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VOL. 130 | NO. 215 | Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Motion for Blackett Recusal Poses Unique Questions

By Bill Dries

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Michael Halliburton was sentenced to 21 years in prison Monday, Nov. 2, for the attempted murder of his wife in 2012.

Prosecutors have motioned to recuse Criminal Court Judge Carolyn Wade Blackett from all criminal cases prosecuted by the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

It was his second sentencing in four months, each by a different judge.

The first time, in June, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail by Criminal Court Judge Carolyn Wade Blackett, who then immediately granted Halliburton a new trial.

In sentencing Halliburton Monday, Criminal Court Judge Bobby Carter denied a motion by Halliburton’s attorneys for a new trial.

It is hardly the end of the controversy which has spread to include a move by the Shelby County district attorney general’s office to recuse Blackett from hearing any cases involving its prosecutors.

Aside from the occasional special prosecutor appointed to try cases, the recusal, if granted, would mean Blackett would have no docket of cases to hear since her court deals only with state criminal cases prosecuted by the DA’s office.

The legal issue is unlike any seen in state courts in Shelby County in recent memory.

The closest local parallel is in Memphis federal court, where U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla was recused starting in 2000 from hearing any cases involving the law firm of Burch, Porter and Johnson as well as any involving several prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The recusals were followed by a complaint of judicial misconduct from other attorneys for “improper and intemperate conduct.”

The complaint was later dropped when McCalla accepted time off from the federal bench and counseling as the closed hearing was about to get underway.

The federal court recusals in that case didn’t affect McCalla’s entire caseload, and he continued to hear civil and criminal matters before and after his leave of absence.

The controversy began in May when Blackett did what many judges do at the end of a trial: She met with the jury one last time to thank them for their service.

As she thanked the jury, someone in the group of 12 indicated they had some kind of contact with prosecutors in the case, according to Blackett.

When Halliburton was sentenced a month later, Blackett told the attorneys in the case that she also was granting a new trial “because there were numerous comments by the jury about the conduct of counsel during this entire trial.”

According to the transcript of the June hearing, Blackett also said, “There were comments that were made whenever I go back and talk to them. And I think that with that and in conjunction with the things that were stated on the motion for new trial, that we should have one.”

What followed when assistant district attorneys Karen Cook and Sam Winning tried to get a more specific explanation of what the jurors had said set the stage for the motion for recusal.

“I don’t think there is any requirement in law that I have to give you specific reasons for anything,” Blackett told the prosecutors. When Winning returned to the court later that same day with a written motion asking for a written explanation from Blackett, Blackett told him her attorneys were “seriously thinking about calling the Department of Justice.”

Two months later, Blackett recused herself from the Halliburton case, with the case going to Judge Bobby Carter, who sentenced Halliburton Monday. Carter rejected Halliburton’s request for a new trial.

In the September appeals court ruling, Judge Alan E. Glenn wrote that Blackett’s mention of a Justice Department investigation “creates a unique problem.”

The problem cited by Glenn in a concurring opinion was a possible recusal.

“Thus a recusal from all cases brought by that office would be an impossibility,” Glenn wrote. He added that Blackett’s refusal to be more specific about what jurors said and give prosecutors a chance to respond would “reasonably” be presumed a violation of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct and “evidencing a personal bias” against the district attorney general’s office.

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