging sometimes to prove that people had a romantic relationship. Or, in a situation where people were dating, that they were engaged in a sexual relationship. Sometimes, it’s easier when we can just say: “Okay, you lived together. Doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do behind closed doors.” If you lived together, you shouldn’t be abusing people that you live with and have this extra level of control and intimate knowledge about.

There’s something just more heinous about you harming someone that you have that close relationship with. I think that’s exactly why the legislature decided to cast that net so broadly.

There have also been comments made, including among the readers of our site, that show a stigma against a male victim reporting a situation like this one. “If I get into a fight at a barbeque or a party, it shouldn’t take the police to sort it out,” that sort of thing. In your experience and observation as a prosecutor, how much harder, or how much less frequent is it for male victims to pursue legal remedies in a situation like this?

It is very hard for male victims of crime to seek justice, whether we’re talking about a physical assault or a sexual assault. It’s an extra burden for prosecutors to push past those preconceived notions. It’s definitely a consideration when you’re presenting to a jury.

But what we have to remember is that this isn’t just two men fighting. This involves someone with a whole career as a boxer! And, correct me if I’m wrong, but he’s a world champion?

Yes, and an undefeated one.

Well, if a world champion boxer turns physically abusive, that is not a fair fight. When the police investigate, especially when there are two males that aren’t romantically involved, one of the first questions is: “Is this really mutual combat?” Meaning, is this just a couple of guys fighting?

The police presumably did their investigation. The grand jury heard the probable cause and decided to indict. Now, it’s up to hearing both sides from the prosecution and the defense, and determining what really happened.

There was another recent assault case in Ohio involving a different boxer named Robert Easter Jr that didn’t involve a romantic partner or household member. There was no domestic violence involved, and the resolution of the case was probation with no additional incarceration.

We’ve seen other combat sports athletes bargain for probation or suspended sentences, often as part of a civil settlement with assault victims. Given what you mentioned earlier about mandatory prosecution and no-drop policies, does the family aspect of the case change the range of potential outcomes for Mr. Charlo?

Yes and no. I know that’s probably not the best answer for you, but it’s the truthful answer. It really depends on the policies of that D.A.’s office. And the Ohio case that you’re referencing was shocking, because [Easter] actually knocked a young woman unconscious.

It’s the job, and it’s actually written into our Texas code, for a prosecutor not to seek convictions, but to see that justice is done. But, what does justice look like in an assault case, and in a family violence case in particular?

As a prosecutor, you get to use your best judgment based on the evidence. And it’s not really the victim who dictates what happens. Although a victim may try to get a civil settlement and push for certain things, ultimately the prosecutor decides what justice looks like, and whether to move forward with a criminal case.

In terms of what plea bargaining looks like, in some ways it’s the same. We’re looking at potentially jail time, or probation, or they could abandon the enhancement paragraphs and take this back to a misdemeanor. But, because it’s family violence, there are other potential complications. Oftentimes in family violence cases there are requests or petitions from the complaining witness, whether they have a change of heart or succumb to family pressure, where they say “I don’t want [a prosecution] to happen.” “We need his financial support.” “We need him as part of the family.” “I made a mistake.” I’ve had people tell me they don’t want that defendant exposed to the perceived racism of the criminal justice system.

When that happens, we take a step back and acknowledge it’s one of those family violence cases where they’re not going to break up or separate. How can we get the family help? Sometimes help means batterer intervention programs. Sometimes it means anger management with probation. And sometimes, help means jail time.

I’ve had victims call me when I was a prosecutor pleading with me to “Please let him out of jail!” But, sometimes, based on the evidence of the case and in the best interests of justice, jail time was what was required.

I keep coming back to the facts of the case, that a young man claims he was physically assaulted. I try to evaluate it, and a lot of how I think about it is in terms of sexual assault cases, where every time we get a confirmed false report, it distorts our perception of the credibility of any claim. Those false allegations echo louder than any of the legitimate cases in the system, and the ones that never even exist within the system because of fear, intimidation, or the victim’s refusal to involve themselves in the machinery of the legal process.

I’m so torn on how to interpret this story because the description in the indictment isn’t overly dramatic. It’s just a simple incident where a young man says his relative grabbed him by the hair, hit him, and hurt him. I don’t know how to weigh the possibility that someone is, as Charlo’s lawyer Kent Schaffer claims, trying to shake Charlo down for money, against how traumatic it must have been for the victim to feel the need to get the police involved with his celebrity athlete relative.

I recognize there’s not really a question here. But, it’s nice when you can at least navigate the situation and come to some comprehensible perspective on it. And even when I consider the very logical first public response from Charlo’s lawyer, I still come back to the conclusion that if there was absolutely nothing to this, there wouldn’t be a case and there wouldn’t be an indictment. Especially given the stigma of being a male domestic violence victim… You said earlier that men are often so ashamed when they’re victimized in this way, and I can’t imagine it’s easy for a man the victim’s age to come out and publicize being assaulted by his relative.

I feel like I have so many questions about the murky and uncertain aspects of a case like this, but just don’t have any idea how to articulate them in an appropriate way.

It is a frustration, because there’s so much we don’t know. We don’t have details of how big or small the victim is. It could have been an absolutely terrifying situation for him!

To address what you said about the possibility the victim is lying, and that Mr. Schaffer is right that this is a shakedown for money: Well, then the prosecutor’s office is obligated to consider filing charges for filing a false report. We don’t want anyone’s rights to be violated because of someone lying, if they are in fact lying.

If this was a party or a gathering, there should be other witnesses. It will be interesting to see if people take sides. Are they all going to say they saw the same thing? Did anyone else actually witness the event? Was the victim pressured to come forward to police? Maybe it wasn’t his primary idea to come forward. Was there any delay in him talking about it? All of those are significant questions that make this quite a fascinating case.

That was an excellent response, and so much more clear and comprehensible than the non-question that prompted it. I appreciate it.

Let’s start talking about final thoughts now. I think you’ve done a great job of breaking down the relevant questions, possible outcomes, and complicating factors here. Is there anything else you’d advise people to keep in mind as this case navigates to whatever conclusion awaits?

I would encourage everyone to keep an open mind.

Regardless of what the truth is in this case, family violence is a serious issue that should not be taken lightly. In the end, we want to get to the truth of things, in this case as in any other.

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