More than five dozen Georgia judges have stepped down from the bench in disgrace since the state’s judicial watchdog agency began aggressively policing ethical conduct eight years ago.
More lately, however, the jurists aren’t just leaving the court in disgrace. Some are leaving in handcuffs.
Earlier this month, former North Georgia magistrate Bryant Cochran was sentenced to five years in prison by a federal judge who said Cochran had destroyed the public’s faith in the judiciary. In June, a one-time influential chief judge from Brunswick was indicted by a Fulton County grand jury. And a specially appointed district attorney is now considering similar charges against a former DeKalb judge.
These criminal prosecutions were brought after the state Judicial Qualifications Commission launched investigations of the judges. Instead of being allowed to step down from the bench and return to a law practice, these judges are hiring criminal defense lawyers.
“I don’t remember seeing anything like this — so many judges facing criminal prosecution,” said Norman Fletcher, former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. “I do think it puts a black cloud over the judiciary.”
Cochran, a Murray County magistrate for eight years, was convicted of orchestrating a plot to plant drugs on a woman shortly after she publicly accused him of propositioning her in his chambers.
When Angela Garmley, of Chatsworth, appeared before Cochran in April 2012 on a routine legal matter, Cochran said he’d grant her a favorable ruling in exchange for sex, prosecutors said.
Garmley previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Cochran told her he wanted a mistress he could trust and asked her to return to the courthouse the next day wearing a dress with no underwear.
Instead, Garmley went public. Days later, she was arrested after a traffic stop in which police claimed to have found a container of methamphetamine stuck to the bottom of her vehicle. The charges against her were soon dismissed, and a subsequent GBI and FBI investigation led to the case against Cochran.
All told, the magistrate was convicted of six counts, including one that he sexually assaulted a county employee over a six-year period.
“Cochran used the power of the bench to victimize a citizen seeking justice and to exploit his staff,” U.S. Attorney John Horn said. “There is no greater breakdown in the justice system than when the judge himself violates other citizens’ rights to simply advantage himself.”
‘I actually hoped that I would die’
Just weeks before Cochran was sentenced to prison, a Fulton grand jury indicted former Chief Judge Amanda Williams from the Brunswick Judicial Circuit on two felony counts. She is charged with giving a false statement to the Judicial Qualifications Commission and violating her oath of office.
In 2012, Williams resigned from the bench after being accused of running her courtroom under tyrannical rule and indefinitely locking up drug court offenders. One defendant, Lindsey Dills, was sentenced by Williams in 2008 to indefinite detention in solitary confinement with no outside contact
Dills, previously flagged as a suicide risk, slit her wrists after 61 days in detention.
She survived, saying later on the “This American Life” radio program, “I actually hoped that I would die. But at the point that I figured then, well if I die, great. If I don’t, at least someone will freakin’ hear me.”
The Fulton indictment alleges Williams made a false statement when she told the judicial watchdog agency she gave no direction to the sheriff’s office regarding Dills’ incarceration.
Williams’ lawyers declined to comment on the charges.
Investigation continues into DeKalb judge
Meanwhile, another state prosecutor is considering similar charges against former DeKalb Superior Court judge Cynthia Becker.
Becker stepped down in March after the commission launched an investigation into her handling of the high-profile corruption case against former Schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis.
Shortly before trial, Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction charge. Prosecutors agreed to recommend Lewis be sentenced to 12 months on probation if he provided truthful testimony against Pat Reid, the school district’s former chief operating officer, and Reid’s ex-husband, architect Tony Pope.
Reid and Pope were convicted, but Becker found that Lewis had not been truthful in his testimony. She declined to honor the probation deal, saying she intended to sentence Lewis to a year behind bars for his “abhorrent” behavior and for “the words I heard out of his mouth when he testified.”
Over the next few days, Lewis’ lawyer, Mike Brown, filed a flurry of motions. He asked Becker to reconsider her decision. He asked her to grant Lewis a bond so he could be out of jail until she presided over a hearing the following week.
Becker refused all such requests and said she’d take up the matter when she returned from a trip out of town to attend the Army-Navy game.
‘He never asked for bond’
Becker’s problems stem from her Sept. 8, 2014, appearance before the Judicial Qualifications Commission at the Marietta law office of commission member Robert Ingram.
Right off the bat, members asked Becker about her handling of Lewis’s case. Becker initially responded that she came prepared to talk about a complaint lodged by a woman who said Becker had been rude, not the Lewis case. Even so, she agreed to answer questions about what happened in the days after she sentenced Lewis to one year in prison.
It wasn’t long before Becker gave the commission incorrect information.
“He didn’t ask for bond,” Becker said at one point, referring to Lewis. “Not to me. He never asked for bond. … No one presented me a bond.”
Court records, however, show that Becker knew about Lewis’ request for bond. During an exchange of emails on Dec. 11, 2013, Becker told parties she would not consider the bond until she returned to town the following week.
In March, the judicial watchdog commission filed ethics charges against Becker, including an allegation that she made a false statement when she told the panel Lewis had not asked for a bond. If the commission finds against Becker, it could bar her from serving as a senior judge.
Because Becker made those statements in Marietta, the Cobb District Attorney’s Office has jurisdiction over the case. But Cobb DA Vic Reynolds recused himself, leading to the appointment of Parks White, the district attorney for the Northern Judicial Circuit.
If White obtains an indictment against Becker for making false statements about the bond, he will have to convince a jury she did so willfully and intentionally, not that she was mistaken because she had been caught off guard.
White declined to say what he plans to do.
Becker’s attorney, Brian Steel, said his client did nothing wrong. “She’s a wonderful person, an honorable judge and she committed no crime whatsoever,” he said.