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VOL. 130 | NO. 217 | Friday, November 6, 2015

Blackett Disqualification Motion Details Ethics Complaints

By Bill Dries

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The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct is investigating two complaints charging that Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Carolyn Wade Blackett acted improperly in ordering a new trial for attempted murder suspect Michael Halliburton.

A DA motion to disqualify Criminal Court Judge Carolyn Wade Blackett from hearing virtually all of the cases on her docket is rooted in Blackett’s response to conduct complaints.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The complaints, and Blackett’s response to them, plays a central role in a separate Oct. 30 motion by the prosecutor’s office that seeks to disqualify Blackett from hearing any cases involving the DA’s office. That motion would bar Blackett from virtually every case on her docket, excluding those tried by special prosecutors.

Criminal Court Judge Bobby Carter sentenced Halliburton this week to 21 years in prison. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals in June overturned Blackett’s granting on a new trial for Halliburton.

A jury originally convicted Halliburton May 9, and the same day Blackett sentenced him to 20 years in prison. But then immediately after the sentence, she granted the defense a new trial, citing scant reasons, and then recused herself from hearing the retrial.

In responding to the complaints, Blackett alleges that the Shelby County District Attorney General is behind them.

“It is problematic that attorneys from the District Attorney’s office continue to complain about my ruling and have taken these extreme and unwarranted measures,” Blackett wrote, indicating that a similar complaint has been filed by prosecutors in Davidson County against a judge who granted a motion for a new trial in a case there.

“It appears this technique is strategically implemented to aggrieve adverse rulings with which the state disagrees,” Blackett added, citing recent state appeals court rulings finding trial errors by local prosecutors and ordering new trials.

“Clearly trial errors do occur; clearly new trials are warranted under the law even when a trial judge may not have granted a motion for a new trial,” she wrote. “I do not know whether these attorneys were subjected to ethics inquiries for trial errors or misconduct in trial causing reversal of convictions. I do know my duty to justice and fairness.”

But the DA’s office in its motion seeking to have Blackett disqualified denies it had anything to do with the complaints.

“The state has had no communication whatsoever with the complainant, did not encourage directly or indirectly anyone to file a complaint with the board, and the state certainly did not file a complaint,” reads the motion signed by Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich.

Weirich’s motion says Blackett’s response “establish the court’s impartiality might be reasonably questioned because of a personal bias or prejudice against prosecutors for the state of Tennessee.”

In the process, the 64-page filing makes the ethics complaints’ details public, including Blackett’s formal response. A man identified as someone who attended Halliburton’s trial and an anonymous “internal” individual made the two complaints.

In an Aug. 31 letter responding to Tim Discenza, the disciplinary counsel for the Board of Judicial Conduct, Blackett denies the allegations. And she alleges the courtroom observer was “coached.”

Blackett responded specifically to a complaint that she had “ex parte” communications with the jury during the trial – a conclusion the appeals court also reached in its rejection of a new trial.

She denies that was the case, but sheds more light on her meeting with jurors once Halliburton’s trial was over and he had been convicted.

“The deputy and I went to the jury room to thank the jurors for their patience during their sequestration,” Blackett wrote. “A few of the jurors made aggrieved comments, saying the attorneys acted disrespectfully towards me during the trial. I made no reply to their comments. I thanked them again and promptly left.”

When she told attorneys what the jurors said, Blackett said they “became defensive and accusatory and I imagine that as a result, in part, this complaint was levied.”

Blackett also denied that she granted Halliburton a new trial based on improper contact with the jurors.

“There was no substantive discussion of any evidence or impressions of the facts which was communicated to me or could have influenced me regarding the motion for new trial as is implied,” Blackett wrote.

She says she granted the new trial because of an “error” during the trial in which she left the jury in the courtroom during a recess where she discussed matters with the attorneys that the jury should not have heard.

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