DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker, who is under investigation for her handling of a school corruption case, announced Monday she’s resigning halfway into her four-year term.
Becker defended her decision to throw out a jury’s convictions of two people accused of manipulating DeKalb school construction contracts, and she said she had previously planned to step down because she’s engaged to be married this spring.
“I have, in each and every case before me, made findings based on the evidence as I heard it,” Becker wrote in a statement. “I have made decisions based on the law, period. That is what my oath of office requires and justice demands.”
Becker, 57, confirmed in her statement that the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission has been investigating her procedural actions in the DeKalb schools case.
Becker last December disregarded a plea deal between former DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis and prosecutors, sentencing him to 12 months in jail rather than probation because she believed he had betrayed the public’s trust.
The Georgia Court of Appeals overturned Lewis’ jail sentence Oct. 23, and Becker responded by dismissing the convictions of the two people Lewis testified against. Becker ordered new trials for former DeKalb schools construction chief Pat Reid and her architect ex-husband, Tony Pope, because she believed Lewis hadn’t been truthful in court.
Her attempt to free Reid and Pope while they awaited new trials was short-lived, as the Georgia Court of Appeals halted her order. They remain imprisoned during the appeals process, with Reid serving a 15-year sentence and Pope serving an eight-year sentence.
With Becker leaving by the end of the year, it’s unclear what will happen next, said Tony Axam, an attorney for Reid.
“Now it won’t be up to her,” Axam said. “It’s extraordinary because she heard the trial, she knows the evidence. Now another judge has to look at those same issues and decide whether a new trial should be granted.”
DeKalb prosecutors also accused Becker of tipping off defense attorneys before ordering new trials for Reid and Pope, according to a Thursday filing with the Georgia Court of Appeals. Pope’s lawyer withdrew his appeal after talking with Becker, clearing the way for her to overturn the jury’s guilty verdicts Oct. 27, according to the filing.
Becker wrote Monday that she called Reid’s and Pope’s attorneys to verify where they were imprisoned, and there was no need for her to notify prosecutors.
Pope’s attorney, John Petrey, didn’t return a phone call and email seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Mike Brown, who represents Lewis, declined comment.
Former DeKalb Sheriff Thomas Brown, who is a friend of Lewis, said he hopes Lewis will be allowed to serve the sentence he agreed to and the case can be concluded.
“I hate that this case got so personal,” Brown said. “It’s her job to make sure justice remains blind. And, unfortunately in this particular case, I don’t think she did so.”
Becker has a reputation as a stern, no-nonsense judge who maintains order in her courtroom, said several lawyers and friends.
In her first trial after being elected in 2000, she oversaw the high-profile case against former DeKalb Sheriff Sidney Dorsey. Dorsey was found guilty of ordering the killing of Derwin Brown, the man who had defeated him during that year’s election.
The case was moved to Albany, where Becker took control of the courtroom, said Ken Hodges, the former Dougherty County District Attorney who was the special prosecutor in Dorsey’s trial.
“Despite being brand new to the bench, she seemed very sure of herself, and I think she did preside evenly and fairly,” Hodges said. “She did it her way though. There’s no debate about that. She wasn’t rude or overbearing in any way; she just wanted to make sure the court ran the way she wanted it run.”
Becker said she’ll resign after completing professional obligations this year. The Georgia Judicial Nominating Commission will recommend replacements for Gov. Nathan Deal to choose from.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009 questioned construction contracts involving architect Tony Pope, who was married to the DeKalb school district’s chief operating officer. The AJC also reported that Superintendent Crawford Lewis and COO Pat Reid had bought county cars at deeply discounted prices. The three were indicted in May 2010. The AJC has tracked the case as the indictment went through three versions and as it came to trial 3 1/2 years later.