Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Bert Richardson often views life through the lens of a camera. His photographs—ranging from a field of blue bonnets to a portrait of a man in a cowboy hat with a weather-beaten face—adorn the walls of Richardson’s office at the court. It’s obvious that when he’s not tied up with court work, Richardson spends much of his taking pictures.
“It’s the only thing that keeps me sane,” Richardson said.
A Republican, Richardson was elected to the Place 3 seat on the state’s highest criminal court for a six-year term in November 2014. Prior to his election to the court, Richardson had made national headlines as the special judge overseeing the abuse-of-power case against former Gov. Rick Perry, a 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, over Perry’s threat to veto funding for the state’s public integrity unit in 2013 unless then-Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, resigned. Lehman had pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge but refused to resign her post. Perry followed through on his threat and vetoed the $7.5 million in state funding for the unit, which was housed in Lehmberg’s office.
Richardson twice denied requests to dismiss the charges against Perry, but appellate courts, including the Court of Criminal Appeals, ultimately dismissed the indictments against the former governor.
Photography has provided Richardson something to focus on other than legal matters. He described himself as a “very avid runner” in high school and noted that has worked as a freelance photographer shooting University Interscholastic League track meets for a running magazine as a way to make some money and buy camera equipment. Lance Phegley, editor of Houston-based Texas Runner & Triathlete, said Richardson is willing to work hours upon hours, usually in the heat, shooting meets.
“He nails every race,” Phegley said. “He has great photos.”
His aptitude for capturing races isn’t surprising, though, given his tenure freelancing for Texas Runner & Triathlete magazine.
“I’ve been here 25 years; he was shooting (photos) for the magazine before I got here,” Phegley said.
But photography is not all about making money for Richardson. Phegley said Richardson has gotten to know countless student athletes and their families over the years and typically makes copies of his photographs for them after a meet at no charge.
“He just gives away his photos,” Phegley said.
Among those who have received photos from Richardson are Rafael Trinidad Jr., a San Antonio police officer, and his wife, Audrey. At the wife’s request, Richardson spent an afternoon in mid-April photographing the couple’s 16-year-old daughter, Avianna “Avi” Trinidad, a Smithson Valley High School sophomore, as she competed in pole vaulting in a University Interscholastic League area track meet. He also photographed Avi at a subsequent meet. His photographic efforts were Richardson’s way to express his care and concern for the teenager’s family as they struggle to cope with her father’s Stage 4 kidney cancer. During one of the meets, Richardson captured a candid photo of Rafael as he sat behind the judge’s camera.
Audrey said she first learned of Richardson’s skill with a camera last year when he posted some pictures of her daughter on Facebook and asked a friend how to contact the man who had taken those “unbelievable shots” of Avi. The Trinidad family finally met Richardson this year and have gotten to know him through his photography.
“He is so easy to talk to … so humble, such a kind man,” Audrey said.
Rafael, 48, a 21-year veteran of the San Antonio Police Department, has lived with the diagnosis of his cancer for the past two years ago, his wife said. She noted that only about 8 percent of patients live for five years after they are diagnosed with kidney cancer. Richardson’s photographs have helped ease the family’s pain.
Audrey said her husband told Richardson, “If I am in hospital, these photos will be by my side because they mean so much to me.”
Judge Elsa Alcala, one of Richardson’s CCA colleagues, said Richardson also has photographed her 18-year-old daughter competing in a state cross-country meet. His action shots are stunning, Alcala said, adding that Richardson’s photos of people in motion often capture “a drop of sweat as it’s falling and ponytails flying.”
But Richardson does not neglect his work to take pictures. Alcala described Richardson as “a superior judge” who does not play hooky from his duties at the court but instead pursues his interest in photography on weekends or other times when he does not have court work to do. “It definitely does not interfere with his work,” she said.
His sports photography has enabled Richardson to meet many coaches and the students on their teams, and he has used that as an opportunity to introduce the young athletes to the Court of Criminal Appeals. Alcala said the CCA judges recently saw a tweet from a coach who was sharing a photo of his team members when they visited the courtroom at Richardson’s invitation.
Richardson said he has been taking photographs since he was a student at Judson High School in the San Antonio area. He was the photo editor for his high school yearbook and went on to shoot pictures for the yearbook staff at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he earned his bachelor’s degree.
“They would pay me to take pictures,” Richardson recalled. “Nobody wanted to shoot the sports stuff.”
Midway through his sophomore year at BYU, Richardson left school to do his Mormon mission work in Argentina. Richardson said that when he returned from the mission, he got serious about school, taking pre-law classes and also working as the associate photo editor for the yearbook in his last year at BYU. But Richardson eventually found himself facing a major decision about his future. Should he enter the photography program at the Art Center College of Design in the Los Angeles area or go to law school? He decided to take the LSAT and returned to Texas for law school.
St. Mary’s University School of Law accepted Richardson, who married his wife, Terri, shortly before starting his legal studies. Richardson said he had a job with Southwest Airlines while attending St. Mary’s and would go to school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and take reservations for Southwest from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. One of the advantages of the job, he said, was being to “fly anywhere I wanted for free.”
In 1988, Richardson began his legal career as an assistant district attorney with the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office, prosecuting cases involving juveniles. Among the photographs hanging on his office walls are pictures of Charisma Perez Esparza, who was a teenager when she was wounded in an apparent gang shooting in 1994. Richardson said he was the prosecutor on the case and that Esparza has kept up with him over the years, showing up when he was being sworn in for judicial posts. Photographs of Esparza and her family are among the ones displayed in Richardson’s office.
After his stint as a state prosecutor, Richardson served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas before he was appointed in 1999 by then-Gov. George W. Bush to the 379th District Court in San Antonio. Richardson served on that court until his defeat in 2008 by Democrat Ron Rangel, in an election that Richardson said was affected by straight-ticket voting by Democrats. Following that defeat, Richardson became a senior visiting judge serving on cases by assignment
“In six years, I sat in about 50 counties,” Richardson said.
Traveling around the state as a visiting judge provided many photographic opportunities for Richardson, who focused his cameras on jurors with interesting faces as well as on old courthouses where he sat for cases. One of the most memorable of Richardson’s photos from his days as a visiting judge, however, features a white egret in flight. Richardson said he snapped the photo behind the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos after he had presided over a trial there. That photo was featured on the CNN Picture of the Day.
Other photos Richardson has taken and now displays in his office are of sports figures, like Meb Keflezighi, an American who was almost 39 years old when he won the Boston Marathon in 2014, the year after the explosion of two bombs killed three people and wounded hundreds at the race. There also are a series of photos Richardson shot of swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic gold medalist in history.
Photography has provided Richardson a way to see the positive in life, while working at a job that can be hard. Alcala said the CCA judges’ work at the court is so heavy and often sad, as they must review the appeals of death row inmates. “I think this is a way for him to have balance,” she said.
But while Richardson takes all kinds of photographs, there is at least one type of photography in which he has no interest.
“I hate selfies,” he said. “I would avoid it at all costs.”