Attorney Crystal Eller is challenging Judge William “Bill” Kephart, a career prosecutor who went from the Clark County District Attorney’s Office to the Justice Court bench for four years, then on to District Court.
Kephart has a 9.04 percent error rate on 309 appeals, according to Our Nevada Judges, below the 10 percent threshold that warrants positive recognition on the site. But it’s Kephart’s acts as a prosecutor that have gained the most attention.
As a Deputy District Attorney, Kephart’s convictions were frequently overturned.
“If you have a gut feeling he’s guilty, he’s guilty based on the feeling, that feeling in your heart and mind after comparing and considering all the evidence is what is meant by abiding conviction and proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Kephart told jurors during closing arguments in the State of Nevada v. Charles Lee Randolph, a murder trial.
The Nevada Supreme Court chastised Kephart for the comments in 2001.
“Any prosecutor reasonably knows that a ‘gut feeling’ of guilt is not certainty beyond a reasonable doubt and that such an assertion should never be made to a jury,” the Supreme Court wrote. “But it is apparent that some prosecutors are not taking to heart this Court’s admonishments not to supplement or rephrase the definition of reasonable doubt. … We are convinced that it has become necessary to take specific action to correct this problem, and we will therefore call the prosecutor to account in this case and in future cases where it may arise.”
In a motion, Kephart responded he was “professionally embarrassed by the court’s opinion” calling him out for his actions.
“I can insure (sic) this Court that the opinion in the Randolph cases and the consequences flowing therefrom have already had a great impact on me, to the point that I can assure the Court that there will not be a bona fide allegation of prosecutorial misconduct against me in the future.”
It was not the last time Kephart’s actions would be in question, as an attorney or a judge. In 2017 Kephart was censured by the Judicial Discipline Commission for breaching judicial rules by talking with a news crew about the retrial of Kristen Lobato, a woman Kephart prosecuted for murder. Despite her conviction, Lobato maintained her innocence and won new trials during 15 years in prison. She was released when a judge dismissed the charges in late December 2017.
In late May, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that Kephart retaliated against defendant Anthony Williams at sentencing and abruptly removed the man’s chance for parole when the defendant became vocally hostile before the judge.
“I can just give him life without,” Kephart said before meting out multiple sentences for life without parole.
Supreme Court Justice Pickering wrote that Kephart gave no legal reason for suddenly altering the sentence, which had been rendered.
“In fact, we conclude that the district court judge erred in retaliating against Williams by imposing life without the possibility of parole sentences,” Pickering wrote.
A spokeswoman said Kephart would “maybe” agree to be interviewed if the Current agreed not to ask about his wrongful prosecution of Fred Steese, who spent 21 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit. The Current declined to conduct a conditional interview.
“He’s a terrible judge,” says challenger Eller, an attorney in private practice. “He’s morally bankrupt, has no moral compass whatsoever.”
Eller points to an incident in 2019 when Kephart increased the sentence of a criminal defendant after the offender, who Kephart was sentencing to life with the possibility of parole, “mouthed off” to the judge.
“Kephart was so immature he went back and changed his sentence to life without parole. That’s not somebody who should be a judge,” she says. “You’re so immature you can’t stand by the sentence you gave because he mouthed off?”
Eller says Kephart has “zero civil experience. He didn’t do one case before he was on the bench. Attorneys cringe. He doesn’t know the rules of civil procedure.”
Eller, who practices criminal defense and civil law, admits she has “very little trial experience. I’ve done a few bench trials. I haven’t done a jury trial. My job right now is to get the best deal for my clients, where they know they’re not going to prison.”
“I want to address the underlying reason the person committed the crime,” Eller says. “I don’t think punishment alone is enough. Jail turns into criminal college. While we have you in our care, we have to see what can we do to ensure you don’t come back after you get out.”
The Nevada Bar reprimanded Eller earlier this year regarding an excessive fee charged a client.
As of July 15, Kephart had raised about $194,225 and had $52,075 on hand. Eller had raised about $65,871 and had $2,902 remaining.