The Georgia Court of Appeals has ordered new trials for five men convicted of serious crimes in Fayette County because their trial judge was having an undisclosed affair with a public defender.
The ruling stems from revelations in 2010 that Paschal English, then the chief Superior Court judge, had been involved in a sexual relationship with assistant public defender Kimberly Cornwell. The decision said English violated the code of judicial conduct and the five defendants were tried before a judge whose impartiality was compromised.
Judge Lisa Branch, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, said the court was “mindful of the suffering which new trials may cause the victims in some or all of these cases.” But judicial integrity is a state interest of the highest order and there is evidence that shows English was involved with Cornwell during each of the trials at issue, Branch wrote in the decision issued Friday.
Because the relationship was never disclosed, English should have disqualified himself from the cases, the ruling said.
Fayette District Attorney Scott Ballard said he will ask the Georgia Supreme Court to overturn the decision.
“We’re not condoning what happened,” he said Monday. “We don’t believe it’s been demonstrated that these defendants were injured because of what happened between their lawyer and the judge, and they shouldn’t be rewarded with new trials because of that. We’re also concerned about the victims.”
New trials were ordered for Christopher Wakefield and Travion Willis on charges of armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault and other crimes; William Nutt on charges of aggravated child molestation and aggravated sexual battery; Rashad Arnold on a charge of burglary; and Calvin Boynton on charges of armed robbery, aggravated assault, possession of a sawed-off shotgun and drug possession. Wakefield, Willis, Nutt and Boynton had been sentenced to life in prison, and Arnold had received a 20-year sentence, according to Department of Correction records.
A 2010 investigation into English and Cornwell’s affair disclosed that a sheriff’s deputy had caught the two in 2008 having sex in a parked car. The Court of Appeals’ decision cited evidence indicating the relationship had gone on from October 2008 to March 2010.
English resigned from the bench in April 2010 amid an investigation by the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission. Cornwell was placed on administrative leave without pay and left the public defender’s office.