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Opponent challenges judge’s treatment of pregnant defendant

District Judge William “Bill” Kephart once asked for proof of marriage before giving a pregnant woman probation on a battery charge.

One of Kephart’s challengers in the Department 19 race, Fikisha Miller, offered that example during a recent debate after saying the incumbent “routinely treats people in his court with disrespect.”

“Mr. Kephart threatened a seventh-month pregnant woman with a felony unless she got married,” Miller said. “And then once she got married and provided proof to the court, he sentenced her to a felony anyway.”

Miller, a deputy public defender who did not represent the woman, later shared video of the 2017 hearing with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which hosted the debate.

Through a court spokeswoman, the judge declined to comment on the case. During the debate, which was conducted via videoconference, he did not respond directly to Miller’s comments about the sentencing. Crystal Eller, a third candidate for Kephart’s seat, did not address the issue.

After striking a deal with prosecutors, Charla Pate pleaded guilty to battery with substantial bodily harm, which could have been treated as a felony or a gross misdemeanor.

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At an initial sentencing hearing in September 2017, a prosecutor told the judge that Pate had 13 prior misdemeanor convictions for charges such as trespassing and petty larceny.

In the case at hand, Pate was involved in an altercation and threw rocks, striking a man in the head, the prosecutor said, recommending a gross misdemeanor conviction with jail time.

Defense attorney Ken Frizzell argued for probation, pointing out that Pate had no prior felony or gross misdemeanor convictions.

Pate apologized to the judge and told him she was seven months pregnant.

“I don’t want to get in trouble,” she said. “I’m trying to stay out of trouble.”

Kephart asked if the father was in the courtroom, and a man in the gallery stood up. Pate told the judge she was living with her child’s father and that she was engaged to be married later that month.

“Tell you what: I’m going to continue this for 30 days,” Kephart said. “Come back with proof that you’ve been married. That’ll change things for me. If not, I’m going to sentence you as a felon, because I don’t think you’re going to stay out of trouble. … Maybe that’ll change your life. I don’t know. But if you’re getting married, and you’re getting serious about things, that’ll probably change my mind about things.”

A month later, when Pate returned to court with Frizzell, her lawyer showed Kephart a marriage certificate.

“You were contemplating probation if she could show proof of marriage,” the lawyer said.

Kephart asked if Pate felt coerced. “Or did you really want to marry him?”

“No, I really did,” she replied.

The judge then asked the same question to her husband, who was seated in the gallery.

“Sir, are you OK with this or do you feel like I made you guys get married?” Kephart asked.

“That’s my baby she has,” he replied.

“You love her and protect her and all of that?” Kephart asked.

“All of that,” the man answered.

Kephart told Frizzell: “There is a method to what I’m thinking about.”

The attorney responded: “I got your drift as soon as you made a comment at the bench.”

Kephart then issued Pate’s sentence, which Frizzell said could have included jail time. Instead, Kephart suspended any time behind bars in exchange for five years of probation.

“I’m going to treat it as a felony,” he said. “I’m going to give her an opportunity at probation. I’m thinking maybe with her recent union that might help. I don’t know. I mean I’m a strong believer behind that.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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