DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker is in charge in her courtroom.
Becker is certain of her decisions and she rarely changes her mind, she tells defense and prosecuting attorneys appearing before her.
That leads some to call her no-nonsense. Others say she is a bully.
“You cringe when you walk into her courtroom because she’s rude to litigants,” said attorney Tony Axam, who defended former DeKalb schools Chief Operating Officer Pat Reid. “She is a bully. She will do anything she wants to do and she does not care what the (Georgia) Court of Appeals does because she thinks she can get away with it.”
Becker was recently in the news while presiding over the racketeering trial of Reid and her ex-husband architect Tony Pope, both convicted and given substantial prison sentences.
Former DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction for interfering with a criminal investigation of him and Reid. During the same court session in which Reid and Pope were sentenced, Becker stunned Lewis, and others in the courtroom,when she rejected prosecutors’ recommendation that he be sentenced to 12 months probation, and sent him directly to jail.
Becker then declined immediately to consider Lewis’ request to withdraw his plea or to set bond, set a hearing for the next week to hear his requests and left town.
Eventually, the state Court of Appeals ordered DeKalb courts to grant Lewis bond, citing state law that mandates bail for anyone appealing a misdemeanor conviction or sentence.
It was the most recent high-profile case in her judicial career that included presiding over the murder trial of a former sheriff just months after she was elected to the bench.
But Becker, 56, was brusque with prosecutors as well.
“It doesn’t surprise me that you get those comments,” said Becker, who was twice on the short list for an appointment to the state Supreme Court. “You want to control the courtroom. If the judge is not in control, one side or the other has an unfair power advantage.”
One of the unusual twists in the Reid-Pope trial was the removal of a juror based on a note from the foreman complaining that some on the jury were concerned that the juror biased because she once worked at a bank where one of the unindicted co-defendants was on the board of directors.
Calling the dismissed juror back to court the next day after getting an email from her, Becker’s questioning was aggressive. Why did the juror wait so long to contact the judge? Did she and another juror discuss the case at lunch despite instructions that such talks could happen only when all jurors were in the jury room?
“We have to be kind of hyper-vigilant, (and sometimes) it doesn’t seem very polite,” Becker said about shielding jurors from out-of-the-courtroom events.
Attorney William Hill, a former Fulton Superior Court judge, said Becker keeps tight control and “I don’t have to worry about opposing counsel misbehaving….I don’t have to worry about jurors misbehaving. She will take care of that.”
Yet she presides over DeKalb’s drug court which requires compassion and tough love to guide those who could be successful in their lives if not for their addictions.Becker is on a committee looking at creating a program for veterans in the criminal justice system, a tribute to her family which includes a father and four brothers who served and a son who is attending the United States Military Academy at West Point.
And at least once a year Becker invites school children in to act as judge, prosecutor and defense attorneys in “trials” based on fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Elected to the court in 2000, Becker did not have a years-long working relationship with former DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey when he killed the man who defeated him at the polls in November of that year so she was assigned to preside over the murder trial, which was moved to Albany.
“She exercised control over her courtroom and wanted to make sure her protocols and decorum were followed,” said former Dougherty County District Attorney Ken Hodges, the was the special prosecutor in Dorsey’s trial. “I think she was courteous to all sides but very direct and curt.”