Friday, March 4, 2016

Surveillance video has some attorneys questioning judge's fairness

MARIETTA, Ga. (WXIA) -- A Cobb County surveillance video has some defense attorneys questioning whether their client can get a fair trial in one judge’s courtroom.

The video, obtained through an open records request, appears to show Judge Reuben Green and two assistant district attorneys talking about at least four cases without the defendant or their attorneys’ present.

“They were actually talking about some of the facts of the case. They were talking trial strategy,” said Attorney Ashleigh Merchant who has already filed for a new trial and for Judge Green to remove himself from the case.

Merchant says she believes one of the conversations between the group was about her client, Tomdrick Cromer, who two weeks later would be found guilty of armed robbery and sentenced by the judge to life in prison without parole, the maximum sentence allowed.

In the video, you hear a voice that appears to be Judge Green discuss Cromer’s case. At one point, he says, “Well hopefully this jury does the right thing. Had some unusual cases lately. Unusual juries.”

“You want a judge that is not interested in the outcome. You want a judge that is interested in being fair,” said Merchant.

In fact, Georgia’s code of judicial conduct begins with two Canons which say in part, “Judges shall uphold the integrity and independence of the Judiciary” and “Judges shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all their activities.”

That’s because judges make decisions throughout the trial, from jury instructions to admitted evidence, that can impact the outcome of a case.

We showed the video to professor Michael Mears with the John Marshall Law School. He listened as the group talked about the amount of evidence needed to get a conviction, plea deals and the competency of a defendant.

Mears says in many counties like Cobb, prosecutors are assigned to a specific judge. They spend a lot of time together and too often the lines of professionalism blur.

In one part of the video, the prosecutors play the game rock, paper, scissors several times to decide who will handle a potential plea deal.

“What kind of message does that send to the general public about the seriousness of those proceedings? How much confidence does it build?” questioned Mears. “We’re talking about people’s lives.”

Instead of offended, the judge seemed to be entertained.

The attorney involved in that case says because of the DA's unwillingness to work with her client, he had to spend eight days in jail, just to be given straight probation when he returned to court.

“Hopefully what will come out of it is the judges across the state with your coverage will say, ‘Woah!’ We do that in our courtroom. Maybe we shouldn't be doing that. But if you look at the cannons of judicial ethics, it's very clear. You cannot show even by inference, show your bias,” said Mears.

Neither the judge or the DA's office would comment on the video. Several defense attorneys in Cobb County say they’re now planning to review recordings like it, to see what may have been said about their clients.

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Surveillance video has some attorneys questioning judge's fairness

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