A tribute to Justice David Bridges
By Kenda Culpepper
TDCAA President & Criminal District Attorney in Rockwall County
Only weeks ago, former prosecutor and Fifth District Court of Appeals Justice David Bridges was killed by a drunk driver. In the midst of COVID and protests about George Floyd, it was a stark reminder that we are beset by criminal justice problems that we have been fighting for a century. It was also a personal reminder of the collateral effects of crime, a reminder why each of us—all of us—must continue to fight against senseless criminal activity that takes such a personal toll on loved ones and close friends.
As my heart hurts for my own friend and his dear family, I have thought about the frailty and humanity of the criminal justice system and ruefully perceive that none of us is immune to its insidious touch. David Bridges was taken too soon, but our memories of such a man will keep his legacy alive.
A giant of a man
Fifth District Court of Appeals Justice David Bridges was a giant of a man. Both in stature and reputation, he towered above many others; he was respected by members of the bar, members of law enforcement, and members of his community. And he was my friend.
On Saturday, July 25, this man was struck down by someone we as prosecutors all fear and too often have to deal with: a drunk driver. At 9:30 that evening, David was driving home from giving a speech in Franklin County when he was hit by a motorist driving the wrong way on Interstate 30 in Royse City. David’s car burst into flames after the impact, and he tragically died before first responders could arrive. The other driver, who is believed to have been impaired by both drugs and alcohol, survived the wreck, and she was arrested and booked into the Hunt County Jail on charges of intoxication manslaughter and possession of a controlled substance.
But David deserves to be remembered by how he lived, not how he died. To understand David is to know about his many passions in life, and he certainly wore a lot of hats.
He was a hard worker. Growing up in East Texas, he spent his summers working on a farm, became an Eagle Scout, and then joined the U.S. Army after high school. After serving honorably, he went to college and worked his way through school at a General Electric plant in Tyler. He then got a job as a petroleum landman securing oil and gas leases in the Appalachian Mountains to make money to go law school. While at Texas Tech Law School, he spent precious time volunteering with a local Presbyterian church to aid indigent families with legal matters.
He loved being a lawyer and a judge. He was an Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Smith County and Upshur County and tried many serious felony cases including murder, aggravated sexual assault of a child, and aggravated robbery. He was then hired by the State Bar of Texas and served as First Assistant and Chief of Litigation over the lawyer disciplinary division. In 1996, he was elected to the Fifth District Court of Appeals and, at his death, was the longest serving justice on the court. A legal expert, he was Board Certified in both Criminal Law and Criminal Appellate Law.
He loved politics. I actually think he loved running for office because he got to spend so much time talking to people. And he was hard not to like. He ran against U.S. Congressman Ralph Hall—twice. The two rivals then became fast friends—David was even a pallbearer at Congressman Hall’s funeral. He ran for Chief Justice of the Court of Criminal Appeals a couple of years ago and was, at the time of his death, vying for the nomination to replace John Ratcliffe on the ballot for the Fourth Congressional District. In fact, he was on his way home from speaking to potential voters in Mount Vernon when he was killed.
He loved his family. He and his beautiful and fun wife, Sandy, have two daughters. Elizabeth, a former cheerleader, is the mother of two sons, and Alex, a former twirler at Rockwall High School, is making plans to attend grad school. David was so proud that Alex had just gotten engaged, and he was no doubt looking forward to walking her down the aisle.
And he loved God. He was a member and dedicated volunteer at the First Baptist Church of Rockwall and was beautifully, unabashedly, and always ready to talk about his faith in God. A friend told me that, just a week before David’s death, they saw each other at the grocery store. They stood and talked about life and family for about 10 minutes and, at the end of the conversation, David unexpectedly asked my friend how he could pray for him. He didn’t wait for a crisis to pray. He had a daily relationship with God that comforted both himself and those around him.
Yes, David Bridges was a giant of a man, a man struck down entirely too early by someone too selfish and self-absorbed to even understand the value of what she swiped from this earth. My comfort lies in the fact that David lived life fully on his own terms and with courage and integrity. Our state has lost one of the great ones. Rest in peace, my friend.