Court upholds woman's sentence for illegal use of checks

A Wharton County woman who officials say illegally wrote checks from her elderly mother-in-law's bank account -- for everything from candy to family vacations -- may soon have to pay the money back.

Ethel May Kennedy Jones, 49, was convicted by a jury in 2011 of misappropriation of a fiduciary property, a second-degree felony.

She was sentenced by a judge to 10 years of probation and ordered to pay $87,000 in restitution.

She and her defense attorney Stephen A. Doggett, of Richmond, challenged in September 2011 whether the judge abused his power by levying that punishment. Justices in the 13th Court of Appeals sided with the prosecution Dec. 20.

"We felt all along that she broke the law. This is confirming what was clear to us and what was clear to a jury, considering it only took them 14 minutes to come back with a guilty verdict," Wharton County Assistant District Attorney Ross Kurtz said about the affirmation Wednesday.

Kurtz said Jones' mother-in-law, who was 85 at the time, added Jones to her bank account because she had health problems and needed someone to write checks for her electricity, telephone and household bills. He said Jones only had permission to write a $1,000 check once a month for her own expenses.

He said Jones' mother-in-law is now deceased.

"The quality of her life was severely tarnished," Kurtz said, adding she died of natural causes. "I think this truly broke her heart."

Doggett said he was disappointed in the outcome.

He said a transcript shows the lower court judge admitted there was no way to tell whether Jones spent all $87,000 on herself instead of her mother-in-law.

"You can't assume that. It has to be proven," Doggett said, adding that Jones was also indigent during the trial and couldn't afford to pay that amount.

Doggett also argued that jurors should've been instructed on parole evidence, a civil trial practice that he said would've shown the written contract Jones and her mother-in-law had with the bank that placed no restrictions on how the money could be spent, trumped whatever oral agreement was reached later.

Jones has until Jan. 4 to file a motion for rehearing.

Kurtz said similar charges are pending against Jones' husband, Douglas Jones.